You can almost see the situation in your mind.
Deep into extra time, with players mentally and physically drained from 120 minutes of football, with the biggest prize in the world still up for grabs. Liverpool win a throw-in, deep in their attacking third.
Joe Gomez, who came on as a late sub to shore up the defense, picks up the ball, drying it on his shirt before winding up for a long throw. He launches it, just as he was trained to do last summer, finding Virgil van Dijk in the box, who wins the header and flicks it into the path of Mohamed Salah.
The Egyptian King instinctively reacts, taking a first-time shot with his favored left foot. Hugo Loris reacts, but the shot is just beyond his reach. The net bulges, and the red-clad crowd erupts. Liverpool win and earn sweet redemption for last year, right at the death.
It’s would have to be the dream scenario for a throw-in coach, right? Well, not quite, according to Thomas Gronnemark.
“If you ask me, what do you prefer of the two situations: Liverpool will win the Champions League final and not score on a long throw-in, and Liverpool will win the Champions League final and score on a long throw-in, then I’ll have the first,” Gronnemark explained.
“That perhaps sounds a little weird, but if they score on the long throw-in, then people will say ‘oh, then it worked with this throw-in coach!’ But it’s a little bit funny, because people don’t listen.
“(If you read) what Jurgen said about my coaching, it’s not about long throw-ins, so I just hope to be able to turn people’s minds around about the coaching, and about how it’s not just the long throw-ins. It’s my goal in my lifetime to develop football, to have better throw-ins all over the pitch.”
Perhaps a goal from a long throw-in, particularly in such a moment, would go a long way toward proving a point. After all, a great deal of what Gronnemark does goes unseen by the wider football viewing public. For example, the difference between completing under 50% of your throw-ins and over 75% of your throw-ins just isn’t noticeable to most during a game. Or after it.
Of course, there has been media backlash as well, famously by Andy Gray, among others. Gronnemark says he took it all in stride.
“It’s no worries, everyone has their right to their own opinion. It’s OK to be critical. I just wish he had been more curious: why are Liverpool employing a throw-in coach? What does he do? Instead of making fun of it. But if you look at the backlash, I haven’t really measured it, but 90, 95, 98% of people I saw on social media just thought [Gray] was wrong, so it was a big advantage for me that he said that!”
At the end of the day, it’s not Gray and other hot-take pundits that Gronnemark has to impress, but Klopp and the rest of the Melwood staff. And to that end, he has been a success, staying on with the club throughout the campaign.
And if I’ve learned anything from talking to him, it’s that Liverpool’s new and improved throw-in strategy, thanks in large part to Gronnemark’s work, is not just about long throws. That that’s not even remotely the point of it. Or even about throw-ins that could lead to goals. Rather, it’s a holistic approach. It’s an attempt answer to the question, “How do we retain possession all over the pitch?”
It is the same reason why Liverpool often takes quick free kicks to open teammates, instead of using every free kick within 70 meters of goal as an opportunity to pump it into the box: with the quality of Liverpool’s attacking players, the higher percentage chances will come if they keep hold of the ball. It’s a simple concept, but difficult to realize across all areas of the game.
“We’ve scored a lot of goals after the things we’ve done with the throw-ins,” Gronnemark continued, “but how do you measure that again? Because sometimes we create space in a certain way, that perhaps we wouldn’t have without me.
“We keep the ball, then we make a pass, and then we score, but you know it’s not a normal assist. Like a corner kick, you say ‘we scored on a corner kick, or long throw-ins.’ For me, it’s more part of the philosophy of the playing style instead.”
Of course, any conversation about Liverpool since October 2015 has had to, at some point, lead back to the man in charge: the one and only Jurgen Klopp. And when that man is the one to bring you in, personally?
“He’s a special leader, and special guy,” Gronnemark said enthusiastically. “Because he thinks, even though he’s one of the best managers in the world, he doesn’t think he knows it all. He doesn’t think, ‘I have to get all the credit.’
“[Working for Klopp] improved me, both as a throw-in coach and as a human being. I’m very aware of what’s happening around me, with relations... I can see what’s happening in Liverpool. Jurgen is not only a nice guy, as I said before, he’s not only willing to get help himself, but also give help himself. With his style of leadership, he’s creating very strong relationships with the staff and players. And if you have a strong relationships, then it’s easier for example to say, ‘Oh can you help me here?’
“So, not only is he a very kind man, I consider him as a good friend. Sometimes when you talk to people, you feel like you know them, you know? That’s the way he affects people around him.
“That’s one of the reasons why Liverpool can be that strong, not only in the result but when you have to create the strength to keep on when you need one goal.
It is said, apocryphally, that if you walked through the halls of NASA in the 60’s and asked a janitor what he did, he’d say “I’m helping send a man to the moon.” In hearing Gronnemark’s description of Melwood, I got much of the same vibe. Everyone feels important in this project, from the stars down to the reserves down the trainers and staff.
“When you like your workplace and you’re treating people kind; even when you’re the guy standing with the broom, not at the top, he or she has been treated well too. I think all people have been treated well, and I do the same myself.”
Gronnemark was guarded about a great number of things in our conversation. He didn’t want to spill too many secrets about his throw-in regime. Nor did he want to go on record about his prediction for the Champions League final, instead insisting that Klopp & Co. treat all teams seriously, whether it’s the biggest game in the world against Tottenham or a Premier League match against an already relegated Huddersfield Town. That’s completely fair. But he insists that Liverpool will fight, as they have all season.
“You never see a Liverpool player give up. Because sometimes you see five minutes left to go, and a team needs a goal desperately, then there are 9 players working desperately and two have given up, and that has a big influence on the team structure, and how to win the ball, and everything. But with Liverpool, for the full 90+ you see all the players (going for it), it’s also why you see so many goals in the last 15 minutes.”
Hopefully we won’t need to see a goal in the last 15 minutes. After this season, I’m not sure our hearts can take it.
Tusind tak to Thomas Gronnemark, for the lovely chat, and during such a big week. It was a pleasure, and a fantastic insight to some of the behind-the-scenes magic happening at Melwood. Best of luck in 2019/20!