Eyebrows raised when it emerged that Liverpool had employed specialist throw-in coach Thomas Gronnemark. Despite being an odd appointment, most reactions seemed to come from a sense of curiosity, with the exception of one dinosaur in the desert. Maybe the success of English rugby and British cycling has acclimatised the public to the benefits of marginal gains, maybe his self-awareness that “it is totally the weirdest job in the world” means he can’t really be mocked, or maybe the idea of a throw-in coach seems like such an irrelevancy that it’s not even worth mocking.
Regardless, the idea is pretty weird. Football is pretty much exclusively played with the feet and throw-ins are a small part that largely go unnoticed. The idea of having a coach for a part of the game so small that it can’t be applied to any other part of the sport seems fundamentally pointless. Of course if Liverpool lift the European Cup with Mohamed Salah finishing from a 40m throw-in then it will all be worth it, but with a limited amount of hours in the week surely Liverpool should be working on more important things?
Although the technique itself of throw-ins can’t be applied to any other aspect of football, strategically they do relate to maintaining possession, but in a way that separates them from the rest of the game: the throw-in is possibly the only set-piece where the awarded team is generally at a disadvantage.
Firstly, one of the players has to be off-field to take the throw-in, immediately putting their team a man down, ten against eleven. The same could be said for any set-piece, but for every other set-piece the taker can score directly, whereas with throw-ins the taker is forced into throwing the ball to another player. Someone taking a free-kick for example has the time and space to line up a perfect shot, but a throw-in taker doesn’t get to use that same time and space to launch the ball straight into the net.
Secondly, there’s the frankly bizarre rules around how you have to take the throw. You have to face play, have both feet on the floor and release the ball from behind and over the head. The first two points are largely irrelevant (albeit the feet one can often catch out players trying to take a throw quickly) but the third is the kicker: having to release the ball from above the head means that the ball has to be in the air or bouncing, making it harder for the receiving player to control. It’s not uncommon to hear complaints about the number of largely unpunished foul throws, but the idea that a professional footballer can’t take a proper throw-in is ridiculous – we see so many because taking a throw-in properly makes it harder for their teammate to control the ball, and they probably don’t get punished because the referees tacitly acknowledge that these rules are silly. The only real strategic upside is that you can’t be offside from a throw-in, offering the potential to mess with the opposition’s defensive line.
Lucy Bronze said as much in a recent interview: “The one thing I’d change about football is… Oh wow – nothing, I love it. Actually, maybe throw-ins. I don’t like them. Because I’m a right-back I always have to take them, but they’re terrible – they slow the game down, and who really gets taught how to throw that way? You just don’t, do you? Kick-ins for me, please.”
Louis van Gaal agrees: “A throw-in should be a positive thing but more than half of throw-ins end up with the opponent. It’s easy to defend a thrown ball. And it’s a bit weird too. It’s football, so why should we suddenly use our hands? It has to be a kick-in. Then the defending team wouldn’t simply kick the ball out. With a kick-in, we can change the game.”
The kick-in was experimented with at the 1993 under-17 World Cup, but the idea was soon dropped as it resulted in massive time-wasting, with each throw-in taken by specialists akin to a free-kick or corner. Nevertheless, there could be some half-way point between the kick-in and the current throw, such as allowing a player to roll the ball underarm into play.
Until any change in the rules, teams simply have to work around them to the best of their ability, which benefits the likes of Gronnemark. The coach holds the world record for longest throw at 51.33m and anyone who saw Rory Delap’s time at Stoke City is aware of the benefits of a long throw. With that kind of length on a throw-in, it becomes akin to a corner or any other set-piece in the final third, although that’s not the only thing Gronnemark works on: “it is not just the technique of the throw, but how to receive it, how to make the right runs, the positioning, creating space,” he says. “At the top of the league, it can help with a more fluent style of play.”
While Liverpool have hired a throw-in coach, the overwhelming majority of teams haven’t and likely won’t. Most probably don’t even take throw-ins into real consideration. With that in mind, opposition throw-ins look like a good opportunity to win back the ball.
As it’s much harder to throw the ball far than kick it, it’s less dangerous to congest your defending players on the side of the ball for throw-ins. You need only to cut off the short options to force the taker to just throw it down the line, where you could position multiple players to surround the receiver and win the second ball – it’s very difficult for the attacking team to make the playing area big in this scenario as the taker can only throw it so far, and it’s very easy for the defending team to make the playing area small for the same reason.
The idea of purposely giving the ball away to gain territory isn’t new – Marseille used to immediately kick the ball out straight from kick-off for a throw-in close to the opposition corner flag back when Didier Drogba played for them – but it’s rarely been tried in today’s age of more sophisticated pressing, when it would arguably be more effective than ever.
The idea is obviously unlikely to take hold in more possession-orientated teams, as the idea of giving possession away would be antithetical to them, but those teams whose defenders lack the technical quality to play out from the back might find it beneficial. The defenders could simply hoof the ball out for a throw deep in the opposition’s half, the opposition would be forced back towards their own goal, they could then win the ball back high up the pitch by pressing the short options or the opposition are forced down the line, where the defenders can win it back again, likely higher up the pitch than where they initially hoofed it. Counter-attacks work largely the same way and are probably more effective as giving the ball away for a throw-in allows the opposition team to get defenders back and organise, however counter-attacking also requires more technical quality in passing and dribbling.
Playing for throw-ins would certainly be ugly but could also be effective for a team lacking the quality to play prettily.