It was July 2018 when Thomas Gronnemark first received a phone call from Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.
Fresh off the back of a Champions League final loss to Real Madrid, Klopp was desperate to address the issues the Reds were having on the pitch from a throw-in situation. With his global status as the leading throw-in coach in the world and the Guinness world record for the longest throw-in under his belt, Gronnemark was brought into Melwood to offer something different to Liverpool that the Premier League had never seen before.
Gronnemark’s fascination for the throw-in began when he was around 10 years old, practising long throw-ins with his cousins. But it was after his footballing career had finished in Denmark and he was travelling around the world with the Danish National Bobsleigh team that Grønnemark decided that he wanted to change the game and become a throw-in coach.
“I thought if I can make a good throw-in myself then I can teach other players to do it. I tried to find a good book about throw-ins in the library but there weren’t any. I had to make my own throw-in course,” Gronnemark told the Sports Gazette.
“The first four years I focused on the long throw-in but then I saw video analysis that showed that a lot of teams were losing the ball from a normal throw in the middle of the pitch whilst under pressure. Ever since, I have been working on the long, the fast and the clever throw-in.”
Gronnemark now coaches nine different professional teams across the globe with Liverpool, Ajax and FC Midtjylland being the most recognised of those. The Dane uses three different types of throw-in, the long, fast and clever to unlock the opposition, create chances and increase their possession retention. Working one-on-one with all players in the squad Gronnemark looks to mould his ideas into the players that he is coaching to give them an added advantage in this often-forgotten aspect of the game.
Klopp’s Liverpool have reaped the rewards of Gronnemark’s coaching going from 18th in the Premier League to now ranked first for throw-ins under pressure.
“In my first season with the club we went from 45.4% possession [from a throw-in] to 68.4%, so an improvement of 23%,” Gronnemark explained.
“We went from 18th to number one in the Premier League for throw-ins under pressure. Given that there are normally between 40-60 throw-ins in a match it’s not a marginal gain but quite significant.
“For example, against Spurs this season we had 9/9 throw-ins under pressure ourselves so 100% possession, Spurs only had 4/16 so that’s 25%. Some people think it’s only a throw-in but if you’re winning a throw-in it has the same consequences as keeping possession with your feet. It’s opposite if you’re losing the ball, you’re often caught out of balance and its really dangerous.”
Gronnemark believes the throw-in can not only be regarded as a set-piece but in fact the most important set piece of them all. This season, Liverpool have scored 13 goals after a throw-in situation, which he claims is more than any other teams has scored from corners or free kicks.
“There are three different zones on the pitch, with around 40/50 different throw-ins to choose, it’s pretty tough for the opponent to mark them. In most games we are between 20-40% better than the opponent,” said Gronnemark.
“Although I am a little bit biased with throw-ins, if you asked me what the most important set piece is, for me, it’s the throw-in. Both because they can be really dangerous on the pitch but also because there are so many of them in a game.
“The challenges in football are that the players, coaches and managers don’t know what to do [from a throw-in.] For me it’s easy to see, big clubs that play in the Premier League and Champions League they have a bad throw-in strategy, they’re lacking the knowledge.”
However, Gronnemark’s appointment raised some eyebrows, with many even questioning the value of his role. Most recently, he came under fire from Andy Gray and Liverpool legend Steve Nicol, who argued that the work that the Dane is doing with the club is something that has been replicated hundreds of times before and that the statistics can be construed to show anything you want.
“Taking a throw-in is a decision-making process like making a pass. There’s not one throw-in that hasn’t been done about 100 times that Liverpool do,” said Nicol.
“There’s only so many things that you can do from a throw-in. Set pieces are a completely different animal, you can do all kinds of stuff but if somebody from the opposition goes and stands somewhere then [the throw-in] it is completely bumped, it’s all about decision making with the ball in your hand.
“Anyone can do anything with the statistics. The only thing that I would give him is that the mechanics of where you hold the ball, for distances are correct.”
For Gronnemark though, Nicol’s comments come without an argument to back them up. The resilience to change in football is nothing new to the Dane and he is steadfast knowing that his trailblazing methods are helping Klopp’s Liverpool to bear the fruits of his work.
“Criticism is not a problem at all, in fact, it’s really good if the criticism is constructive. Both Steve Nicol and Andy Gray were playing football 30 years ago and I know a lot of people in their 50’s who are really intelligent, but they don’t know anything about throw-ins at all. Their criticism comes without an argument, it’s just like I don’t like the throw-in,” explained Grnnemark.
“The internet answered for me regarding Nicol and Gray, I don’t need to call them dinosaurs but that’s what a lot of fans called them. The reason is, fans are much smarter now than 30 years ago, not because people weren’t smart then but more because fans now read articles, they see stats, analytics and research.
“Imagine you had a guy in the six-position who only had a passing percentage of 35% or the team lost the ball in 35% of the circumstances when they had it. They wouldn’t be playing professional football at all, they’d play Sunday league.
“If he [Steve Nicol] knew what we did to create the space, to do certain movements then he wouldn’t say these things. No, we haven’t always done these things because if the club had always done that, we wouldn’t have been the third last in the Premier League in throws in under pressure. If we hadn’t improved, we wouldn’t have gone to number one.”
The fascination for Grønnemark’s work has grown year on year with his techniques catching the eyes of some of the biggest names in football. Just this season, one of Liverpool’s rivals approached him offering a big-money move to mentor their side but, for now, the Dane remains loyal to Klopp’s side. With plans to publish a book in the near future and continue to share his wealth of expertise and knowledge surrounding the throw-in, it will only be a matter before we see more throw-in coaches working inside the footballing sphere.