Sep 6, 2020
Tom HamiltonSenior Writer
- • Joined ESPN in 2011
• Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours
• Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018
When Liverpool hoisted the Premier League trophy into the firework-lit night sky back in late June, one of their staff was watching on from Denmark. Thomas Grønnemark, their throw-in coach, was drinking from his Liverpool mug — a souvenir he collects from the different clubs he’s worked with — and felt immense personal pride.
Jurgen Klopp was derided when he brought in Grønnemark back in 2018. The doubters said a throw-in is a basic part of football — look for the man, throw it to them. Why invest in a coach? But Klopp knew different, and Grønnemark had, before Klopp called, spent the previous 14 years convinced football was getting it wrong on their lax attitude to this aspect of the game.
Grønnemark has silenced the doubters — his results speak for themselves. Liverpool scored 14 of their 85 Premier League goals from throw-in situations in their title-winning 2019-20 campaign. His services are so in demand, he can now afford to turn down some approaches if his philosophy doesn’t fit with the club’s needs. But he wants to take his message to the world. “My biggest dream is to change football,” Grønnemark tells ESPN. “So instead of throw-ins being a thing that has to be done, it’s developed instead into something totally fantastic and entertaining for fans.”
When the founding members of the Football Association met in 1863 to draw up the original rules of football at the Freemasons’ Arms in London, throw-ins were only granted a cursory nod — whichever player got to the ball first could chuck it back in. It was 10 years and 11 revisions later that we started to see some semblance of modern-day throw-ins, except these had to be launched back in at 90 degrees to the touchline, and finally in 1877 they agreed on a format that is familiar today. In 75 words they summed up this aspect of the game as one of 13 rules regarding how the sport should be played.
Over a century later and Grønnemark is still shocked at how little attention some of the world’s biggest clubs give this aspect of the game. “Throw-ins are gigantic in football,” Grønnemark says. “We’ve been playing football for 140 years and all the time it’s been a case of hurling it down the line.
“The frightening thing is you still see the big clubs in the Premier League, the Bundesliga and Champions League, do that — who haven’t got throw-in coaches.
“That’s the worst thing you can do in football.”
Grønnemark is talking via Zoom from his home in Denmark; COVID-19 curtailed a number of his coaching plans but he still worked remotely, guiding his clients through his three-point throw-in plan. “My philosophy is called the long, the fast, the clever throw-ins,” he says. As we talk he is clasping a TinTin mug (the two share a remarkable resemblance). “I don’t want to show any favouritism,” he laughs. He has worked with Liverpool since 2018 while a quick scan of his coaching resume, or his globe-trotting Twitter account, shows he’s also spent time with Ajax, RB Leipzig, Atlanta United, KAA Gent and FC Midtjylland.
His own coaching journey started back in 2004, when he was midway through a four-year spell as a member of the Danish bobsled team. Up to this point, he’d already tried to become a professional footballer — playing in the same Denmark Under-19 team as Thomas Gravesen — but failed to make the grade and thus turned to athletics as a sprinter and later bobsledder. He also honed his throw-in technique and secured the Guinness World Record in 2010 for the longest flip throw-in (51.33 metres). He remembers going to the library keen to learn more about throw-ins within football but couldn’t find anything on the topic, so over six months in 2004 he developed his technique, filmed tutorials and created his own three-point course.
“Normally there are between 40 and 60 throw-ins in a match,” he says. “Most players or teams are losing the ball in more than 50% of the occasions when they have a throw-in under pressure, where the players are marked. I tell the players, if you had the same percentage with your feet, you’d only play Sunday league football!”
As he searched for his football break, he looked to local amateur teams but plucked up the courage to approach Danish Super League side Viborg, and having improved their throw-ins, the season after he was approached by FC Midtjylland, where he worked for the next six years.
When Andreas Poulsen moved from Midtjylland to Borussia Monchengladbach in the summer of 2018, Grønnemark tweeted a congratulatory message wishing him well. He’d worked closely with the Danish left-back and had improved his throwing from 24.25 metres to 37.9 metres. The tweet caught the attention of a fanzine, which did a feature on Grønnemark, and from there German newspaper Bild contacted him to do the same. As chance had it, Klopp read that article and rang Grønnemark inviting him to come to Liverpool’s Melwood training ground and tell the staff everything he knows about throw-ins.
Klopp was frustrated about Liverpool’s throw-in record; the previous 2017-18 season, Liverpool were 18th out of the 20 Premier League teams in retaining a throw-in under pressure.
Grønnemark remembers his first meeting with the players. “I said to them, ‘I am not going to turn you into Stoke Mark II,’ that meant we’re not going to start taking a lot of long throw-ins, that’s not how I work. Then Jurgen Klopp said ‘we had a fantastic season in ’17-18 but we were really bad at the throw-ins — I’ve invited Thomas to help us and I’m 100 percent sure we can improve.'”
A season later, Liverpool improved their throw-in retention under pressure percentage from 45.4% to 68.4% and had risen from 18th in these standings to first in the Premier League — second in Europe behind Grønnemark’s other side FC Midtjylland. Grønnemark is reluctant to pick out goals or moves he’s proud of — he doesn’t want to give away any secrets of the trade. But from last season there are two which have been well-analysed: Roberto Firmino‘s goal against Wolves on Jan. 23 and Firmino’s opener against Tottenham on Jan. 11.
“When I met him, it was 100% clear I wanted to employ him,” Klopp said of Grønnemark back in the 2018-19 season. “You cannot have enough specialists around you. I must always be the guy who makes the decisions on when we use them, but you cannot have enough.
“Already [he has made a difference], it’s good, the boys like it. Somebody who knows what he is talking about, it always helps when you want to improve something.”
Grønnemark says it took courage from Klopp to think outside the box and seek out his services. “There were a lot of sceptical people. When I went to Liverpool many fans said, ‘Oh, that’s totally crazy, weird stuff’. You have to be brave to take me in like me. Jurgen Klopp is really open-minded, he looked at the club’s weaknesses and could’ve decided to sort this within themselves, but he decided to bring me in.
“It shows how much of a leader he is [and] you have to have patience, and be able to listen. He’s a fantastic listener, a fantastic talker and a fantastic guy. I remember that first meeting in Melwood — I remember how much he listens. He could have told me, ‘OK we’ve done these things before, can you polish it?’ No, instead he asked me, ‘Tell me everything you know.’ That’s an innovator — being innovative is not only having great ideas and telling them to people, but also to have patience yourself and open up to new thoughts. That’s why I think a lot of people can learn from him in their daily life.”
He says the methods he uses are 90-95% focused on “mechanical, technical” work, rather than conditioning. “The [Liverpool] players bought in from the start,” Grønnemark says. “If you’d speak to players and ask if they’d rather play with their hands or feet, they’ll all say feet — that’s natural. But once you give them the ‘why’ at the start of the training as a motivator. Then you bring in competitions, focus on movement and space.”
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The three-point plan he derived is easy to understand but is packed with intricacies. The long throw-in part addresses the reach a player can achieve. With Andrew Robertson, the Liverpool left-back, Grønnemark improved his throw-in distance from 19 metres to 27 — “that’s an improvement in his throw-in area of 500 square metres”. With the fast throw-in aspect, that works with players to determine when to go quick, or wait. “Sometimes it’s really stupid to throw fast if you’re throwing the ball into pressure.” On other occasions, a quick throw-in can be the catalyst for a counter-attack. For the ‘clever throw-in’ part: “That’s how we can create space all around the pitch with specific movements.
“For me it’s much more dangerous than, say, an American football playbook, because if you read that playbook, you’ll know what will happen.
“But no, sometimes I see two or three players doing things to create a certain kind of space — that’s really intelligent. For people who don’t have that knowledge, it looks like they’re moving, but in fact, they’re looking at space, timing and angles, things like that.”
Grønnemark knows there are people who think his job is a luxury or, at worst, redundant. “Criticism is OK for me. But if people are making fun, but don’t have any knowledge, I don’t care what they say. But if people are curious, but have no knowledge and ask how it works, I’m really happy to explain to them. The more knowledge we have, the more exciting things we can talk about.”
He also gives short shrift to the theory throw-ins are of minimal importance, merely a potential area of football’s ‘marginal gains’ (a theory deriving from cycling where teams would look to shave off nanoseconds by adapting aerodynamics or even minimalizing body hair). “If you’re looking at the time spent on throw-ins or related situations, that’s 15 to 20 minutes of a game,” Grønnemark says. “If you’re calling that marginal — I would say you have misunderstood marginal.”
Grønnemark hopes his work will cause sceptics to think twice about questioning the importance of throw-ins in football. “I think football fans will look at throws like they do in basketball — where they’re creating space for each other — as fans there appreciate space grading because they know what will or perhaps will happen. When the fans have that knowledge in football, they’ll find it more exciting.”
Once travel becomes easier, it will be back to travelling the world, passing on his knowledge. He has signed up with Liverpool for another season and is looking forward to getting back to working with Klopp. As one of the few lucky enough to see the inner workings at Melwood, he feels their togetherness is one reason why they have managed to enjoy this recent success. “They’re really good at helping each other,” Grønnemark says. “The players like pressing until the 97th minute [of a match] and you can see that with throw-ins. It’s not about, ‘I’ have to get the ball, it’s about ‘we’ have to get the ball. I think everybody working together is a big part of their success at Liverpool.”
If you’d told Grønnemark back in 2004 when he was starting on this journey he’d have helped Liverpool to a Premier League title, he’d have smiled, but not been surprised. “I had my knowledge, I had my data, I have my proof. It was a question of when the breakthrough would come. I was always 100 percent sure I would coach in a Premier League club; it’s always been my biggest dream.”
He takes huge pride at being at the forefront of the growing awareness of throw-ins and his own role in Liverpool’s success. But while he has a mug from his trips to Liverpool — sometimes as many as two or three sessions a week — he’s yet to receive a medal.
“I don’t know if I’m getting one,” Grønnemark says. “But, to be honest, it’s not important. The most important thing for me is that I’ve been making a difference for the team, for the club. And that’s the biggest medal for me. I’d be happy to get one, but you know, it’s the other things that mean more to me.”