Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp is covering every base in his bid to win the team’s first English league title since 1990.
During an offseason when Liverpool spent $200 million — more than any other Premier League club — to strengthen the playing squad, Klopp also made an intriguing signing in his technical staff: The first throw-in coach in English soccer.
Thomas Gronnemark, who has represented Denmark in both bobsled and track and field, has had a long-held fascination with one of soccer’s more glossed-over tasks ever since he watched his two cousins, Bent and Johnny, launch balls onto the field as a kid growing up in northern Denmark. He even holds the official world record for the longest ever throw-in, at 51.33 meters (about 56 yards) in 2010.
Now he coaches it to some of the world’s top players.
“I know it’s the weirdest job in the world,” Gronnemark, a self-confessed “throw-in nerd,” told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Weird but also increasingly vital, he said, in a sport that he believes is playing catch-up when it comes to analytics and marginal gains compared to American football, basketball, hockey and track.
On average, there are 40 to 50 throw-ins per game and Gronnemark has calculated that teams end up losing the ball on more than 50 percent of the occasions their players receive throw-ins under pressure. He watches matches on TV with his son, and gets frustrated when he sees the mistakes being made at these restarts.
“I am totally passionate about throw-ins,” Gronnemark said. “I think about throw-ins every day.”
Klopp was persuaded to hire Gronnemark on a freelance basis after inviting him to Liverpool’s training base. Gronnemark, who was already employed by Danish club FC Midtjylland and an unnamed top-flight German team, spent time with the Liverpool squad on a preseason camp in France and now works with the players, particularly the fullbacks, a few times per month.
“When I met him, it was 100 percent clear I wanted to employ him,” Klopp said. “You cannot have enough specialists around you … We have the fitness, medical department, we have the nutrition, and now we have somebody for throw-ins.”
Liverpool has played four league games so far, winning all of them , and both Klopp and Gronnemark said they are happy with how the players have responded to the throw-in work on the training ground.
“It’s a funny thing, to be a throw-in coach,” Gronnemark said. “Some people are really curious. Some people say, ‘What is this?’ And some laugh a little, but that’s OK for me.
“In general, the players have been receiving it totally cool, been positive, and been giving it their best.”
Gronnemark wouldn’t go into the specifics of his work at Liverpool but he is open about his general philosophy in an area he describes as being “neglected and under-rated.”
He works on three types of throw-in: Long, fast and clever.
The long throws can be into the opposition penalty area — making it a virtual set-piece situation — and down the line to give more options to the player, usually a fullback, who takes it. Fast throw-ins create counterattacking situations, particularly useful for a team like Liverpool which has quick forwards like Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, while clever throw-ins help a team keep possession better and avoid putting players under pressure at restarts.
Klopp’s decision to hire Gronnemark was met with ridicule in some quarters. In comments widely shared on social media , BeIN Sports pundit Andy Gray, a former Everton, Aston Villa and Scotland striker, said mockingly: “I’m giving you a lesson: Pick the ball up with both hands, take it behind your head, throw it in, keeping both feet on the ground.”
“I’m also going to some clubs later this month,” Gray added, “to teach them how to kick off.”
Gronnemark said there would always be people who are “critical, skeptical, laughing at you, making fun of you,” but pointed to the achievements he has had at his clubs.
One player at FC Midtjylland, Mads Dohr Thychosen, improved the length of his throw-in from 22.25 to 34.50 meters. From one of his long throw-ins, the team scored a goal that helped it become Danish champion last season.
“It can be a great success even if there are no goals from the throw or even if you aren’t taking a long throw,” Gronnemark said. “Some clubs are using my knowledge in one way, some in another way. It’s important to just fit into a club’s playing style.”
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80