The question was what he would say to the likes of Andy Gray and other typically ‘old-school’ British pundits who have taken against his profession. But he’s right, at this stage, over a year and a half on from first linking up with Liverpool, Grønnemark – a Danish, ex-bobsledder, with a Guinness world-record throw-in and the self-confessed ‘weirdest job in the world’ – has little to prove to anyone.
The metrics, for those who care to look, are pretty clear. In the 2017/18 season, Liverpool ranked 18 out of 20 in the Premier League for retaining possession from throw-ins with 45.4%. Last season, it jumped up to 68.4% – the best in the top flight.
Grønnemark also claims that Liverpool have scored 13 times from throw-in situations this season.
What at first seemed like a strange, new-fangled idea in a sport often reticent and occasionally sneering to change, has been proven innovative and worthy at a club where marginal gains can and do make all the difference.
Regarding Gray’s put-downs on BeIN Sports (the ex-striker offered to be the ‘first kick-off coach’), Grønnemark jokes that the internet has answered for him, but maintains in his easy-going manner that there is a right way to criticise and be open to new ideas.
“Criticism and positive feedback is really important in football and for society, if it’s made constructive,” he says with the conviction of a motivational speaker.
“My biggest goal is to change football.”
“When people are giving me criticism, I think ‘do these people know anything about this subject?’ If people are curious about what’s happening, it can be helpful and it can develop questions.
“But if people know nothing about the subject and they are not asking questions and just making fun, then it doesn’t touch me at all because I just feel pity for them. I think it’s a little bit sad.
“Andy Gray could’ve made the most fantastic TV programme about throw-ins by inviting me on or asking me things and it could still have been fun. I can make fun of myself. But he didn’t and that’s just the way it is.”
TWO kinds of CRITISM!
THE CONSTRUCTIVE – where people are suggesting potential improvement based on knowledge, and make people or projects grow
THE DESTRUCTIVE – where people are criticizing from an uninformed position, or do it because of self promotion
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Grønnemark’s interest in the throw-in – of which there are around 40-60 every game (often taken badly) – dates back to the mid-noughties, when he started to wonder if he could teach other players his own technique of hurling the ball with power and accuracy.
Unsurprisingly, there were no books about the subject in the local library, so he devised his own methodology by 2009 (coincidently the year Stoke and Rory Delap’s throws terrorised the Premier League), which led him to work with Viborg FF and later FC Midtjylland – famous for their innovate stats-led, ‘Moneyball’ approach to the game – in his native Denmark.
Midtjylland have twice won the Danish Superliga while Grønnemark has worked with them, while he claims they have scored 35 goals over four seasons from long throws.
However, it was in the summer of 2018 when his life changed with a voicemail from one of football’s most famous voices.
“I was visiting a chocolate shop with my family and I heard a noise from my phone and noticed that a +44 number from England had been calling me,” he says.
“Most teams lose possession more than 50% of the occasions when they have a throw-in under pressure”
“I thought it was a salesman from England…but it was Jurgen Klopp on the voicemail! I tried to call back but he didn’t answer. So after leaving the chocolate shop I thought ‘I might as well go home and wait for the most important call of my life!’
“I was driving the car home and the phone rang again. My wife picked it up and said ‘it’s Jurgen!’ I drove the car off the road into a grass field and took the phone.
“He told me, ‘even though we had a good season in 2017/18, we lost the ball almost every time from throw-ins under pressure.’ He had read an article about me in the German newspaper Bild and that was the reason why he was calling.
“He invited me to Melwood the week after and it should’ve only a first meeting but he was so convinced I could make a difference that the day after I was given the chance to coach 21 of the first-team players.
“Since then I’ve been coaching Liverpool, first with a half-year contract, then another half year and now full season this season.”
So how did those players first react to the man with the Guinness world-record throw-in (51.33m, by the way) turning up for an introductory session solely on throws?
“First of all, to be honest, most football players would rather play with their feet than throw with their hands,” he admits.
“But you know in every case, no matter if it’s sport or life in general, it’s all about giving meaning to people and I just said that to the players at the first session.
“There are normally between 40-60 throw-ins in a match and most teams lose possession more than 50% of the occasions when they have a throw-in under pressure, when the players are marked. If that was the same when playing with your feet, you would not be playing professionally. You would be playing Sunday league!
“When Jurgen Klopp is backing you up saying ‘hey, we have a challenge in the team. I’ve brought Thomas in to help us with that’. It’s a really, really good start.”
“Do you want to see ten long throw-ins at Anfield? I’m not sure anyone wants that.”
Joe Gomez is Liverpool’s top long thrower, with Grønnemark claiming that the England defender can get a distance of 37.2m. However, he is keen to point out that distance throws aren’t really a feature of his work at Melwood. Although it could be, if they ever wanted it…
“It’s not the playing style,” he insists. “It would be no problem at all to score like 10-12 goals from long throw-ins every season but if you want to score that many goals you have to throw perhaps five or ten long throws-in every game and do you want to see ten long throw-ins at Anfield? I’m not sure anyone wants to do that.
“That’s nothing against long throw-ins. At some clubs I’m doing that and it’s very successful but it has to fit into the playing style. It’s about adapting to the style, while adding on my knowledge.”
(Above: Grønnemark in a session with Belgian club KAA Gent)
That knowledge translates into coaching three types of throws: long, fast and clever – with the latter being focussed on retaining possession, starting attacks and, of course, creating chances to score.
Grønnemark says he works with approximately ’40 different throw-in tools’, which involve sessions with every player on the pitch bar the goalkeeper.
While the obvious comparison would be to an NFL playbook, he is eager to impress that his coaching is more nuanced and about giving players the ability to develop ‘millions of situations’ themselves using their own creativity, rather than following a specific set of instructions. It’s a system and way of working that the team at Melwood have taken onboard well.
“The working environment is just fantastic. I’m proud to be a part of Liverpool FC. From the first visit, I had the feeling that people were so friendly and helpful and it was an environment where it was not about ‘I’ but about the team.
“The whole team has been phenomenal. The throw-in, clever or fast, is not only about the full backs [the most regular takers] but all the players. So, if you want to have success, you have to involve the whole team.
“If you look at the normal full backs, Trent and Robbo, they’ve been really good.
“In the first few months, Trent was a little bit slow in development but the last year or so, he has been working really hard and improved so much.”
And to the payoff then. Which goals has Grønnemark sat back and watched this season and quietly pumped his fist and thought ‘yes, I helped create that’?
“If I said some of the goals then I would be giving away my secrets a little bit,” he laughs. “But the goals against Tottenham and Wolves were fantastic.
“The reason why I can talk about them now is because they’ve been analysed a thousand times!
The two goals, both match-winning strikes from Roberto Firmino in January, came after smart, swift attacks started from throws in the opposition half.
“I love Liverpool but there’s also a chance that I could go to a rival.”
The latter goal, in particular, seemed to bear the thumbprints of a training ground move, with Alexander-Arnold sending a throw towards the edge of the Wolves 18-yard box as Jordan Henderson drew space. Firmino then dummies the header leaving the ball to Mohamed Salah. After some incredibly neat footwork, the ball is fed back to Firmino, who fires past Rui Patricio to give Liverpool another dramatic late win. Though there are the steps between throw and goal are many, the influence is evident.
“But, apart from the goals, it can [make me happy to see] just a normal possession where the movement and the timing of the run and position is just perfect. It may only be a possession but if everything comes together it’s like ‘wow’ and it’s just an amazing feeling.”
It’s an odd sentiment, but you can genuinely feel Grønnemark’s enthusiasm for the simplicity of a well-taken throw.
Including his most famous clients Liverpool, Grønnemark is currently working with eight clubs around the world, with Ajax and Midtjylland among the others. Interestingly, he has no exclusivity deal with the Reds in the Premier League but reveals he has turned down offers from rival clubs.
“If Liverpool came and said we’ll pay you to be exclusive then of course, we could do that in a contract.
“I can’t reveal who, but this season I have already said no to some of their competitors. It could have been a good paycheck!”
While he uses the example of Manchester United as a club he wouldn’t coach in the same season as Liverpool, Grønnemark admits he is open to working with the Reds’ rivals in the future. The man who is literally writing the book on throw-ins (it’s a few years away, he says) still has big ambitions.
Thanks and Merry Cristmas
As a Throw-in coach I have met a lot of scepticism, and I wish that more people would listen without prejudice … BUT…
I will also Like to THANK everybody – from all over the World – who have supported me on this journey
“I’m a freelance coach and even though I hope to stay at Liverpool, I love Liverpool. There’s also a chance that I could go to another rival.
“If people think I can only coach Liverpool in England, it’s like saying a baker can only sell bread to people in blue shoes. You wouldn’t last long doing that. Let’s see what the future brings.
“My biggest goal is to change football.”