Thomas Gronnemark made waves in the world of football when he was hired by Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool in 2018. Pundits and journalists described it as the weirdest job in football- a throw-in coach – which was almost unheard of in the sport. Gronnemark made an immediate impact through his training- and his clubs FC Midtjylland and Liverpool having the two best throw-in success rates was no coincidence.
Now coaching some of the best sides in the world in Liverpool, Atlanta United, Ajax, Gent and RB Leipzig- and covered in the media by the likes of the New York Times, Sky Sports and Forbes -what has Thomas done so right in such little time?
Adibir Singh sat down with the Dane to understand what makes his coaching style and expertise so sought after by the biggest clubs in Europe.
You’ve had an athletic background and were a part of the bobsled team for Denmark, as well as a Guinness World Record holder for the longest throw in the world. When did you realise you could throw a ball farther than the average person- and how did your world record attempt come about?
“I think I realised I could throw really far as a teenager. I wasn’t quite good enough to be a professional football player, but I was really fast and got into the Danish athletic team for the 100m, 200m, and 400m categories. I was on the team for 6 years, winning several Danish championships and became the European champion in 2000 as well- and then spent 4 years with the bobsled team. I could always throw the ball quite a way, and in 2008 I decided to go for the world record- which was 48 metres. I tried to learn the flip throw-in for the attempt but as a non-gymnast, it was quite tough.
My first world record attempt came in the half-time break at the Denmark vs. Spain football game in 2008, but I couldn’t beat it. I tried it again in front of 40,000 fans in Berlin, at the Hertha vs Wolfsburg match, but just missed out again. Finally, in 2010 I set the record with a throw measuring 51.33 metres- a record which stood for 10 years.”
When did you realise you wanted to get into the football world as opposed to another sport?
“Well, I loved being a part of the team when I was in the Bobsled setup. I knew that after making a throw-in course, and having success with my first club in the Danish Superliga that I wanted to help football coaches and teams. You could see the quality of throw-ins were quite bad- and that’s when in 2008 I made my “Long, Fast and Clever Throw-In’s” philosophy to try to make a difference in world football.
For fans that don’t know the purpose of your job and technique- what do you aim for a player to do when they take the throw, and what should happen once their teammate receives the ball?
“Firstly, a lot of fans think throw-ins are not important and it’s a rather small detail- but the fact that there are usually 40-60 throw-ins in a match makes it the most common set-piece in a game. What I aim to teach the players are not just how to take long throw-ins, but also get a greater throw-in area to make space for your teammates. With technique and video analysis, a player can gain almost 5-10 metres in their throw-in distance. I also work on the fast throw-in which is based on marking the opponents faster when they have the ball- and whether to pressure with zonal marking or to be patient. Setting up counter-attacks are also a key part of the system along with creating space in the quickest way possible- this is where I work with all the players on the pitch and not just the thrower.”
A lot of people were sceptical in the media when they heard of a throw-in coach being appointed- and that Liverpool might start playing more like Stoke City did a few years ago. How does your approach fit in with Klopp’s style of play? Did you have to adapt to certain tactics?
“Well, I try to fit into the style of the coach no matter where I am. I keep 70% of my training the same from club to club- and about 30% changes depending on the manager’s system and playing style. I’m always in touch with the assistant coaches and the video analysis teams to get the most out of the players.
On the criticism- I believe that if we don’t get constructive criticism we won’t ever improve- so I always appreciate it and hope it makes me a better coach. If the criticism is destructive I don’t pay much attention to it- I think I get a lot of support from coaches, managers and journalists around the world so that keeps me going.”
What was your reaction when you got the call from a manager of the stature of Jürgen Klopp?
“I was totally in shock when I got the call from Jürgen. It’s a funny story actually- I missed the first call and he left a voicemail. I was in the car with my family and my wife picked up the phone and said “It’s Jürgen!”. I quickly took the car into a grass field nearby to talk to him and he told me what a great season Liverpool had in 17/18- and that he’d heard of me from the German newspaper ‘Bild’. He invited me for a meeting to Melwood (LFC’s training ground) a week later- and he wanted me to train the first team the very next day. I signed my contract a while after and it’s been a surreal experience since then.”
What were the players’ reactions to you being appointed? Which player adapted the quickest to your system?
“The very first day I told the players how important throw-ins can potentially be. A Stoke City style of play was not what I was going to incorporate- and Jürgen came in and explained to the boys how much the team lost the ball from these set plays, and how I could help the team improve. The manager reassuring the boys that I was here for a reason made my job a bit easier, to be honest.
I think someone who really improved fast was Andy Robertson. He didn’t just learn quickly but knew when to play the ball and how to adapt to certain situations.”
A lot of fans and pundits have noticed Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson significantly improving their throw-ins this season— how is it working with world-class players who adopt your system so well?
“I feel really proud to see it working. Robbo wasn’t the longest thrower at Liverpool, but he improved his throw-in technique really fast like I’d mentioned. Trent took a few more months to perfect his throw, but it was really important for the full-backs to be able to execute this well- and now they are the best in Europe. Sometimes it feels totally normal for me to work with this team- and sometimes I just think to myself “Is this for real? This is amazing!””
How important do you think it is for athletes to master a skill such as throw-ins at a younger age- rather than learn this later in their professional careers?
“It’s much easier to learn a skill when you are younger- I would say it’s almost too late to learn it when you are a professional. I see a lot of pro players who are awful at throw-ins- and coaches just expect them to be good at it, but that’s not the case. Many coaches are frustrated with losing the ball straight from these set pieces, so it is much more beneficial to train your players at an early age. I try to coach players in the Under 9’s to Under 14’s as little as once a week- that’s all you need to improve over time.”
Let’s talk a bit about your book- “THE LONG, FAST AND CLEVER THROW-IN.” Your philosophy revolves around three different set-piece styles for attacking and defensive zones. What do coaches need to do to retain possession in different parts of the pitch?
“Of course these are the secrets that I will teach in my book. It focuses not only on the long throw- but also how to be accurate and create space from a throw-in. I aim to teach coaches about the three zones- near your own penalty area, the midfield and the attacking third. For example, it’s quite risky to lose the ball close to your own penalty area- so the set play must be more narrow than usual. Attacking zones allow us to be more risky and there’s a wider angle which coaches can learn to utilise.”
Different positions require different tactics for throw-in’s- what do you teach a defensive player as compared to a more attacking one?
“Firstly I teach all the players the basic skills which are really important. If there is a set play in the middle of the pitch, Sadio Mane may have a certain role assigned to him and Roberto Firmino may have something different- I try to work on not just the throw-in, but to teach “throw-in intelligence” so players know when to throw fast and where to make space depending on each situation.”
Your clubs FC Midtjylland and Liverpool have the best throw in success rates in Europe. Do you think stats like these are overshadowed and need to be focused on more from a coaches perspective?
“I don’t think they are overshadowed because now I think people are really looking at them in detail. If you had asked me this 10 years ago, these stats wouldn’t be noticed. But with data analysis coming so far a lot of top coaches take these things quite seriously. If you’re going from 18th to having the best success rate in the league- coaches now wonder how they can do the same. The statistics are getting attention but it’s more a question of “what can I do to improve this for my team?” and that’s what I help the coaches with.”
There was a lot of media attention when Liverpool scored in the dying minutes against Wolves and Tottenham this season- Roberto Firmino scoring both. This resulted from a throw-in that looked very well worked tactically and proved how important every detail in the sport is. When you see your work be successful on the pitch how does that make you feel?
“Of course I’m really proud and happy, especially when it’s a match-winner. We scored 13 goals from throw-in situations this season- a lot of which people didn’t notice because they start all the way from our penalty area, and it was something very specific worked on by us in training. I’m also proud just to see small details like keeping possession after a throw under pressure.”
Most of your teams stopped training during the Coronavirus pandemic. How difficult has it been trying to coach the players during the lockdown?
“I haven’t really been able to coach any teams during the lockdown, as a lot of sides haven’t been training a lot. I’ve had individual sessions with a lot of players online, but more importantly, I’m doing a lot of video analysis for Liverpool at this time until I can go back and train with my clubs.”
You garnered a lot of attention being a part of Liverpool’s Champions League-winning run. How big of an achievement was that personally for you?
“It was just amazing! I think it’s the biggest achievement in club football, and it’s not just a victory for me personally but also as a team. I can be the person who knows the most about throw-ins in the world, but I can only give my knowledge to open-minded players and coaches who help each other become successful. Liverpool FC is like a big family- and I’ll be proud of this till the day I die.”
After coaching a European Cup-winning side- you’ve had a lot of suitors in Ajax and RB Leipzig to name a few. With more teams realising how important a specialist is, do you think this opens new opportunities to niche coaches such as yourself?
“Yes, it’s true there are a lot of clubs that want to hire me for my services although I don’t think there are a lot of coaches in the world who specialise in my field. I doubt there will be many throw-in coaches in the future, but I feel like my work at Liverpool has opened up a lot new areas managers probably didn’t look into earlier- things like nutritionists and sports psychologists that can give an edge to a team. A lot of teams haven’t realised the importance of a throw-in coach, but I’m still happy to contribute to a new innovation in football.”
Do you think coaches you’ve worked with- the likes of Klopp, ten Haag (Ajax) and Ralf Rangnick (RB Leipzig)- who had an out-of-the-box approach to something like a throw-in coach are why their teams are so successful today?
“Yes, you could definitely say that. In my breakthrough in the game, it’s these innovative coaches who are hiring me. Maybe in the future hiring a throw-in specialist will be more normal, so you won’t only have these types of coaches focusing on such small details of the game.”
Do you think certain leagues such as the Bundesliga and the Premier League benefit more from these set pieces as compared to the MLS, due to the physicality levels?
“I don’t think it makes a big difference. It might make a small difference on a long throw-in type of set-piece, but my coaching is 90% about creating space and player movement. It can work in every league in the world whether it’s the MLS or the Bundesliga. My team Atlanta United proved that they can be really successful with this method as well. If you’re working on such a specific tactic, it can only benefit you no matter what level you’re playing at.”
You’ve done a lot of freelance work with these clubs- are you looking to tie down long-term contracts with certain teams or are you going to continue the same way?
“I think I’m going to continue to do freelance work. I usually have three different types of contracts- inspirational visits which are 2-3 training days just to teach the basics. I also have a 3-4 visit per season contract like at Gent from Belgium and I coach 2-3 days during every visit. I have full season contracts with Ajax and Liverpool where there are 6-7 visits a season, and visit Melwood or their training camps for 2-4 days on every visit, with sessions lasting about 45 minutes each time.”
You work for some of the biggest clubs in the world- and are going to launch your own ‘one of a kind book’- what does the future hold for you in sport?
“My main focus is to help as many coaches as I can around the world, it doesn’t matter whether they are Under 12 coaches or Premier League managers. Of course, I would love to continue coaching some of the biggest clubs in Europe, but if I had to choose between that or travelling the world and helping coaches- I’d pick the latter because that’s my biggest dream and ambition.”
Let’s end with a few quick-fire questions- What is your favourite goal scored by your team that came from set-piece you worked on?
“I think I’d go for the two goals against Wolves and Tottenham as you’d mentioned earlier, those are probably the ones that stood out the most for me.”
Of all the players you’ve coached- who had the most impressive natural throw-in?
“Definitely Joe Gomez. Even though we aren’t doing any long throw-in work at Liverpool, I can remember when we were in France in July 2018, we did a throw-in test after training- he threw 37.20 metres which was really really far. Last year he assisted a really important goal for England against Croatia which just proved how great his technique was.”
Is there one player you haven’t had the chance to coach yet, that you wish you could?
“That’s a tough one- I won’t say anyone in particular but right now the whole world is open for me, so I’d just like to coach players that are really passionate and who are motivated to learn more- that’s good enough for me!”
Thomas’ passion for the game is second to none- and is a much-needed breath of fresh air in this ever-cynical sport. He hopes to change the way we see football- not just for coaches and players but for us fans watching at home as well. You can find all his tactics and work on his website- https://thomasgronnemark.com – and can be sure this isn’t the last time you hear about “the man with the weirdest job in football”.
Interview by Adibir Singh
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