Throw-ins, new goal kick strategies and the idea of dedicated specialist coaches
Excitement for throw-ins reached its peak during the 2008–09 Premier League season as a certain Rory Delap reached worldwide viewers. At first, teams couldn’t handle the “Delap Special”, a simple throw-in in your half escalates quickly into a full on aerial attack from a tall and physical Stoke City side.
The throw-ins varied, central of the penalty area, direct towards the keeper, edge of six yard box for a flick then follow, or a floater for an onrushing header. Stoke City knew they had a weapon that none of the other nineteen teams had, nor understood. Thus, they utilized it to give them an edge.
It presented a different strategy, one that suited Stoke and was novel to the league. Tony Pulis’ side racked up points early on but after a while other teams were alert, and started to cope with the throw ins.
This season, there’s a glimpse of a return for these throw-ins after Cardiff City’s cameo last season. Wolves’ Ryan Bennett has been trying to utilize this weapon, although not as good as Delap’s, they were effective in the games against Burnley and Everton. It was the source of the penalty in the Burnley game snatching a late point, and was close to getting another point at Goodison Park if not for Richarlison’s winner. Wolves mainly focus their play on exciting wing play combinations using their wing-backs, and counter-attacking threat from Ruben Neves’ pin-point passes into the space for Diogo Jota and Raul Jimenez. A throw-in approach doesn’t entirely fit the picture, but it’s another tool to use that as seen in the last couple of weeks has benefited them.
Throw-ins aren’t only used as set plays to score from or for continuation of open play, they can be used to affect a game situation. Like the flapping of the wings of a butterfly affecting the exact time of formation and path taken of a tornado, throw-ins can have a Butterfly effect on a football game. How you set up against a throw in plays a huge role in regaining the ball, and the movements involved in your throw-ins can create a situation for you to exploit an opposition weakness.
Last season Liverpool signed a throw-in coach, a decision that was unjustifiably ridiculed in the media and taken as a joke. Juergen Klopp didn’t want a Delap throwback at Anfield but the German saw that they had issues with throw-ins, and reached out to Thomas Gronnemark, a subject matter expert. In a recent interview with the Athletic, Gronnemark spoke about his journey and his views regarding throw-ins. The Dane also tells the story of his first day at Melwood which was supposed to be a meeting with Klopp, but Klopp was so interested with his ideas that he wanted him to train the players the next day.
A throw-in specialist, an idea that seemed straight outta Mars a couple of years ago is actual in place now at the European champions.
Set pieces was rarely associated with specialist coaches in football. They are of course planned ahead and worked on during the week, but the idea of a dedicated coach working solely on corners, free-kicks, throw-ins or goal kicks is unheard of. Things can change however as the game evolves.
The goal kick law has been tweaked this season, and the change as stated by the IFAB means that the ball can be played before it has left the penalty area. So instead of having center backs by the edge of the penalty box, they can be as deep as the edge of the six yard box. The new law obviously helps teams play out from the back, but it has also been utilized as a weapon similar to the throw-ins.
In the Community Shield game Manchester City made full use of the new law against Liverpool’s press. One of Nicolas Otamendi or John Stones stood as close as possible to Claudio Bravo during goal kicks, as the other offered a passing option in the box or next to Rodri. Liverpool had to press further ahead from where they would have normally pressed before the change of the law, as City built up deeper inside their box and sometimes six yards box. A domino effect meant that Liverpool’s midfield and defenders had to push up as well to keep vertical compactness, and that was exactly what Pep Guardiola had in plan.
With Liverpool players pushing to press and defenders pushing forward to keep vertical compactness Bravo played long balls behind Liverpool’s full backs for the pacey front three, Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane. The strategy didn’t result in a goal for City, but it represented a different problem for Liverpool during the first half.
Another strategy for the goal kick was used by Tottenham in the North London derby, a fake short goal kick. As the name suggests Spurs faked a short kick to one of their center backs then played it long, or actually played the short pass to the center back who played it long directly or returned it to Hugo Lloris to play it long. It wasn’t Arsenal’s press that put Spurs in that position but rather Spurs themselves creating that situation to play against Arsenal defence in vast spaces.
The fake short goal kick attracted Arsenal’s players upfront, then once it was up in the air Harry Kane dropped deep to head it down for Son, Christian Eriksen or Erik Lamela. During the above sequence, Son would be central ahead of Kane waiting to attack the space if the ball dropped for him, while Eriksen and Lamela positioned themselves narrower in midfield to collect the ball if it dropped for them. The midfield duo would then find Son in the space after Arsenal’s defence was disorganized from the aerial duel. David Luiz or Sokratis were the ones fighting Kane in the aerial duel, and once Kane won it one of the two scenarios above took place.
Spurs’ first goal as seen in the video above illustrates the strategy they implemented perfectly. Fake short goal kick, Lloris long ball, Kane wins header against Granit Xhaka and Sokratis who was now out of position, and good movements by Son and Lamela to attack the space. This new goal kick strategy caused problems for Arsenal in the first half, giving Spurs a chance to use their pace in the space without it being a counter attack. A virtual offensive transition from the possession phase, an idea that seems niche but it has been spotted before during last season when Chelsea hosted Manchester City at Stamford Bridge. Spurs have managed this from the goal kick and could have collected the three points if not for Arsenal’s adaptation to these longs balls in the second half.
Set plays and play books are a big thing in the NFL, and as sports have borrowed from each other football can have it’s own set plays with dedicated specialist coaches. Who knows, the next goal kick coach could win you the Champions League.