Throw-in coach, Liverpool, 2018–
It was supposed to be ‘family time’.
It was July 2018, we were driving home from a summer trip, and my phone was off. Then, when we pulled over to go to a shop, I turned my phone on to take a quick look to see if I’d missed anything.
I had a missed call from a +44 phone number.
This wasn’t all that unusual. I was always getting phone calls from all over the world for my business, so this could have been anyone. Then I listened to the voicemail.
It was Jürgen Klopp.
I tried to call him back straight away but didn’t get through, so I quickly gathered my family and decided to get home to make what might be the most important call of my life.
I wasn’t driving for long when my phone rang. My wife looked at it. “It’s Jürgen!”
I pulled off the road and into a field, stopped the car, took a deep breath and answered the phone.
I couldn’t believe it. Jürgen Klopp really was on the other end of the line.
“People ridiculed the decision to bring in a throw-in specialist without knowing what I do”
He said Liverpool had had a fantastic season in 2017/18, finishing fourth in the Premier League and making it to the Champions League final, even though they lost to Real Madrid.
But he said it was really noticeable how bad they were at throw-ins, so he invited me to Melwood for a meeting about possibly helping out.
The following week, I went to Liverpool and I ended up taking a session with the 21 first-team players who had returned to training after the World Cup. A week later I signed my first contract with Liverpool – initially just for half a season to test the water, but I ended up staying well beyond that. We’ve had a very successful time together.
When news of my contract with Liverpool found its way into the press, there were a lot of people who laughed. People ridiculed the decision to bring in a throw-in specialist.
They criticised my work without knowing what it entailed because there was an assumption that I wanted to use my long throw-in training to change Liverpool’s playing style, when that was far from the truth.
It’s really important to me when I go into a club that, first of all, I know the team’s playing style so that I can find my training around that. I will always base my work on what the manager wants from his team.
Years ago, I started off focusing on long throw-ins, but my philosophy developed to include the three types of throw-in I coach: long, fast and clever throw-ins.
When you are the first to do something, when you are an innovator, there are always going to be people who don’t understand what you’re doing. That’s where the early criticism came from, but I’m okay with that. I proved my worth at Liverpool.
Some of what I do is helping to improve players’ throw-in technique.
So many players grow up without ever being trained properly in taking throw-ins. Some might grow up playing in central midfield, for example, and never have to take a throw-in as a child.
They become elite sportspeople, who can do almost anything with the ball at their feet. Then suddenly they are asked to throw the ball. That’s why you still get foul throws in the Premier League.
Foul throws get so much attention on social media that players are scared of taking throws. There are players who still get nervous when they have to take a throw-in, but they might have to take 25 in a single game.
“The season before I joined Liverpool, they had the third-worst ball retention rate at throw-ins in the Premier League”
The stress of taking one might mean players just throw the ball down the line as it is the easy way out – but doing so often results in a loss of possession.
There might be 60 throw-ins in that game, so it is reasonable to suggest that all players should be coached in how to do them properly. A small part of what I do is help with their technique and the distance they can throw it – a longer throw-in can be useful all over the pitch, not just for throwing it into the penalty area.
But I usually take my sessions with most of the squad, because the main aim of my coaching is to help the players find ways to create space and retain possession from throw-ins – and then hopefully create chances.
A lot of my coaching looks like 'normal' football after the first throw. I do plenty of work in large groups – often 11 versus 11 – so that the players are used to implementing my ideas into match-like situations.
I try to give the players the tools to work out the best way of creating space from a throw-in. Improving their ‘throw-in intelligence’, if you like. It is all about angles of approach, speed of movement, different players combining to create space. It is almost impossible to find a teammate when there is no movement or space at a throw-in.
It isn’t like having an American football-style playbook with predetermined moves, because if the opponents are alive to the move, you’re stuck. I give the players the tools and then they have to improvise and find their own way out of the situation.
The season before I joined Liverpool, they were the one of the best teams in the Premier League, but they were the third worst when it came to retaining possession from throw-ins, keeping the ball just 45.4 per cent of the time. This meant the majority of their throw-ins, which should be an advantage to have, resulted in a turnover.
“After realising I couldn't become a pro footballer, I took up athletics and later joined the Danish bobsled team”
Then, in my first season working with the club in 2018/19, Liverpool’s ball retention from their throw-ins went up to 68.4 per cent – the best in the Premier League.
Then, in 2019/20, Liverpool scored 14 goals that resulted from a throw-in situation in one way or another. If you look at the numbers alone, you can see my work has been a real success.
On top of that, Liverpool won the Champions League and Premier League (below) in those two years.
You can definitely say my arrival was well timed, but my work has had a big influence on the team. Without even looking at the measurable success in the numbers, you can see the improvement on the pitch. If I can affect five or even 10 per cent of the team’s performance, then I call it good work.
My success at Liverpool has got the most attention, but I’ve worked all over Europe for a number of years.
I worked at FC Midtjylland for 10 years – and word spread, so I got jobs at lots of other Danish Superliga teams. Then I worked at RB Leipzig for the 2018/19 season, and I’ve since spent a season at Ajax (below) and Gent in Belgium.
I have worked with lower-league teams, and then I went to do some stuff at Atlanta United in MLS. There are more teams in North and South America I am talking to, but they don’t want that to be public knowledge yet so I can’t reveal who. Clubs all over the world are interested in my work.
I have no football education, though. I’m not a football coach. But I also think that without my background – a very mixed one – I would never have become a throw-in coach.
“Tony Pulis’ Stoke team inspired me – but maybe in a way that will surprise you”
I played football to a pretty good level when I was young. I played at the highest youth level in Denmark up to under-19s – my throw-in ability certainly helped – and I regularly played against quite a few future professionals, including Martin Jorgensen and Thomas Gravesen. But it was clear I wasn’t good enough to go pro.
But I was really, really fast – more than just fast for a football player. So, in 1995, I went to the local athletics club. It was a very basic set-up, with only two athletes and an old lady for a coach.
By 1997 I had been to a few meets and been noticed. I made it on to the Danish national team. I spent six years as an athlete, specialising in the 400m and also running the relay, and became Danish champion a few times. Then my future wife came along, and I moved across the country for her.
I was back to training alone. I felt like I needed a team sport again. I’d tried playing basketball too – I still play now – but I ended up joining the Danish bobsled team.
I was fast, and I was heavy for a sprinter, so I was perfect for bobsledding. I also really enjoyed the video analysis we did, and we were really innovative in changing the team’s approach.
But it was towards the end of 2003 that I started to think I needed to do something bigger. I wondered if I could use my ability with throw-ins – I later broke the world record for the longest throw-in ever – to help other players.
I spent six months putting together a throw-in course and, to be honest, I had no idea what level to aim it at. I went straight to a Danish Superliga team called Viborg and luckily they said yes. I started working with them at the start of the 2004/05 season, and they improved a lot. In my first year there, they achieved their best ever position in the league.
Then I joined FC Midtjylland. I worked with them for years – initially just on long throw-ins – but then in 2008 I started analysing throws in the middle of the pitch and I realised that teams lost possession almost as often as they retained it.
“A German journalist wrote an article about me, and both Jürgen Klopp and Ralf Rangnick read it”
Tony Pulis’ Stoke team also inspired me – but maybe in a way that will surprise you.
What they did was fantastic. They had a game plan, got behind it 100 per cent and were really good at what they wanted to do. But they also made it clear that you can’t have 20 teams playing that way. That Stoke team inspired me to get teams playing a completely different way to them.
I started to pull together bits of what I’d used in all my sports – player movement from basketball; video analysis from my bobsled days; technique fine-tuning from athletics; my own experience of taking throw-ins – to build my own philosophy around ball retention from throw-ins.
FC Midtjylland really got behind my work and they kept improving – so much so that we won the Superliga for the first time in the club’s history in 2014/15, and then again in 2017/18. This was the second team I’d ever worked with!
And my success there went beyond the pitch.
In that second season, I worked with a young player called Andreas Poulsen. He was a good footballer, but he caught the eye because he had a long throw-in. I helped him improve his throw from 24 metres to almost 38 metres. That is roughly the width of the penalty area, and he was only 18 years old.
“Space creation is huge in basketball, and can have huge consequences. It can be the same in football”
Borussia Mönchengladbach came in with a €3m offer for him in the summer of 2018. It was a really good move for him to step up to the Bundesliga – but it was also a great deal for Midtjylland, for such a young player.
A journalist from a small German newspaper got in touch because he wanted to write an article about my work with Poulsen. It was a really good article, and so a journalist from Bild – a huge newspaper in Germany – decided to write an article about me, too.
Jürgen Klopp and Ralf Rangnick (below), who at that point was head coach at RB Leipzig, both read that article – on the very same day – and that’s how I ended up getting jobs with both of those managers.
There was a reason news about my work was spreading: it was bringing results. World football is starting to recognise how big a part of the game throw-in coaching is, and how much of an impact good throw-ins can have on a team’s performance.
My goal is to change the perception of throw-ins for the better. I want spectators to get excited when their team have a throw-in. Space creation is huge in basketball, and can have huge consequences. It can be the same in football.
I am writing a book about my secrets, and plenty of important people in football are showing support for my work. People like the idea of digging into a new area of football.
Throw-in coaching can help change football. I don’t think there will be many more specialist throw-in coaches like me, but I do think clubs will build throw-in coaching into their training.
I’m just part of the movement.
Book your place to hear Ralf Rangnick speak at the first Coaches’ Voice webinar here