Liverpool: Throw-In Analysis
Such as set-pieces generally, throw-in strategies are often neglected, even though some simple guidelines could easily help to utilize them better. A great example for that is Liverpool, who even hired a throw-in coach, Thomas Gronnemark, in order to increase their effectiveness in this part of the game. Since Liverpool has a very high success rate (around 70% or maybe even more) in maintaining possession after a throw-in (just to put that into context, usually the average is around 50% at best). This article focuses on the main principles, movements that Liverpool use during throw-ins.
What Klopp tried to accomplish is to develop the team in several small areas, hiring specialists to make the team even more flexible -not a coincidence that they’ve scored the most goals from set-pieces so far. After signing the throw-in specialist Thomas Gronnemark to coach throw-ins, Liverpool instantly made huge improvements in this game phase. Using his system, he differentiates between “The Long, Fast and Clever throw-ins“. It’s usage heavily depends on the team’s personnel and game style. Even though he mentions that Joe Gomez has the ability to make +35 metres throws, the team won’t utilize it, as the emphasis is much more to maintain possession of the ball. The fast throw-in is the best basically, as the optimal time limit to make a throw-in is maximum 5 seconds, to exploit the still unorganized defensive positioning and find a free-man teammate. Based on this Liverpool has a basic principle: whoever is the closest to the ball if it goes outside, he moves to take the throw-in. This is in relation with the team’s basic organization, as depending on the game phase, either the ballnear W-CM-FB has the option to accomplish a fast throw -offer continuity to the game, since due to the staggering in possession the supportive structure is already given. It might be optimal to mix it with fake throws, even if it’s fake it can pull the defensive lines deeper.
It also has an interesting effect if the fast throw can’t be taken. For example if the CM tries to make the throw, then hands the ball over to the FB and moves into position, it might create a separation for him, since the defenders initial orientation is not focused on him, as he was about to take a quick throw. As written before, the main emphasis is to maintain possession of the ball, therefore most of the throws can be categorized as the clever throw-ins: various movements to create either a free space or teammate.
The basis of the throw-ins is to offer multiple options for the throw-in taker in a half-circle shape. To accomplish that Liverpool heavily overloads the ballnear zones, where the key player is the dropping CF/Firmino. This basically underloads the last line – to assure ballnear equality or advantage-, often pinning it only with the 2 wingers/Salah & Mané. By having the 2 wingers to pin the last line, the CBs generally won’t follow the dropping Firmino, which forces the defenders to make adjustments. Often, teams leave a free-man defender for the throw-in taker, but this movement immediately prevents that -or if they leave 1 defender free anyway, a teammate might open up immediately. The effect of this is to reduce the defensive cover -basically dismarking the throw-in taker-, from where different combinations or solutions might emerge using the free-man throw-in taker -e.g. as the ball becomes active, there is a numerical advantage near the ball to surpass the pressure or switch the ball. By manipulating the defensive system -prevent having a free-man- the purpose is to make switches/blocks easier. Another key aspect is to maintain a good distance from the throw-in taker, not to reduce/tighten the available space -never too close, as far as needed. This is often neglected as players tend to make movements towards the throw-in taker too much, which makes the dynamics counterproductive. It also has a defensive purpose, as if the team loses the ball, the ballnear numbers assure to have good access for a counterpress on the ball.
Based on reducing the ballnear cover a usual pattern is to play a one-two with the throw-in taker, who then immediately makes a switch to the ballfar FB, who is the target player. These switches can also be called as ‘blind-switches’, where the trigger is the one-two itself. A key question here: how to prevent the oppositional pressure for the one-two? One could say okay, let them make the backpass to the throw-in taker, the defender has a good angle to press the ball. To prevent that, there are 2 solutions: movements’ and pass directions. What we can see is that the movements are rarely -even if happens, it’s key to maintain an optimal distance- oriented towards the throw-in takers, but more sideways -on the pitch itself vertical movements, not horizontal. Therefore this moves the defenders on a sideway axis, preventing them to make pressure on the throw-in taker from a good angle (frontally) or delays the press. If a teammate is moving towards the throw-in taker for a one-two the receiver makes the backwards pass to a different direction -not straight, either right or left, ideally towards the throw-in taker’s preferred foot, but most importantly in depth, to increase the space- to guide the throw-in taker and help him to avoid the pressure.
A basic rule for all throws is to always play/throw the ball onto the foot -maximum knee or thigh height ideally-, to make the touches easier for a teammate – if possible make a 1st touch action. An exception from this, if there are no options to play to -mostly happens in own third- an escape strategy to throw it higher and long forwards & counterpress. Plus, it’s very important to guide with the throw itself for a teammate, optimally towards the back foot for 2 reasons: keep the defender away & turn towards the far-side to switch.
Such as throwing long under pressure, different strategies might come up in different zones, as the zones itself regulate the accessible behaviors for both the attacking and defensive teams, mostly in the end thirds of the pitch. Not only in this regard, but there are basic differences based on which side the throw-in occurs. From the left, the LW/Mané often drops deeper and makes switches with the CM or CF/Firmino, whilst the RW/Salah stays wider predominantly. From the right, the RW/Salah stays higher without making any dropping movements, and offers an escape route forwards, exploiting his ability to shield the ball & turn even in tight marking. Meanwhile the LW/Mané here moves inside more, and offers and a longer option behind opponent’s 2nd line if they overcommit to the near side.
The direction of the throw-ins: prefer horizontal or diagonally forward throws in general. Vertical throws forwards are solutions only if there is no short option accessible, whilst backwards throws only happen if opponent completely leaves the centre-backs open -or after fast throws.
Movements to create space
Based on the basic staggering, there are at least 5 direct options for the throw-in: ballnear CB, DM, ballnear CM, ballnear W, CF. Although, depending on the oppositional positioning, either the ballfar CM can join to offer an option or space can open up towards the ballfar W, making it to 7 options. A movement principle on the near side is, if 1 player drops deeper, at least 1 must move away, making opposite movements in order to confuse the defenders -different wording: vacate space then exploit. If the defenders are heavily man-oriented, then using blocks/screens to open up a teammate, if they are zonal-oriented, then the purpose of the opposite movements is to force defensive shifts, where a delayed reaction can be enough to make the throw in -plus, even if the defenders can make a successful switch, the attackers’ routes will also move them to a specific direction, opening up spaces elsewhere. These ballnear movements/switches can also be taken as misdirections, to open ballfar spaces -to ballfar CM or W. The most usual block occurs by the DM/Henderson, who whilst moving slightly forwards blocks the defender, opening up space for the dropping teammate – ballnear CM in most cases. Whilst making the movements the player’s head-orientation is clearly visible, especially from the attackers. As the throw-in taker starts to look for options, the attackers keep watching each other -especially those who are behind a dropping player- to see where the teammate is going, so they can move to the opposite -or other- direction, to prevent both of them moving into the same space/position. In an advanced situation, it’s also possible to offer indications to each other just by using the eye-contact.
In order to prevent being too obvious with the main intention, it’s optimal to mix a block with another opposite movement, to offer multiple options for the throw. To exploit that, the throw-in taker’s body-posture is essential. Stay diagonally forward, to have an as wide reach as possible with the throw, without focusing too much to a specific zone -which would make the throw more predictable for the defensive side. In this way, it’s possible to manipulate defenders just by the body-posture or head & eye-orientation, as a further possible development.
The trigger to make a movement from the initial position is the inability to find an open attacker. This is usually a sign for the CF/Firmino to drop deeper & DM/Henderson to make a block forwards, etc. As a principle a reaction to a movement is another movement to the opposite direction, which offers a flexible self-organization within the system, meaning lot of different variations might occur based on this simple principle. In the next step: if a dropping teammate can’t create separation, then move away from the ball -try to block or open space by pulling a defender away- & someone to drop -countermovements.
Such as against man-marking at corners a crossing route can function really well: on one hand it creates the so called ‘traffic’, which might be enough to separate from the defender just by 1-2 meters, or it can bind the defenders’ attention, which might open a teammate just in between the initial movement – a central player.
An interesting effect of a dropping movement is that if the attacker doesn’t receive the ball immediately and stays in position at the end of the movement, the defender tends to leave him/not follow him for the whole action, creating a bigger distance and separation -as he doesn’t receive for the first intention, defenders’ tendency to leave him unmarked. Being patient from the throw-in taker here can be a successful strategy to create a free-man.
Since it’s a good opportunity to press high, most teams will apply aggressive pressure to prevent further progression. Here the offensive team is generally narrower – in case of a possible ball loss- such as the defending team, whilst defensive teams are more zonal-oriented -to close depth/create 2nd ball control-, as most of the teams just make a long throw to escape the pressure. Although using that proactively it could be a good strategy go gain space by winning further throw-ins after a long throw & creating a new situation. Due to Pool overloading the near-side heavily, they often use the longer forward throw against the pressure, for several reasons: the near side overload allows them to have a good control for 2nd balls, therefore even if they lose the ball, it’s a good opportunity to counterpress and exploit the narrowness of the oppositional shape with a far-sided swithc. From winning the 2nd balls, they can either switch immediately to the ballfar FB or they can play it longer towards the oppositional last line, which is basically stretched, since the ballnear W pulls out the FB, plus a CB might step out to control the 2nd ball, leaving space behind & reducing the cover. The main intention here is to make a one-two after and switch to the ballfar FB to reduce the oppositional cover, plus to exploit the defensive narrowness on the far-side. Due to the deeper position of the throws, there are generally more movements towards the throw-in taker to make the one-two -since in the height of the own box/lack of space, sideways movements are not accessible/optimal,
This is where the highest variability occurs, since both the attacking and defensive team have the opportunity to mix their approach, without risking too much. Therefore defensive teams might be zonal-or man-oriented near the ball, the last line has a higher flexibility to shift or to step out with a dropping player, or the ballfar winger can mix his positioning to be narrower -offer ballnear cover-, or wider -prevent switch to ballfar FB. Attacking teams usually mix if the ballfar FB/W is wider or narrower, based on who is the target player. Generally the attacking teams are positioned slightly wider on the far-side, forcing the defending to adjust & be wider as well -to maintain access. A key thing to look here is how the ballfar W positions himself in defending: if the stays wider to prevent the switch, then more space will open for ballnear options. If he moves inside to offer horizontal compactness/ballnear numerical control, more collective actions -switches, drops, opposite movements etc.- are needed to manipulate the defensive marking.
In this zone the defensive team is basically wider, since now they also have to cover their box, therefore such narrowness can’t be accomplished -as at higher zones. This reduces their cover at the ballnear zones, forcing attacking teams to use different dynamics/strategy for the throw-in -less numbers. A key aspect to look at here is how the defensive team shifts the line, to prevent the opening of gaps. Generally, the FB-CB gap is an area to attack, as due to the increased danger in the box, the ballnear CB doesn’t shift wide too much, possibly leaving a gap to exploit.
Comparison – Manchester City
Since both is a dominant team in the same league & the biggest rivalry right now in world football, the comparison is inevitable. According to some stats, Manchester City have the highest percentage of successful throw-ins, which might be due to oppositions being generally ultra-defensive against them, resulting lack of pressure even for throw-ins -so naturally, a lot of the throws are going back to the open CBs. Another interesting difference is that City’s throws are made for a shorter distance, based on their different approach. Whilst for Liverpool we can see that their movements are more collective – with switches, blocks etc.-, City’s throws are more based on individual actions. The basis to move away, in order to increase distances for more spaces, although then the emphasis is much more to create an individual dismarking action -move to blind-side, wait & then changing rhythm, using body-feints etc.- to play a one-two with the throw-in taker. An issue might arise here, since these movements are often made towards the throw-in taker, which generally reduces the space around, plus as the separation movement is made towards the throw-in taker, it’s easier to press the ball afterwards the attempted one-two. As an idea it might be more optimal to make these movements much more on the horizontal axis -using Liverpool’s principle- to prevent the defenders’ easier press on the throw-in taker. In order to open even more space near the throw-in, there are less teammates to drop to offer option, although this has a possible negative effect in terms of the defensive positioning: as said before, Pool is positioned to offer at least 5 options near the throw to prevent the defensive side to have a free-man to press the throw-in taker, but reducing the number of options will result the opponent to have a free-man, making it harder to retain the ball after the throw.
Pattern or decision-making oriented?
Since we are talking about a set-play, there is a generally higher likelihood of using specific patterns or routines, although due to the higher presence in a game -opposed to corners/free-kick, it’s impossible to have a pattern for every throw-in -or if you do have a lot of patterns, you will be more easy to read in the long-run. Therefore, the most optimal way to go is to mix some patterns and the basic principles, to have some pre-planned ideas, whilst also offering key guidelines through principles, so the players will be able to adjust to the oppositional reaction as well. This is probable an important note to consider from a practical point of view.
Further ideas/possible additions
As Liverpool almost never uses the backwards throws if the ballnear CB is closed, this on one hand narrows down their possible options, making it a bit easier for the defensive side, where to expect the throws. A solution to that could be a possible block forwards from the ballnear CB, to open up space to the ballfar CB, who is moving to the near side more to open himself up to receive -this could be an option in the middle-zone. Mixing this: the ballfar CB could also make a block from the blind-side to the ballnear CB. Basically a possible goal would be to play more towards the CBs for more stable possession phases –interesting note here: Gronnemark already introduced the CB block at his newest team, Ajax. More ideas:
- ballnear CB to block for the dropping DM against opp. CF
- double blocks for a specific player/target
- use a block to bind attention (misdirection) & open up a teammate behind
- wild, hipster idea -› form a line as a starting position – move out from that, to cause defensive marking issues (as teams often use that at corners)
- patterned rotations – between 3-4 players
- ballfar FB inside & close to the throw-in to add an extra option, with ballfar W staying out wider & deeper (to offer cover for transitions + switching option)
- ballnear W to drop on 2nd line’s blind-side & CF to move wider and make a block on the opp. FB