Football In The Margins: The Divisive History Of The Long Throw-In And Its Auspicious Future
When Cheltenham Town hosted Manchester City in the FA Cup Fourth Round in January 2021, victory was all but assured for the Premier League club.
The Robins — who would go on to win League Two that year — were no match for a Man City side that sat atop the English football pyramid. Yet early in the second half, the match at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium was still scoreless.
In the 59th minute, the hosts had a throw-in opportunity in the attacking third, which they decided to heave into the Manchester City penalty area. The ball reached the edge of the six-yard area, where it was awkwardly flicked on by Cheltenham winger George Lloyd. Lloyd's header bypassed a few City defenders, and the ball fell to the feet of Robins striker Alfie May, who poked it past a helpless Zack Steffen to give Cheltenham the lead.
Man City hadn't conceded a goal in 509 minutes.....Until this go-ahead goal from League Two side Cheltenham.
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) January 23, 2021
For 22 minutes, the Robins were in front against the best side in England until Man City scored three times in the last ten minutes of the match to secure a place in the fifth round. Alfie May's tap-in was largely forgotten outside of Gloucestershire — a Covid-fueled fever dream that seemed too absurd to be true.
The Robins' 22-minute lead has been discounted in the same way self-proclaimed football intellectuals have been discounting the long throw-in for years; describing the premeditated hoists into the penalty area as an archaic strategy used by skill-less teams that degraded the quality of the game.
But a long throw gave a fourth-tier side the lead against the future Premier League champions, momentarily dwarfing the disparity in talent between the two sides through a show of brute strength and determination.
The long throw is an equalizer that was a prime tactic of Sam Allardyce's Bolton Wanderers sides of the early 2000s and Tony Pulis' Stoke City squads a few years later, helping a pair of underfunded and less talented clubs hold their ground against the giants of the Premier League for much longer than they should have.
More recently, English and European Champions Liverpool have a dedicated throw-in coach, and newly-promoted Brentford — purveyors of some of the slickest football in the EFL Championship last year — have used the long throw to great effect in the EPL.
After remaining unchanged for more than a century, the long throw-in is becoming a modernized attacking weapon, that, while still only exploited by a few clubs, is now utilized by teams at both ends of the table.
These clubs realize that the throw-in is one of the most underdeveloped sectors of the game, but unbeknownst to them, they are spearheading a footballing revolution.
The origin of the long throw-in can unofficially be traced back to an international match between England and Scotland in 1882. These were the days before formalized throw-in statutes, and Scotland foolishly agreed that throws could be taken using any technique.
Unbeknownst to the Scots, the England starting XI included William Gunn — a talented cricketer. Gunn took great joy in the flexible throw-in regulations, using his arm strength to launch one-handed throws that often traveled from the English half into the Scottish penalty area.
The following year, the English FA changed the law, dictating that throw-ins must be taken from over the head with two hands on the ball — establishing the modern throw-in.
Since then, the long throw has been a useful yet divisive tactic on the pitch.
Bill Shankly, prior to becoming a legendary manager at Liverpool, was one of the first players to regularly execute the long throw. While at Preston North End in the 1930s and 40s, he practiced in the off-seasons by throwing balls over a row of houses — employing local boys to retrieve the balls for him.
In the decades since, a number of teams have specialized in these lengthy sideline restarts. Chelsea's Ian Hutchinson employed the long throw to great effect in the 1970s, with one such throw setting up the winning goal in the 1970 FA Cup Final.
Vinnie Jones of Wimbledon's Crazy Gang utilized the long throw (among other ploys) during the Dons' rise to prominence in the 80s and 90s, which included an FA Cup Final victory of their own in 1988.
The long throw was less out of place during this era due to the style of play and elemental factors. With fewer technically-minded imports and more swampy fields, possession-based football was often left at the wayside.
As the groundskeeper's toolkit began to expand beyond a giant roller and a shovel, and the playing surface began to more closely resemble a suburban front lawn, passing football grabbed a vice-like grip on the game.
Why aimlessly hoist the ball into the penalty area when you can hold possession? By the time the modern Premier League took shape, the long throw was less a necessity and more a novelty. Still, with so many creative types playing for the top teams, lower table sides needed an equalizer.
While English football was moving forward, a few managers were simultaneously looking to turn back the tactical clock.
First came Sam Allardyce's Bolton Wanderers. After earning promotion in 2001, Big Sam's boys became a nuisance in the top flight for more than a decade, using a combination of direct football and physical play to bully more talented opponents. At one point, a third of the club's goals came from set pieces.
But Allardyce's sides simply didn't launch the ball into the box and hope for the best. His blueprint was backed by statistical analysis — a ground-breaking scheme in the early 2000s. Allardyce's tactics might have been labeled as archaic, yet Big Sam calculated this was the best way to win matches given the club's lack of resources.
"Supporters didn't see the War Room or Allardyce's statistical models," Michael Cox, a tactical analyst for The Athletic said, "they simply observed what happened on the pitch. And while Allardyce was unquestionably an innovator in some respects, he prescribed a style of football that was distinctly old-fashioned."
The long throw isn't meant to be attractive, nor is it usually a manager's preferred approach to the game — hence Allardyce's adverse reaction to being labeled a "long-ball manager." It is born out of necessity, as underdogs look to exploit more technical sides through direct, physical play.
For years, the long throw has only been thought of as a way to launch the ball into the opponent's penalty area. But it is a much more complex strategy, one that is only beginning to be properly analyzed by a select few. One coach even sees the throw-in as the future of the sport.
Danish coach Thomas Grønnemark has long taken interest in the art of the throw-in, which he says dates back to seeing his cousins take particularly good throw-ins back in 1987.
Grønnemark never made it as a footballer (he became a sprinter and bobsledder instead), but his unusual passion for the throw-in never wavered. In 2004, a trip to his local library resulted in disappointment when he found an absence of reading material discussing his favorite sector of the game. So Grønnemark decided to create his own.
His throw-in course was employed by local Superliga side Viborg FF, thus making Grønnemark football's first throw-in coach. His expertise has allowed him to become a freelance throw-in coach for some of the biggest clubs in the world, including Ajax, Atalanta, and even Liverpool.
"It’s like a corner or any other set piece, or passing," Grønnemark says of his approach to throw-ins. "It has to be precise. If it’s five meters too long or three meters too short, it’s not good enough.“
"A lot of the throw-ins are too high," he adds. "Making it easy for them to defend against or for the goalkeeper to catch them. I work on a long, hard, flat throw-in."
For Grønnemark, throwing long distances is not a result of size or strength, rather it is the product of technique. After the Dane joined Liverpool in 2018, he helped Andy Robertson gain eight meters on his throw-in distance, and he now considers Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold two of the best throwers in the game.
At Liverpool, a long throw might not mean launching a 30-yard heave into the penalty area, instead, being able to launch the ball farther increases the options for the thrower. This could be using a quick throw to put an attacker in behind the defense or picking out an open midfielder near the center of the pitch.
An increased throw-in radius helps Liverpool keep possession from these restarts — which is manager Jurgen Klopp's biggest focus. In Grønnemark's first season in Merseyside, Liverpool maintained the ball on 68 percent of its throw-ins, versus just 45 percent from the previous year.
"Almost all teams in the world — Champions League, Premier League, Bundesliga and so on — either have no throw-in strategy, or a really bad one, or a really simple one," Grønnemark says. "Many teams just choose to throw it down the line and that’s absolutely the worst thing you can do. Coaches all over the world are lacking knowledge in throw-ins and there’s a real need for improvement in football."
While teams take 30-50 throw-ins in any given match, players rarely practice these plays and teams lack a cohesive throw-in strategy — making the throw-in an untapped part of the game. Often it has been lesser clubs focusing on the throw-in, hoping to gain an edge in an area neglected by title contenders.
For underdog sides starved of possession, the long throw-in opportunities not only provide a rare scoring opportunity, but every second that the ball is out of play is another interval that the opponent doesn't have the ball (and, therefore, can't score on you).
These long breaks in play spent sending the burly center backs forward — while taking a lifetime to dry the ball with a conveniently placed pitch-side towel — have often aggravated coaches.
Some managers are even upset that other teams have been successful using their hands in a sport meant for feet: "It is a little bit of an unfair advantage," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger once said of the line-drive launches of Stoke's Rory Delap. "He is using a strength that is usually not a strength in football."
The former Gunners gaffer even went as far as to ask the FA to ban the throw-in, a product of his teams' struggles against more direct sides (Wenger lost four straight to Allardyce's Bolton in 2005-06 and lost five of eight road matches to Pulis' Stoke City from 2008-14).
Despite these protests, the long throw is still as much of a weapon as it was 20 or 40 years ago — there is simply more thought behind today's throws.
The English second-tier is well-versed in the art of the long throw, yet Darnell Furlong and West Bromwich Albion have used the tactic to great effect in the Championship this season. The Baggies have the third-lowest pass-completion percentage in the league yet sit fifth thanks to their set-piece prowess.
In an early-season fixture against Sheffield United, the Baggies scored two of their four goals via Furlong flings and had another goal from a long throw called back due to offside. West Brom managed all of this despite just 34 percent possession.
"For a club who have had both Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce as their manager in the recent past," The Athletic's Gregg Evans wrote," it’s ironic that only now, under the guidance of summer appointee Valerien Ismael, are they starting to see such joy from such a direct approach to attacking football that is typically deemed old-fashioned and dull."
Ismael also employed the long throw-in last season at Barnsley, using 6 feet 2 inches tall and 220-pound American striker Daryl Dike as the target man (and then recently signing him at West Brom).
On the southern half of the continent, another American star — Weston McKennie — has been showing off his shoulder dexterity, employing a questionable throw-in technique that likely resembled a two-handed version of William Gunn's tosses for England all those years ago.
The Texans' throw-ins may be controversial, but doesn't that epitomize the ethos of the long throw? How legal are the towels that conveniently appear when the home fullback looks to launch the ball into the opposition penalty area (and disappears during the opponent's throws)? Is the center back able to box out the goalkeeper when the ball is in the air? Can you take a throw-in 10 yards up the field from where the ball went out?
The long throw operates in the margins both of the pitch and the rule book as the team looks to gain a small advantage over the opponent. In the end, the long throw is simply about earning that extra shot on goal.
Think of a soccer game as a series of coin flips (idea from Andreas Heuer's 2012 paper: "Towards the perfect prediction of soccer matches").
The conversion rate is the same for both sides, with three heads in a row equaling a goal (representing the average rate of one in eight shots resulting in a goal), but the number of attempts is fixed at the beginning of the match based on a club's wages (which roughly equates to talent), fitness and form, as well as the location of the match and other gameday factors.
A club like Manchester City might get 27 hypothetical flips while their opponent Burnley would be lucky to have eight.
Getting a shot from a long throw-in is like stealing an extra coin flip. Teams average seven throw-ins in the opposition third per game; assuming the rate of shots per corner (about one shot per eight corners) is the same for long throws (admittedly, a bit favorable), that equates to one extra shot per seven long throws and an extra goal every eight games.
During the 2008-09 Premier League campaign, Stoke City — led by the powerful arms of Rory Delap — created 53 shots and scored eight goals from long throws (per StatsBomb). While a shot and a half per game and a goal every five matches is certainly an outlier, this aptitude speaks to Grønnemark's message of preparation, of exploiting an underdeveloped part of the game.
According to Ted Knutson at StatsBomb: "Most clubs average around 0.3 goals a game off set pieces. Elite clubs can push this number up to 0.75 or 0.80 goals from set pieces alone. What is the value of adding 15-20 goals a season to your club without having to pay the transfer fee or wages of a 15-20 goal a season striker, which in the modern day is likely to cost 100M all-in?"
The newly-promoted Potters finished 12th that season while having the fourth-lowest wage bill in the division. Stoke's top six goal-scorers cost just under $12 million total, with leading scorer Ricardo Fuller (11 goals), joining for $2 million.
This year, the club with the lowest wages in the EPL has made a similar impact on English football.
Unlike many newly-promoted squads in recent years, Brentford elected not to undergo a full-squad overhaul after gaining entrance to the Premier League in 2021 — purchasing only three players permanently. The London-based club preserved a squad that led the Championship in goals scored (79) and goals from open play (54).
Manager Thomas Frank's possession-based side employed an abundance of creative players supporting record-setting frontman Ivan Toney (set Championship record with 31 goals) en route to EPL promotion.
The Premier League was always going to be a challenge, but the club's continental style of football mitigated fears of relegation.
One of these assumptions has proved to be true: the Bees will likely avoid relegation, as they currently sit in 14th place, eight points above the relegation zone. Yet the Bees pivoted away from their possession football and have turned to a more direct style of play in the EPL.
This surprising shift was immediately evident during the club's Premier League opener against Arsenal.
Holding a 1-0 lead with 20 minutes left, Brentford defender Mads Bech Sørensen launched a long throw into the penalty area. Arsenal keeper Bernd Leno, pinned by Bees center half Pontus Jansson, was unable to get to the ball, which bounced inside the six and over the head of a defender, where it was met by the firm forehead of Christian Nörgaard and smashed into the goal.
The hosts' red and white striped kits harkened memories of Stoke City's penalty area deluges during the Delap era, save for the fact that Brentford's goals had a distinctly Danish flavor — a Dane on the throw, a Dane with the goal, and a Dane behind the coaching that made it possible.
Famous throw-in instructor Thomas Grønnemark worked with Sørensen back in Denmark at AC Horsens and during the defender's first season with Brentford in 2017. A prolific long-thrower even before the arrival of the Danish specialist, Sørensen added another 6.5 yards to his throw-in distance, which can now reach 44.6 yards and covers almost 2,000 square yards of the pitch.
"That is extreme, ridiculously far," Grønnemark said, "It's the longest I've ever seen in the 5,000 players or so that I've coached."
"You can at least double your possibility for dangerous set-pieces if you have a world-class throw-in taker," Grønnemark added.
Brentford was able to make this shift because it already had the tools in place for successful direct football — namely a pair of aerial savants in Ivan Toney and center back Ethan Pinnock.
Both players ranked in the 97th percentile or better amongst Championship players last year for aerial duels contested, and this year they have taken their aerial dominance to the Premier League — ranking first and second in the EPL in aerial duels won.
When asked about the Stoke City comparisons, Brentford manager Thomas Frank responded: "I hope we're going to play a few more passes."
Still, the Dane acknowledges the importance of the long throw and the variety it brings to the Bees' attack. "For me, it's not one or the other. It's both. I hugely respect teams that are strong on set-pieces or long throws. We will try to do both, to build up from the back sometimes, but also go more direct sometimes," Frank said.
Frank summarized the modern interpretation of the long throw better than anybody: neither a gimmick nor a prevailing strategy, the long throw is a necessary weapon to have.
This flexibility carries over to every facet of the game. Possession football is great, but if the other team presses high, you must be able to send the ball long and have your attackers either chase over the top or hold up the play (or at least, win the second ball).
Both long balls and long throws open up the pitch and offer an auxiliary option when short passes are not working. With the high level of tactical astuteness among modern managers, adaptability is a requirement for success on the pitch.
Yet in 2022 the throw-in is still an understudied and undeveloped facet of the game.
Throw-in stats are nearly impossible to find, as even FBref, which has the most in-depth free stats of any soccer website, only shows the number of throw-ins taken by players in "Big 5" European Leagues — nothing on completion percentage, distance, or contribution to goals or attacking opportunities (and good luck finding throw-in stats elsewhere).
Analysis of the effectiveness of the long throw is equally as scarce and inconclusive.
"While the wonderful Delap style throw-ins are probably still the most effective at creating shots directly," Jonny Whitmore, a senior analyst at Stats Perform said, citing a 2020 study by analyst David Quartley. "The value of retaining possession is higher in recent seasons."
Another study, recently posted on Twitter by sports stats guru @markrstats, found just the opposite. In the final third, long throws were more effective than short throws at creating expected goals (xG) within three, ten and 20 actions after the throw.
Long throw-ins straight into the penalty box are more efficient than short passesResults based on xG of shots generated by team or opponent within next 3/10/20 actions after throw-in attempt (made in final third) pic.twitter.com/XOWOxBI4mi
— Mark (@markrstats) January 7, 2022
Long throw-ins created three times as many expected goals versus short throws within three actions following the ball re-entering the field of play, and at 20 actions, teams earn a full xG once every 53 throws for long throws, versus once every 77 for short throws.
Markrstats also highlighted another key assertion: no European top-flight team attempts more long-throws into the penalty area than Brentford and no club gains more xG from these throws.
Additional graph shows how often European clubs attempt long throw-ins and the outcome (xGD10)Brentford - positive, many long throw-ins
Barcelona - positive, close to zero long throw-ins
Bayern - what? I guess negative result caused by their vulnerability to counter-attacks? pic.twitter.com/rVuwdD2dwG
— Mark (@markrstats) January 7, 2022
Brentford averages 0.95 shots per game from throw-ins, while every other EPL team combined puts up 1.09 shots per game from throws (per @TiagoEstv on Twitter). Brentford also gains 0.09 xG per game from throw-ins, versus 0.12 xG combined from every other EPL club.
The Bees have exploited the value of the long throw in a way that few other teams have. This is nothing new for a club that has been at the forefront of footballing innovation, using the "Moneyball" strategy popularized in baseball to earn a pair of promotions through minimal spending.
The rest of the soccer world still lags behind, but occasionally there are glimpses of teams beginning to understand the relevance of the hand-oriented restart.
A recent LaLiga match between Cadiz (aka the Spanish Burnley) and Espanyol encapsulated the importance of using throw-ins as an attacking weapon, as three of the four goals in the match began with smart long throws (full highlights available here).
Cadiz's first goal started with what we might not think of as a traditional long throw — as it was played horizontally in the midfield and not into the penalty area, but it still meets the threshold in terms of length.
The 20-yard throw near the halfway line was complete to an open midfielder who then switched the play to the opposite fullback. Two passes and a few dribbles later, the Cadiz right back sent in a dangerous cross. Espanyol was unable to clear, and Cadiz striker Alvaro Negredo poked home the equalizer.
The final two goals of the match though were enough to make even Grønnemark blush. After Espanyol poked the ball out of bounds, Negredo quickly found teammate Iván Alejo making a run in behind the defense. The throw skipped past a pair of Espanyol defenders — both of whom were out of position — and Alejo was able to slot the ball home.
Shortly after, Espanyol returned the favor. A desperate clearance from Cadiz sent the ball out of play with seconds remaining in injury time. The Espanyol player took the throw quickly — doing so ten yards further forward from where the ball exited the playing area.
With his leg illegally raised when he released the ball, he found teammate Sergi Darder, who had found space behind the defense. Darder crossed to the far post, where Raúl de Tomás volleyed home the equalizer for the visitors.
It was a long throw masterclass, combining the three pillars of Grønnemark's throw-in program — long, fast and clever — to create a trio of goals.
There were multiple rules violations on the equalizer, but isn't that what the long throw is all about? Pushing the limits of what is allowed to gain an advantage, operating in the margins of the pitch and the rule book.
Football teams are finally realizing the value of the long throw-in, learning to better execute traditional long throws into the penalty area while also recognizing the significance of an increased throw-in radius outside of the final third.
This exploitation is still limited, but soon throw-in coaches will be the norm and throw-in strategies will be ubiquitous in the game. Until then, we can wait in anticipation of an art form that is being perfected.