Should We Get Rid of Throw-Ins in Football?


In December 2009 Arsene Wenger suggested scrapping
throw-ins. The Frenchman argued that implementing ‘kick-ins’ to restart play would significantly
speed up the game. Wenger was not a reliable witness. The previous
month his Arsenal side lost 2-1 at Stoke City with both Potters’ goals coming from Rory
Delap’s trademark long throw. That season it
yielded a Premier League-high eight goals and led to 53 shots. Clearly still irked, Wenger suggested outlawing
throw-ins, claiming that long-throw specialists boasted “An unfair and unusual
strength in football because their hands can effectively kick the ball.” Wenger’s view was largely taken with a pinch
of salt, but former England striker Gary Lineker also threw his support behind banning throw-ins,
but for different reasons. “It’s called football” Lineker said.
“What’s the point of throw-ins? It takes ages. Just put it down and knock it in.” The average Premier League game has 47 throw-ins
and Lineker was right to point out they slow down football, especially in England’s top-flight,
where a single ball is used. The average Premier League match sees just
58 percent of action. A standard game lasts for 96 minutes and 24 seconds including injury
time, but the ball is only in play for 55 minutes and 36 seconds and, most likely, that
number will likely drop further with the introduction of Video Assistant Referees this season. The ritual of taking of throw – which can
involve handing off or drying the ball – eats up around eight minutes per match and is the
second lengthiest cumulative stoppage behind free-kicks. Goal kicks, corners, injuries
and substitutions also run down a significant portion of the clock. The International Football Association Board
(or IFAB as its known) could follow the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) lead and
put a shot clock on throw-ins to ensure they are taken quicker or simply ban longer run
ups. An even simpler fix would be to introduce the multiball system, which is already employed
in the Champions League and has sped up throw ins by almost one minute per game. But the multiball system isn’t always faster
or fairer. In 2009, Brendan Rodgers’ Reading were frequently labelled cheats for allegedly
instructing ballboys to delay returning opponents the ball in order to avoid facing quick throws.
Former Queens Park Rangers boss Ian Holloway also accused Reading
of sending their own players to fetch the ball in order to time waste late in games. Tweaking throw-in rules or formats would only
be worthwhile if time was actually saved. The goal is to prevent scenarios like last
season, when 8 minutes and 15 seconds of Cardiff City’s 2-1 home loss to Burnley was spent
waiting for Sean Morrison to take throw-ins for the Welsh side at an average of 24.75
seconds each time. Unsurprisingly, the Premier League’s most
sluggish throw-in takers are predominantly long-throw specialists. The Premier League’s
slowest throw-in takers are Leicester City’s Christian
Fuchs, former Cardiff midfielder Aron Gunnarsson and Wenger’s arch-nemesis Delap. Delap was notorious for sometimes having more
touches with his hands than feet in matches. In a stalemate at Wolves in 2010, for instance,
he took 27 throws and attempted just 16 passes. Throw-ins in the final third or when under
significant pressure also eat up more time, but still tend to be completed within 15 seconds.
And the direction of throw also affects timings. When the ball travels forwards it often moves
into more congested areas making the delivery more complex and time-consuming. There is no denying replacing throw-ins with
kick-ins would significantly change the fabric of football – probably creating a more direct
game – but it wouldn’t necessarily speed things up. Time-wise, kick-ins would really
be no different to free-kicks, which already occupy the biggest portion of the clock. This
is partly down to players running up from the back or forming walls as well as debating
tactics when within shooting or crossing distance. Lineker probably felt a quick, short kick-in
would prove noticeably faster, especially in non-threatening areas of the pitch. But
this would only be true if the ball was prevented from leaving the ground, thus reducing potential
distance covered and – with a weakened threat as a consequence – would render the throw-in
more of a formality than a weapon. In the absence of making ‘elevated’ re-starts
illegal. it’s more likely players would hoof the ball long when stuck in their own
half, much like a goal-kick, and straight into the box when close to goal.
There might be less pressure, though, because players would remain more spaced out. Defenders
clearly wouldn’t stay as close to the throw-in taker or touchline knowing the ball could
(and surely would) travel considerably further with each restart. Analysis of all Premier League free-kicks
taken last season within five-yards of the touchline shows them being slower than throw-ins
by over two minutes per match. So axing throws because too many are delivered at a tortoise-like
pace isn’t actually helpful if kick-ins would take even longer. Of course, arguing football is simply not
a game for hands is an entirely different matter and something every goalkeeper would
fervently disagree with. Kick-ins were, however, introduced to futsal
in 2006. They must be taken within four seconds – so speed is clearly not an issue – but
are quite controversial because across many domestic leagues they have resulted in a decline
in goals. In Spain, home of Europe’s top international team, the switch saw a drop
in average goals-per-game from 8 to 7. Since futsal is played on a smaller pitch,
it is logical to make a link between throw-ins and goals, but in regular football the throw-in-to-goal
ratio is not overly important. Aside from attacking long throws, it is redundant to
judge how many throw-ins lead to goals, or scoring opportunities, given the variables
and time between taking one and any form of goalmouth action. Instead, a successful throw-in is really just
one where possession is retained and the real skill is to win the ball under pressure. The
Premier League average for retained possession under pressure is, surprisingly, just 48.6
percent making it the worst league in this category across Europe’s big-five leagues,
who hardly boast glowing stats either. This is in part a compliment to the pressing
game many Premier League teams play. You could argue that English clubs actually put more
thought and effort into defending a throw than taking one. Yet the Premier League does
also boast, statistically speaking, Europe’s second-best team at throw-ins. Liverpool retained
possession from throws under pressure almost 70 percent of the time last season with only
two-time Danish champions FC Midtjylland ahead of them in this department. It is no coincidence that both clubs have
the same dedicated throw-in coach, Thomas Gronnemark, who also holds the world record
for the longest ever throw-in at 51.33 metres. The Dane’s appointment last summer as part
of Jurgen Klopp’s coaching staff was ridiculed in some quarters. Former Everton striker Andy
Gray jibed he would love to apply to become Klopp’s kick-off coach. Even 42-year-old Gronnemark admits has the
“weirdest job in the world” but his impact at Anfield has been nothing short of astonishing
in such a short space of time. The season before he joined, Liverpool retained
possession from throw-ins under pressure less than half the time [and were the third-worst
side in the Premier League in this category behind only Swansea City and Huddersfield
Town. They also allowed opposing sides to win the
ball at an above-average rate of 51.8 percent. Under Gronnemark’s tutorage, Liverpool’s
added time in possession through winning more throws hasn’t necessarily led directly to
extra points, since only 55.3 percent of Premier League matches are won by the team who keeps
more of the ball. But in the Champions League, possession is seemingly more significant,
so balls won from throw-ins are more valuable. The stats show the team with more of it wins
two-thirds of the time [66.4%]. But, naturally, there are some very notable
exceptions. Liverpool actually beat Spurs [2-0] in last season’s final in Madrid with
just 35 percent of the ball. Ironically Gronnemark doesn’t overly focus
on long throw-ins despite being his personal forte. Left-back Andy Robertson has nonetheless
improved his throwing distance from 19 to 30-metres, while defender Joe Gomez surprised
Liverpool fans with a long-throw assist for England last November in a Nations League
win over Croatia – a weapon fine-tuned at Liverpool but rarely used at Anfield. Gronnemark instead prefers to focus on what
he terms fast and clever throws. These tend to be shorter. Clever throws can involve players
switching sides to deliver the ball or unexpected movement and trajectories – the more creative
(and often flatter) the better. Fast throws, meanwhile, are important because
they don’t allow defending teams to take shape. The optimal time to take one is about
five seconds after the ball goes out of play. When thrown less than 15-metres the overall
chances of retaining possession are close to 70 percent. This drops below 50 percent
once 10 seconds have elapsed. What all this shows is throws shouldn’t
be thrown out. They have incredible potential that’s being virtually ignored by practically
every football team. There are clearly ways to speed up the delivery process, but instead
of bemoaning the time they take, it might be better for
coaches to focus on a more scientific way to retain possession. If teams simply won
the ball more often, the eight minutes throw-ins take per match might not be such a deadweight
loss.

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