Do highly paid Premier League players need a kicking coach? They insist they make a difference
When Danny Ings scored with a scissor kick on his home debut for Aston Villa two weeks ago, analysis of his effort sparked a debate that revealed a sharp divide on one aspect of modern coaching.
While Dean Smith paid tribute to Ings, the Villa manager was also quick to credit the work of his new set-piece coach Austin MacPhee, who had apparently worked on the long throw-in and flick-on that led to the goal.
In the Match of the Day studio, while admitting that this particular set-piece appeared not the most complex, Gary Lineker and Jermaine Jenas agreed that the recruitment of specialist coaches could only benefit a side seeking the marginal improvements crucial to success.
Dean Smith praised Austin MacPhee after Danny Ings’ goal for Aston Villa against Newcastle
MacPhee (above) is Villa’s new set-piece coach and designed the move from which Ings scored
Danny Murphy, however, said any good coach should be capable of preparing a good set-piece.
Further to that, with teams employing specialists in areas from ball-striking to throw-ins and now even substitutions, our columnist wondered what work it left for established coaching staff. He goes further in today’s Mail on Sunday, writing, ‘it smells like a box-ticking exercise’.
So is there a need for the specialists? Does a carefully schooled Premier League player really require advice on how to kick a football?
What can elite coaches learn about free-kicks that years of experience has not taught them? Well, quite a lot, if you were to listen to the arguments of the experts in question.
Take, for example, Thomas Gronnemark, the Danish throw-in coach who has trained Liverpool since 2018. ‘I worked with my first professional team in 2004,’ he says. ‘For the last 17 years I have been concentrating on throw-ins every day. No assistant coach has a chance of getting near this knowledge.
‘I’m not saying every team should have 10 specialist coaches. The best way to do it is to call in a specialist coach for one visit and see.
Brentford also used a long throw from Mads Bech Sorensen (right) to score against Arsenal
‘One comment on social media said, “We already have surgeons, do we then need a brain surgeon?” It’s true. Yes, a surgeon can do anything, but who would you prefer if you’re the one lying there? It’s just the way forward.’
Gronnemark played youth football to a high level before embarking on an unlikely sporting career in which he represented Denmark as a track sprinter before finding his way on to the national bobsleigh team.
Towards the end of his time as an athlete, he discovered an ability to perform unusually long throw-ins while playing a friendly game, which provided the spark for his current career.
Combining in-person training with video analysis, today he claims to increase the typical distance of a player’s throw-in by between five and 15metres.
Not only that but, according to research by Tifo Football, Gronnemark increased the percentage of throw-ins from which Liverpool retained possession after pressurised throw-ins from 45.4 per cent to 68.4 per cent in just one season, which at the time gave them the second-highest ratio in Europe behind Midtjylland.
Last season, meanwhile, Jurgen Klopp’s side ranked among the top four Premier League clubs for both accurate throw-ins and throw-ins that led to successful passages of play.
Throw-in specialist Thomas Gronnemark (right) is highly regarded by Jurgen Klopp
The Dane is now in his fourth season with the club after arriving from FC Midtjylland in 2018
They also had comfortably the highest number of quick throws. Gronnemark says a lot of his work goes unnoticed because it involves working on the subtleties of creating space when awarded an attacking throw-in and closing it down when defending one.
But as our graphic (below) should illustrate, two good examples of the impact of his contribution can be seen in winning goals for Liverpool against Wolves and Tottenham two seasons ago.
More recently, one of his former pupils, Mads Bech Sorenson, delivered the long throw-in that led to the second goal in Brentford’s 2-0 win over Arsenal in the opening game of the Premier League season. Gronnemark reports that Sorensen added 5.9m to his throw-in distance during their time together.
‘I work with about 30 different technical elements to a throw-in,’ he says. ‘Some players, for example, are standing still on the line. Some players have their feet too far away.
‘Some players have a bad run-in. Some don’t use their hips. There are just as many challenges as there are players.’ Gronnemark has found that his work with Liverpool has made clubs more receptive to the prospect of hiring him.
Bartek Sylwestrzak is a Polish ball-striking coach who has worked across Europe, taking in players in the top two divisions of English football. With the exception of a few clubs, he is surprised that they have not been more enthusiastic towards specialist coaches during his 11 years in the job.
‘Given that already nine years ago I was able to provide evidence of professional players’ improvement, including goals scored, I definitely expected more open-mindedness,’ he says.
‘And since ball-striking at the top level is as generally poor as it is, I would have expected a different approach. Overall, there has not been that much willingness to invest in this additional type of training.’
Armed with a degree in sports science and a masters in sports psychology, as well as personal analysis and ‘thousands of hours’ of his own practice, Sylwestrzak focuses on the art of shooting.
In breaking down each element of a shot, he might ask a player to adjust the position of the standing foot, the leg swing — an area as complex as a golf swing — and upper-body movement, as well as the angle and force with which the foot strikes the ball.
He worked with Brentford and coaches at Midtjylland. ‘John is a good example of a player with a well-developed topspin free-kick, which allows you to hit the ball hard over the wall and bring it down quickly,’ says Sylwestrzak.
‘This is the most effective technique to beat a wall but, even in the Premier League, there are only a couple of players who use it.’ Kevin De Bruyne is one of them. ‘He has a decent strike, but it could definitely be better.’
AFC Wimbledon have started to analyse their use of substitutions with a specialised coach
Wimbledon boss Mark Robinson (above) is hoping the role subs coach role can benefit his side
Ball-striking coach Bartek Sylwestrzak has stated his surprise more clubs are not open-minded
Sylwestrzak believes Premier League free-kicks have much scope for improvement. Twelve clubs failed to score directly from a free-kick last season, while only three — Southampton, Arsenal and Leeds — did so more than once in the league.
The most talented players hardly fare better. For all Cristiano Ronaldo’s talent and persistence with free-kicks, his success rate is low. In the past five league seasons, he has converted only two of 82 attempts. Sylwestrzak says: ‘He has been unable to solve technical problems in his swing. He keeps repeating the same errors.
‘He could have beaten all the records for scoring from free-kicks. But even a player of that technical and physical potential will not improve without technical input or, at best, his progress will be limited. It’s hard to improve without knowing what to do.’
Perhaps the most striking appointments have been Wimbledon’s recruitment of a restarts coach and the addition of a substitutions specialist.
To his knowledge, Gronnemark remains the only specialist throw-in coach. Villa’s new recruit MacPhee is not the only set-piece coach. Mads Buttgereit, another who cut his teeth at Midtjylland, recently landed the role with Germany. Elsewhere, Brentford employ a consultant sleep coach.
Smith says: ‘People question bringing specialist coaches in but they analyse everything to do with the opposition and your own team. They add data and you wouldn’t know where to look for it.
‘You need to do the basics first. But any little marginal gains you can grab… If we had improved our set-pieces by just three per cent, that would have put us in the top eight last season. That adds to the value of the club. Moving up three or four places is worth millions.’
He cites Cristiano Ronaldo and Kevin de Bruyne as players who could benefit from his work