It occurs to you, probably in the middle of some Segunda match babbling meekly to a 1-1 close, that it’s a miracle anybody plays soccer well. The game is hostile to success—crowd-thrilling success, anyway—because the attack and defense are set up like filmmaker and critic. One side has to write the script, secure funding, hire the actors, find the costumes, shoot the thing, and sleep in an edit bay for three months, and the other has to show up to the theater and muse. It’s much easier to destroy than create, for one solid defensive read to undo eight skillful passes. Way more often than not, a spell of possession ends with a clearance or an overhit pass sad tuba sailing over its target.
It’s puzzling that this is the sport, more than any other, you’re supposed to play with panache. A baseball is small enough to throw with three fingers, and it has little red grips stitched onto it. You might expect that talented pitchers can put it where they want to, perhaps with pompadour-exploding spin. Soccer treats humankind’s signature evolutionary advantage like a mistake—renders its athletes artificially clumsy—and yet it’s flush with romantics and zealots who insist that the game must be played with an eye toward beauty, in addition to not tripping over your own feet.
This is great. Sports are generally more fun when the participants have talent and daring in equal measure, and even when the daring outpaces the talent, that’s still pretty enjoyable to watch. The adventurous ones—Barcelona and Ajax, Quique Setién and Maurizio Sarri—expand our concept of the possible and occasionally smash up against it and get destroyed by a good counterattack. Paco Jémez’s Rayo Vallecano teams from a few years ago were consistently a mid-to-lower table side that tried to win every match 3-1. They didn’t do that very often, because Jémez was forever trying to teach loan players and castoffs how to play the ball out of defense with occasionally comic results, but they were at least reliably interesting to watch because they genuinely didn’t care if they lost by three goals. The point was to try to live up to an ideal and, the logic went, they would accomplish that enough times over the course of the calendar to keep themselves afloat. It worked for three seasons, and in the fourth they got relegated. It can be said about them, among other things, that they lived while they were alive.
The long throw is broadly understood as a barbarian tactic, antithetical to beautiful soccer. It’s an accidental element of the sport. Throw-ins were originally meant to increase the fluidity of the action rather than function as set pieces, but the formalizers of the game in the mid-19th century couldn’t anticipate the superior modern athlete, who can load his torso like a spring and hurl the ball all the way from the touchline to the penalty spot. In this way, the long throw feels like a subversion of the rules. You certainly can do it, but maybe you shouldn’t.
And that is the main problem with it, that a lot of the players who attempt it can just barely pull it off, usually sacrificing pace and accuracy in order to achieve the required distance. So the ball floats in the air, and while it comes down in an area you could technically call scoring position, there is invariably a pack of defenders and perhaps even the goalkeeper waiting directly under it. The best the attacking team can hope for in this situation is a scrum or some mishit defensive header that lands in the path of an attacker who doesn’t currently have four dudes directly between himself and the goal. This kind of long throw—the hopeful heave—feels cowardly because it looks a lot more productive than it actually is. It’s also the manager admitting that his team sucks at this whole “passing the ball around with their feet” exercise and trying, half-assedly, to create a different sport they might be able to succeed at.
Long throws don’t need to be this way. There have been, over the years, a handful of players who perform it with real artistry. Rory Delap, the former Irish international who played his best seasons at Stoke City in the late aughts, is the most famous example. When Delap got to Stoke, manager Tony Pulis helped him flatten out his throws, which he used as a genuine weapon when the ball went out of play near the opposing team’s box. If you watch some highlight clips of Delap’s throws, you notice that he’s whipping those things in like crosses. The faraway ones travel in a low frowny-face parabola and the ones he takes relatively close to goal are straight lines with little downward serifs at the end. And his teammates are making runs as if from a corner kick. Some of them are meant to be flicked on rather than scored directly; some are aimed at the middle of the six-yard box and others at the near post. It’s a tactically inventive and technically impressive way of engineering goals. It is, if not as high risk as asking Jorge Morcillo to play with composure on the ball, certainly daring.
Ultimately, the viability of the long throw, and the way we think about it, depends upon how it’s deployed. Does its use spawn from a searching ingenuity or simply a lack of other ideas? Is the player performing the maneuver actually any good at it? What’s being achieved: the creation of a scoring chance or just the dim phantom of one?
Last summer, Liverpool hired an internet famous throw-in coach, a delightfully goofy Danish guy named Thomas Grønnemark. Even Grønnemark admits that his contribution to the team is marginal. “If Liverpool score a goal or two from long throws that would be perfect for me,” he told the BBC upon his hiring. Grønnemark’s finest hour last year came, not during a Reds match, but in the UEFA Nations League when Liverpool defender Joe Gomez hurled one into the box that pinballed around and eventually resulted in a goal for Jesse Lingard. Understandably, Grønnemark got very excited about it on Twitter: he had made a difference.
Liverpool appreciated the Dane’s work and have retained the his services for another year. He met with the team in France during preseason training and did his thing (which also includes situational awareness training for short, quick throws in addition to the flashier long ones.). It says something that Jürgen Klopp, one of the most forward-thinking coaches in the sport, would consult with someone like Grønnemark, because Klopp obviously isn’t interested in relying on the long throw with any great regularity, given that he employs what’s probably the best attacking trio in the world at the moment—Salah, Mané, and Firmino are all capable of producing breathtakingly pretty interplay.
But it’s a nice trick to have in your back pocket. It’s easy to forget sometimes, because soccer talk is so larded with philosophy and aesthetic pretensions, that every aspect of the game is merely a tool for winning. The long throw doesn’t have to embody an ideology any more than the 4-3-3 or the false nine does. It’s something you can use, if you feel like the situation calls for it. That said, it would be disappointing if Liverpool started winging it into the box every chance they got. That’s some real Cardiff City stuff, unbefitting a European champion with so much else to offer.