A throw-in coach? Are marginal gains crucial or a quest for pointless perfectionism?

On learning that Jurgen Klopp had employed a throw-in coach, Sky’s former pundit Andy Gray was typically Jurassic and sarcastic in response: “I know how you can take advantage of a situation, throw it to one of your own players.”

Perhaps the straight-shooting Scot’s stance was typical of what Gareth Southgate termed the “island mentality” – that idea that Britain knows best and the rest of the world can do one. After all, Sir Alf Ramsey won a World Cup with just two assistants next to him. Nowadays there’s a bus load of different experts chomping away at all sorts of bits and pieces. As Klopp stated: “You can’t have too many specialists”

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The arrival of super coaches, the advent of multiple specialisms and the likes of Steve Peters have slowly chiselled away at the resistance to how input can affect output. We are constantly told that businesses, organisations and individuals need to look at optimisation of the mindset.

When Great Britain ruled the velodrome at London 2012 to the tune of eight gold medals, team director David Brailsford was asked about those marginal gains that had become the focal point for the success of British cycling.

Brailsford left no stone unturned in his quest “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

So the search began for improvements in tiny areas that were generally overlooked by almost everyone else: discovering the pillow that offered the best sleep and taking it on tour; testing for the most effective type of massage gel; and even teaching riders the best way to wash their hands to avoid infection. It was miniscule, but it was portrayed as a must when all those seemingly insignificant extras were rolled out over a longer period.

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Jurgen Klopp got some stick for appointing a throw-in specialist

Even if taken at face value as a concept, the aggregation of these factors doesn’t necessarily translate to the football pitch. In The Numbers Game, Chris Anderson and David Sally concluded that “football is a coin-toss game”.

In their analysis of elite German and English leagues, it was found that chance played a role in over half of all the Bundesliga games and 50 per cent of the Premier League games. According to the Luck Index last season, Liverpool were the least fortunate team in the Premier League in 2017/18, losing 12 points due to perceived ‘wrong’ decisions.  Not much to be done there apart from sending referees on a marginal penalty call course……

Pep Guardiola, the grandmaster of detail, is a man so obsessed he probably spends sleepless nights pondering the percentage of chance. He even urged his players to eat a turkey substitute called Tofurkey at Christmas. That might have ruffled a few feathers in the squad, but the Man City juggernaut was a soaraway bird by New Year.

However, in August’s 1-1 draw at Wolves, there were several foul throws by the maddeningly talented Benjamin Mendy. At one point, Mendy threw the ball into play while his right foot clearly crossed the white line at the side of the pitch. By the time he did let go of it, his other foot was off the ground. Mendy has done many things that have made Guardiola want to “kill” him and that was one of them.

On its own, a foul throw may not amount to much, but it added to a feeling that City were a little loose with the processes in dropping their first points of the season at Molineux.

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Strangely enough, then, Liverpool’s latest attempt to gain a tiny advantage may have some topical merit. On first impressions, it seems Klopp’s team have come over all Ryan Delap in employing someone who holds the world record for a long throw, but the man himself, Thomas Gronnemark, is adamant: “”If you can make a long throw-in precise and flat, together with some tactical aspects, then it’s much easier to score.” Well, we did see Joe Gomez throw it straight into Kasper Schmeichel’s hands last Saturday.

Southgate has been the most recent master of the art of squeezing the last drop of juice from the driest information. Take the simulation of the nerve-racking walk from the halfway line in a penalty shoot-out.  20 years before, Glenn Hoddle insisted that training couldn’t replicate the pressure. Southgate’s mastery of the minutiae showed evidence to the contrary against Colombia. Even Jordan Pickford’s water bottle did not escape analysis of the opposition’s preferences.

Maybe Gary Lineker summed it up best: “Don’t understand the sniping at Klopp’s appointment of a throw-in coach. If it brings about one extra goal, an extra point or two, it could make all the difference to a season. It’s the little things….” Indeed, it is, Gary. Welcome to the world where a point here or there may be down to the softest pillow in town.

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