Throw-ins, ballstriking, neuroscience: How coaching evolves


They work in the shadows, away from prying eyes. They’re the unseen army Premier League clubs are enlisting in pursuit of glory: the analysts, statisticians, scientists and … surfers? Bobsledders?

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Welcome to the world of the specialist coaches. These high-performance experts have a unique understanding of their field, and tap away on an iPad before whispering classified information into the manager’s ear. They’re not your traditional football coaches, all bluster, banter and bold tattoos. They’re data nerds, and proud of it. They’re the guys you see in the dugout with initials on their club tracksuit that you can’t connect to a name.

Who’s that standing next to Mikel Arteta? That would be Nicolas Jover — the set-piece coach who joined Arsenal from Manchester City in July 2021 and helped them to score 16 dead-ball goals last season, the third-highest in the league and 10 more than they managed in 2020-21. The potency has continued this season with Arsenal netting five from dead-ball situations as of Sept. 17, a total bettered only by Tottenham Hotspur (six).

Arteta’s much-improved Gunners are one of several Premier League clubs, including Spurs, Manchester City and Brentford, to task a set-piece coach with improving efficiency in both boxes. These experts once worked in shadowy analysis rooms, out of sight from fans, but detailed postmatch breakdowns are bringing their work into the light.

Liverpool have invested in specialist coaching to help stay apace with Pep Guardiola’s winning machine at Man City. In 2018, former bobsledder Thomas Gronnemark was brought in from Brentford to maximise their efficiency; the club went from 18th in throw-in possession under pressure in 2017-18 to 1st in 2018-19, and scored 14 of the 85 goals in their 2019-20 title-winning season from such situations.

Meet Liverpool’s secret weapon: Thomas Gronnemark

Before the beginning of that title-winning campaign, Klopp invited fellow German, Sebastian Steudtner to Liverpool’s preseason training camp after watching a documentary about the world-renowned high-wave surfer. Steudtner worked with the players on holding their breath underwater with the aim of retaining focus and calm under pressure. The players were able to fully submerge themselves for 10 to 90 seconds when he arrived. By the end of the session, Mohamed Salah and Dejan Lovren were approaching the four-minute mark. The squad was able to draw on the lessons learned from this specialised training during the season as they registered 14 wins by a one-goal margin, and came back for victories against Newcastle United, Tottenham and Aston Villa after falling behind.

Players are appreciative, too. Former Arsenal defender Calum Chambers, for instance, sought out Jover when celebrating after he converted a corner with his first touch against Leeds United in last season’s Carabao Cup. In August, Tottenham’s Dejan Kulusevski said their set-piece coach, Gianni Vio, deserved a pay rise after Harry Kane scored from a corner for the second consecutive game to earn Spurs a 1-0 win over Wolves.

The most progressive clubs, however, don’t only concentrate on set pieces — they’re employing a range of specialists. The minutiae of throw-ins, ballstriking and neuroscience are being assessed and reshaped into an accessible curriculum for teams and players to leverage a marginal gain.


How Brentford led the way

Most football clubs can’t outspend their rivals, and must look elsewhere to find an edge that enhances what they already have. In an increasingly unbalanced financial landscape, specialist coaches have enabled clubs to level the playing field, at least in some respects; just look at Brentford.

In 2012, Matthew Benham, a former derivatives manager and lifelong Brentford fan, bought the club and saved them from extinction before helping to guide them from League One into the Premier League within nine years.

Benham hired high-performance consultant Rasmus Ankersen as co-director of football alongside Phil Giles, with StatsBomb co-founder Ted Knutson as head of player analytics. Data-driven recruitment and the use of specialist coaches were two key components of Benham’s strategy for both Brentford and his other club, FC Midtjylland of Denmark, who he purchased in 2014.

Before moving on to Tottenham, Vio had joined Brentford from AC Milan in the summer of 2015. He was at Brentford with throw-in guru Gronnemark and ball-striking coach Bartek Sylwestrzak. Their job titles attracted sneers from traditionalists, until their results were undeniable. All three also worked with Midtjylland, who became Danish champions for the first time in 2014-15 and, significantly, 25 of their 65 goals were scored via set pieces thanks to work from assistant coach Brian Priske.

“We had huge success in that first season [at Midtjylland], but looking back, we had all the right players in the building,” Benham told ESPN. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be easy,’ but we soon realised it’s not as simple as throwing a load of specialists together. It took us a few years to get it right.”

After Brentford enjoyed an initial upturn during the 2015-16 campaign, finishing fourth in the Championship set-piece table, they weren’t in the top third again — though were in the top half in four consecutive seasons. But the impact since their 2021 promotion to the Premier League has been far more telling, with tactical statistician Bernardo Cueva, who arrived from CD Guadalajara in 2020, curating their set-piece playbook. Only Arsenal, Liverpool and Man City, all of whom have their own dead-ball masterminds — Jover, Dr Niklas Hausler and Carlos Vicens respectively — scored more goals from such situations last season. In 2022-23 so far, Brentford have scored four set-piece goals, the fifth-most in the division, two goals behind Tottenham.

“The Premier League has focused everyone’s minds, because we could pass teams off the pitch in the Championship,” Benham says. “In the Premier League, you don’t have the ball that much.”

The media narrative has painted Brentford as pioneers, but Benham insists it’s “less sexy” and “thinking outside the box,” with their success owing more to “efficiency” rather than “innovation.”

Benham is being modest. Forward-thinking clubs outside of the Premier League may lay claim to the trendsetters tag, but in England, Brentford led the way. Gronnemark is now at Liverpool; as well as moving to Tottenham this summer, Vio was with the Italy national team when they won Euro 2020; Andreas Georgson (set-piece coach) moved on to Arsenal and is now sporting director at Malmo; Jover left Brentford to replace Georgson at Arsenal; Mads Buttergeit (coach at Midtjylland) worked with the senior Denmark squad at Euro 2020 and is now with Germany.


Teaching players how to kick a ball

One detail very few clubs work on is ballstriking. Now, we know what you’re thinking: why would an elite footballer need to learn anything about kicking a football? It’s about the effect you’re trying to put on the ball, be it top spin or knuckleball, or any other variation.

Step forward Sylwestrzak. As well as working with individuals on hitting direct free kicks, Sylwestrzak would collaborate with the set-piece coaches at Brentford and Midtjylland. His job was to teach players how to put the ball on a plate for a teammate.

“At first-team level, technical improvement is almost never on the agenda,” Sylwestrzak, who has also worked for Belgian club Gent, explained to ESPN. “Most people at clubs think about next Saturday and the next three points. Every player, even the very best in the world, would benefit from spending more time on perfecting football’s most fundamental of skills.”

Listening to Sylwestrzak, it’s clear this isn’t so much a job as an obsession that took hold of his life and manifested into a career. Where we see James Ward-Prowse whipping a trademark free kick into the top corner, Sylwestrzak sees an angle and rhythm of approach, upper body coordination, standing foot placement, kicking foot position, swing shape, ball speed, spin and trajectory — the whole shot broken down into its every element.



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