Thomas Gronnemark and the Ever Evolving Jürgen Klopp
When it was announced towards the tail end of last season that Jurgen Klopp’s long-time deputy, Zeljko Buvac, would stand down from his position for the foreseeable future for “personal reasons” there was a disturbingly popular school of thought that this could have a detrimental effect on both Klopp and Liverpool. Many pointed to Liverpool’s lack of trophies after the club’s last world class manager, Rafael Benitez, parted ways with his assistant manager, the popular Pako Ayestaran, as justification for their glass house empty, moribund prediction for the Reds’ future. Despite Liverpool’s second-place finish, losing only twice in the league as they finished runners-up to one of the greatest Manchester United teams in their club’s history, in the 2008/2009 season with Sammy Lee stepping into the void left by Ayestaran as Benitez’ assistant, the narrative that Liverpool would greatly suffer as a consequence of Buvac’s absence gained a relatively significant traction.
The impact of Buvac on Klopp’s career as a manager cannot be understated. The Bosnian-Serb, whom Klopp described as the brains of Liverpool’s former coaching triumvirate of Klopp, Buvac and Krawietz, had been by Klopp’s side in all his coaching post; from Mainz to Borussia Dortmund and, finally, to Liverpool, all of which can be considered successful stints. As much as Buvac deserves massive credit for his contributions to the successes Klopp has enjoyed so far, it is disrespectful to the German to suggest that he has not learned and adapted himself throughout his seventeen years as a head coach/manager. An affable, life-loving, bundle of energy, Klopp is sometimes wrongly caricatured as nothing more than a glorified cheerleader, an assertion that is lightyears away from the reality. Klopp, who played similar styles of football at all three of the clubs he’s coached to date, has a set tactical identity that he subscribes to; the idea of gegenpressing or, in English, counter-pressing.
Gegenpressing has brought Klopp, in relative terms, a huge success. Getting Mainz, then a small provincial club, promoted to the Bundesliga was a massive coup for the young coach. He added more feathers to his cap at Borussia Dortmund where he took a young side to consecutive Bundesliga titles and a Champions League final with a budget which was smaller than the Premier League’s bottom club, QPR, in 2013. At Liverpool, although he is yet to hoist silverware, the job Klopp has done can only be described as excellent. Inheriting an unbalanced, mismatched and, frankly, a subpar squad who were floundering under the tutelage of Brendan Rodgers, the German immediately qualified for two finals, the League Cup, and Europa League, in his first season. Although both finals were ultimately unsuccessful endeavours for Liverpool, anyone who had watched the club in the previous season, 2014/2015 and the beginning months of 2015/2016, would confirm that the squad was a long way off winning something, to even come close can be seen as a relative success. Since then, Klopp has re-established Liverpool, after nine years in the wilderness, as a Champions League club with consecutive top-four finishes as well as a heartbreaking final defeat to Real Madrid in Kiev in May 2018.
With all the victories he has enjoyed in his career, it would be easy for Klopp to climb inside his tactical ivory tower and not adapt to the ever-changing world of football. However, the Black Forest native is always willing to evolve and improve and this can be seen in Liverpool’s hiring of specialist throw in coach, Thomas Gronnemark. The Dane, who has previously worked with Schalke 04 in Germany and FC Midtjylland, in Denmark, holds the auspicious record of the world’s longest throw in, with his best effort measured at a jaw-dropping 51.33 metres.
Now, it would seem like a strange juxtaposition on the surface of things, a progressive, footballing team like Liverpool using tactics famously deployed by tactical fossil Tony Pulis at Stoke City, but there could be significant value for Liverpool to improve their throw-ins.
To play against Liverpool and their well-orchestrated press must be a suffocating and horrible experience. Even Europe’s best ball possession and passing team, Manchester City, thrice found it extremely difficult last season and summarily fell to the Reds’ three times. With Liverpool’s harassing and haranguing front three of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and, in particular, Roberto Firmino, breathing down opposition players’ necks and ushering and shepherding them into pressing traps, as well as the invariably athletic midfield trio ably assisting them, it must be a massive strain on a players’ concentration to play Liverpool. Often, kicking the ball out for a throw-in would provide a respite to Liverpool’s opponents.
However, with Gronnemark now in situ, and Klopp and Andrew Robertson both going on record to commend the immediate improvements he’s made with the squad’s throw-ins, Liverpool will inflict even more psychological strain on opponents should they keep improving on the throw in a facet of their game. There’s also the effect that Liverpool being well rehearsed at set pieces could have on the raucous Anfield crowd. Something as previously innocuous as a throw-in could lift the crowd and, as seen on countless occasions during Liverpool’s many European odysseys, a buoyant Anfield can both panic opposition and limit Anfield.
Even one goal scored from a throw-in scenario would mean Gronnemark’s work has been a resounding success, as it would represent a big improvement. There’s also the element of teams being cognisant of Liverpool’s threat and adapting their tactics. This could manifest itself in teams committing even more men to defend Liverpool’s throw-ins and, thus, hampering their own counter-attacking prospects, pinning themselves in and inviting even more Liverpool pressure.
It may have raised eyebrows amongst many and whether Gronnemark will make a big impact on Liverpool obviously remains to be seen, but Klopp hiring the Dane is symbolic and shows that he is both adaptable and willing to learn further and these attributes will be key if Liverpool are to end their 28 year wait for an elusive league title.