On Throw-Ins

Why are soccer players so bad at throw-ins? In any given soccer match the rate of throw-in failure is shockingly high. The problems come in three general varieties.

Excess of ambition. A teammate stands unmarked five yards from the thrower-in, so that nothing would be easier than to toss the ball at his feet, receive a one-touch return, and then construct a possession. But no. The ambitious thrower-in scorns so simple a solution. He spies, right at or just beyond the range of his throwing prowess, another teammate surrounded by three opposing players. Yes, that’s the ticket. He heaves the ball in that direction and the other team gratefully takes possession. 

General lassitude. The thrower-in may be ready to do something sensible, but his teammates don’t give him a chance. They just stand around, usually too far away for him to throw the ball their way, keeping company with their markers. The thrower-in takes one hand off the ball to point them towards open spaces. Their chief response to this is to stare at him. After a few nervous moments one or two of them may slide an ineffectual yard this way or that. Eventually the ball gets tossed semi-randomly onto the pitch and the other team gratefully takes possession. 

Paralysis by analysis. An extreme form of the hesitation induced by either of the prior circumstances. Sometimes the thrower-in just can’t make a decision, either because of his own ambition or his teammates’ lassitude or, in some few cases, a deep-seated psychic disability, possibly induced by early experiences in candy stores. Symptoms here include spasmodic and incomprehensible gestures with one hand, as the other clutches the ball; swift, panicky twisting of the neck, accompanied by bulging eyes; and a crab-like creeping up the pitch (the most common variation on which resembles a beginner’s attempt to tango). Eventually the ball gets tossed semi-randomly onto the pitch etc. etc. 

What’s especially curious to me about this ineptitude is that it varies little according to the general level of competition. Premier League throw-ins aren’t all that different than Park District throw-ins, which shouldn’t be possible. And no one seems to be troubled by failure: when a player ignores a teammate right next to him and lauches the ball into a gaggle of distant opponents, the manager just looks on impassively. Among everyone involved there seems to be a settled expectation that a throw-in will result in the other team getting the ball, which perhaps explains why no one tries to get open: Might as well get ready to run back and defend. A vicious circle. 

Perhaps the explanation is as simple as this: in a game predicated on what you do to control a ball with your feet while angry strong people kick at your shins and shove you in the back, no one has the cognitive surplus (to coin a phrase) to think much about what you do with your hands. But it’s time for that to change. This is getting embarrassing. At least it ought to be.

Alan Jacobs

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    I, like the author, am baffled by how poorly throw-ins are executed and presumably taught. This is one of the only...
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