The Rory Delap era at Stoke City almost never happened. Poor Arsene Wenger.
“He was on loan from Sunderland when we were still in the Championship. He played against them about a week into his loan … and broke his leg, right in front of where I was sat,” said Mark Taylor, an analyst who consults for Premier League clubs but also roots for Stoke City. “Instead of sending him back, which we could have, we rehabilitated him and honoured the subsequent fee. Shows how keen [former Stoke manager Tony] Pulis was to sign him and that he already had the throw as a planned tactic.”
And what a tactic it was. For a couple of years at the beginning of the last decade, Stoke City were a thumping nightmare. Pulis built a team of gigantic bruisers who had no problem packing it in defensively, ceding possession, and waiting for the ball to go out of bounds on either sideline. Delap would wander over, wipe down the ball with an off-white towel, and then launch a Pynchonian missile into the opposing penalty area. A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.
“Rory Delap was just fantastic,” said Thomas Gronnemark, a former record holder of the world’s longest throw-in who now coaches the art for top clubs like Liverpool and Ajax. “There was the quality of his throw-ins and the length, but also — especially — the fastness and the flatness. That’s really important. I see some players who are OK at throwing long, but most of them are throwing way too high and it’s too easy to clear.”
Famously — or infamously, depending on how long you like your parka — Delap’s throws led to both goals in a 2-1 win over Arsenal in Stoke’s first season back up in the Premier League in 2008-09. It’s one of the more symbolic matches in league history: possession overwhelmed by power, a team that prided itself on passing-based purity getting knocked out by a guy simply picking the ball up with his hands and literally throwing it into the penalty area.
“It is a little bit of an unfair advantage,” said former Gunners manager Wenger of that match. “He is using a strength that is usually not a strength in football.”
So great was Delap’s unusual strength that Wenger went so far as to call for throw-ins to be replaced by kick-ins.
Wenger and the rest of the league had never seen anything like Delap’s throw-ins before — and they haven’t seen anything like them since.
According to Stats Perform data, Delap directly assisted on five Premier League goals from throw-ins, and Stoke City as a whole have scored 24 goals from those situations. Since 2008-09, no other player has more than two direct throw-in assists, and no other club has scored more than 12 goals from throw-ins. In other words, Delap and Stoke were at least twice as effective at this aspect of the game when compared to any of their competitors. They might’ve been better at throw-ins than anyone else was at, well, anything else.
Taylor charted all of Delap’s throw-ins in his first four seasons with the club, and he found that Stoke scored 25 league goals from throws taken by the Irishman (even if they weren’t considered direct assists). In the 2007-08 season in the Championship, a then-31-year-old Delap’s throws led to goals eight times — six of which came while the game was tied. According to Taylor’s study, Delap’s throws added about six points to Stoke’s total, which ended up being the difference between automatic promotion and a spot in the playoffs.
After earning promotion, Stoke wildly exceeded expectations — of fans, media, bookmakers and otherwise — as they finished in 12th place during their first season back in the top flight. Eight goals came from Delap’s throws, and Taylor found that they added seven points to the team’s total. “It’s only a slight exaggeration to say he kept us up that first year,” he said.
Some quick math provides some context for just how valuable Delap really was. Last season’s league winners, Manchester City, took 98 points, while Cardiff City finished on 34. That’s a 64-point difference between winning the league with the second-highest points total ever and getting relegated. Divide that gap 11 ways, and the average Manchester City player was worth roughly six points more than the average Cardiff player. Not many players can add that many points to a team’s total, but for at least a couple years, Delap did it.
Gronnemark admires Stoke for going all-in on this approach, and he also sees it as a perfect confluence of events: a talented thrower, a cadre of teammates adept in the air, a coach willing to irk the likes of Wenger, and a stadium with an especially narrow field. “It just clicked,” he said.
I suggested that it would be hard for a team like Barcelona or Liverpool to find a player who was skilled enough to play in a heavy possession-based system but who could also throw the ball like Delap. Gronnemark disagreed.
“For me, Joe Gomez is just as good as Rory Delap,” he said. “You could easily have a player from Barcelona or another club who are playing a top style learn it.”
So, why hasn’t anyone tried to replicate this?
For starters, the effect eventually faded away. As Taylor found, Stoke’s overall performance declined the more times they played a given team. The novelty of the approach seemed to wear off as teams had more time to gameplan for Stoke’s specific style and Delap’s specific skill. Others took a slightly less honest approach.
“West Ham moved the advertising boards in so he couldn’t get a good run up,” Taylor said. “In doing so they also obstructed the view of the travelling Stoke fans. I think compensation was sought.”
In fact, the first goal in Premier League history came off a long throw: Sheffield United‘s Brian Deane against Manchester United on August 15, 1992. A decade-and-a-half later, Delap had perfected the art, and for a couple of seasons, English football didn’t know what to do with him. Of course, he didn’t just stand off to the side and then throw the ball in whenever he got a chance. He also had to play, and he could do a bit of that, too.
Serious air-time for Rory Delap against #THFC! 😱
Who remembers this stunner from 2004? ✂️ pic.twitter.com/YohaWkDH5p
— Southampton FC (@SouthamptonFC) December 30, 2019
With less space and no more surprise, Delap’s throws created five and four goals in the following two Premier League seasons, respectively, and the effectiveness had begun to wane. Stoke won about 2.75 extra points on average from the throws. Given the thin line between effective, conservative play and maddening mediocrity, Pulis was fired during the 2013 season, and Delap was nearing the end. He started only 18 Premier League games the year before, went on loan to Championship side Barnsley in January 2013, and then left the club in the summer. He retired in 2014 and is now an assistant coach, back at Stoke.
On top of the lack of longevity, there’s still a stylistic stigma around the idea of using your hands to win a game that’s meant to be played with your feet.
“I know we could score a lot of goals in Liverpool with long throw-ins, but we’ll have to take eight or 10 long throw-ins every game to get there,” Gronnemark said. “At Anfield, you’re often using like 30 seconds to prepare a long throw-in. You have to get the thrower, you have to put people up. It takes a lot of time. I can only speak from my point of view, but I think it would take the charm out of most of the top teams’ playing styles.”
Rather than recreating the Delap-driven dominance, Gronnemark’s work with Liverpool and Ajax focuses mainly on the best ways for teams to maintain possession from throw-ins up and down the field. They want to, eventually, score from everywhere. “It’s not about scoring goals in the last third of the pitch. Of course, we’re trying to do that. We scored the winner here against Wolves this season and against Tottenham after throw-in situations, but in my philosophy we also want to score a goal after throw-in situations at our own penalty area.”
Despite all of the success Stoke experienced directly from throw-in-based excellence, some critics mocked Liverpool’s decision to hire Gronnemark. What’s next, someone to teach them how to tie their shoes? They were missing the point. The majority of Premier League teams still neglect any kind of throw-in strategy.
“Most of the teams have a really low quality on the throw-in, and the reason why is a lack of knowledge,” Gronnemark said.
Teams still frequently lose possession from throw-ins, and while every situation varies, some research suggests that faster taken throw-ins are more likely to lead to possession retention. If you throw it quickly and the receivers are aware, you should be able to regain control before the opposition resettles.
“While the wonderful Delap style throw-ins are probably still the most effective at creating shots directly, the value of retaining possession is higher in recent seasons,” said Jonny Whitmore, a Stats Perform senior analyst who presented a throw-in study conducted by an analyst named David Quartey at the OptaPro Analytics Forum earlier this year. “From a controlled situation and uncontested pass, teams should be doing this nearly every time!”
Unless Wenger, who is now the head of global football development at FIFA, gets his way, throw-ins will continue to be a sizable chunk of every match. According to Stats Perform, the Premier League average is 21 throw-ins per team, per game. Any club that neglects those opportunities — eh, we’ll just throw it down the line and hope we keep the ball — is hurting its chances of winning matches.