Throwing In The Towel

Throwing In The Towel

The long throw can be one of football’s most feared weapons. The memory of Stoke City’s Rory Delap winding up and launching the ball into the penalty area is still enough to give opposing defenders and goalkeepers sleepless nights. According to Stats Perform data, Delap directly assisted on five Premier League goals from throw-ins and Stoke City as a whole scored 24 goals from those situations. Since the 2008/09 Premier League season, no other player has more than two direct throw-in assists, and no other club has scored more than 12 goals from throw-ins. So good was Delap’s expertise on throw-ins that former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger went as far as to suggest that throw-ins should be replaced by kick-ins. Delap’s prowess in this area proved that throw-ins can indeed be dangerous to opposing teams faced with the task of defending them. However one aspect of the throw-in is about to change this or at least put a dent into the effectiveness of the long throw. 

Typically the preliminary action to a long throw or a throw-in in general is the toweling off ceremony. A player dries the ball and their own hands in order to get utmost grip before catapulting the ball into the box. But from next season (2023/24) the towels will no longer be available. The English Football League (EFL) has imposed a ban and those towels will no longer be strategically placed around the ground or handed out by ball children. Drying the ball on a towel or any other item acquired from a member of the crowd will be forbidden when the league season starts on August 5th. In addition to this, a new multiball system will be implemented to speed the game up. These changes were voted through by member clubs in EFL’s annual general meeting with the reformed rules set to apply from the 2023/24 season with the aim of improving ball in play statistics. 

The 2022/23 season saw the re-emergence of the long running debate across the four professional leagues in English football regarding time wasting. Data from Opta shows that the average amount of regulation 90 minutes the ball was in play in 2022/23 decreased with each step of the football pyramid. For the Premier League it was 54 minutes 46 seconds of an average match length of 98 minutes 14 seconds. This means that the ball was in play for 55.8% of the game on average. In the Championship that decreased to 53 minutes 13 seconds, in League One 50 minutes 7 seconds and in League Two 48 minutes 2 seconds on average across the season. 

Ball in play time should also improve with the ban on use of towels and other drying materials across the EFL. Another reasoning for the regulation change is to remove any uncertainty in the existing rules which allow for some teams to use towels before a throw-in while others did not. Usually the home team would have that advantage whereas an away side in an unfamiliar stadium was less likely to. Interestingly the rule change included attaining items from the crowd to dry the ball, as happened when in August 2021 West Brom’s Darnell Furlong used a sweatshirt from a member of the crowd in their game against Peterborough United, much to the annoyance and frustration of the home crowd and Peterborough manager Darren Ferguson. 

Among those to advocate for the use of a towel before a long throw last season were Barnsley, Sheffield Wednesday and Newport County, who scored the most goals directly from long throws in the three EFL divisions below the Premier League according to Opta’s data. In the National League, Wrexham’s Ben Tozer was a threat from the long throw but will have to resort to drying the ball on his shirt rather than a towel next season following their successful campaign which saw them earn promotion to League Two. In the Championship, Milwall were notorious for utilizing Zian Flemming’s long throw to help his side push for the playoffs. The Dutchman made an impression in his first season in England for what he accomplished with his feet bagging 15 goals and getting 3 assists in 43 matches in the Championship. But his long throw gave the London side an extra weapon in the attack. Newport’s Mickey Demetriou was the main threat from throw-ins last season in League Two, with three assists in a span of three games in April as Graham Coughlan’s side finished 15th in the league. Northampton Town came in second among teams to score in the phase of play immediately after a throw-in on their way to promotion to League One with midfielder Mitch Pinnock opting to dry the ball on his shirt rather than use a towel. 

Rory Delap was very much the top cat of long throw takers historically, alternating between using a towel at home and his shirt when playing away. Delap’s 267 long throws in the 2008/09 season made up 21% of all long throws taken in the Premier League that season, recording 5 assists in total. 

Throw-ins are an underutilized opportunity for creation from set-pieces with data showing that in the 2020/21 Premier League season 6.7 throw-ins per game were in the attacking third, providing a chance to get the ball into the box in a different way to crosses during open play and corners, which in variance are not as effective methods of chance creation as fans would anticipate. Since 2010 only 3% of corners taken in Europe’s top five leagues have resulted in a goal – which is why the likes of Brentford and Liverpool have worked with throw-in specialists in recent seasons. Some teams have responded to growing expertise in this area with their own counter schemes. For example while on loan at Barnsley Tom Edwards complained that Bolton Wanderers put his team’s towels in a puddle ahead of their first round F.A Cup match in November 2022, preventing him from properly drying the ball. 

Either way it’s all history now. Throw-ins will still continue to be a potent offensive weapon but no longer with accompanying towels. Thankfully, ball in play time that was being wasted will be partially reclaimed.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Carson Anekeya

    As football evolves, changes on the horizon hint at a potential shift, challenging the dominance of the long throw. A tribute to Delap’s legacy while highlighting the imminent alteration in this game-changing aspect of football. A good insight.

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