Belgium's secret weapon? An Englishman who watched 17,000 throw-ins

Belgium’s secret weapon? An Englishman who watched 17,000 throw-ins - Football coach Anthony Barry - Anthony Barry
Belgium’s secret weapon? An Englishman who watched 17,000 throw-ins - Football coach Anthony Barry - Anthony Barry

Anthony Barry is the rising star of English coaching who is helping to mastermind Belgium’s bid for World Cup glory.

Seven years ago, the Chelsea assistant manager coached Accrington Stanley’s youth side. Today he is an integral part of Roberto Martinez's backroom team, hoping to add the biggest trophy of all to a coaching CV which already includes the Champions League and Club World Cup.

“I’ve always tried to achieve my ambitions younger and quicker,” says 36-year-old Barry, speaking ahead of Belgium’s first group game against Canada.

“You never know how a career will evolve. I am already working with my sixth head coach in three years. But I have had the perfect education working under so many top managers – and more importantly top people.”

Martinez joined an illustrious list of those headhunting Barry, his status as a generational coaching talent identified when he became one of the youngest to complete the Uefa Pro licence course at St George’s Park, and took the unique step of passing the League Managers Association diploma in leadership at the same time.

Frank Lampard and Jody Morris – then still at Derby – were Barry’s Pro Licence course mates. When the duo moved to Chelsea, they recruited Barry from Wigan. He was retained as a trusted lieutenant of Thomas Tuchel and turned down numerous managerial jobs to stay on with Graham Potter. In the meantime, Chelsea granted permission for Barry to join the Republic of Ireland’s international set-up under Stephen Kenny before Martinez lured him last season.

“Each time the offers were nice surprises, completely out of the blue,” says Barry.

“I had just been offered the Tranmere manager’s job when Frank called. As a Liverpool lad I was so appreciative to Mark Palios (Tranmere’s chairman) to give me such an opportunity, but there was no way I could turn down Frank and a club of Chelsea’s size.”

Belgium’s secret weapon? An Englishman who watched 17,000 throw-ins - Anthony Barry, left, with the Belgium coaching staff - Belgium FA
Belgium’s secret weapon? An Englishman who watched 17,000 throw-ins - Anthony Barry, left, with the Belgium coaching staff - Belgium FA

A few minutes chatting to Barry is proof he sees coaching as a vocation, his rapid progress partly down to what he calls 'sliding doors moments' while at the time appearing to be planned as perfectly as one of the set-piece formations he designs.

The ex-History and Law student decided, aged 24, he would make a better coach than footballer, a career in the lower leagues having been compromised by a serious knee injury.

“I remember my first proper coaching session. It was with Accrington under 16s. It was raining. There were not enough balls, not enough bibs and we only had a third of the pitch. For a lot of reasons it should not have been enjoyable,” Barry recalls.

“But do you know what? I absolutely loved it. I knew then that coaching was for me. I came off the pitch that night and thought, ‘This is my passion’. It felt completely different to anything I did as a player, even when playing at Wembley.

Everyone told me I would regret retiring early as a footballer but I was always listening to the coach from a different point of view. Look, I wasn’t a high level footballer, so everything I was picking up impacted me more as a future coach or manager than a player.

“I was always evaluating those I was working with.

“John Coleman (Accrington manager) and Paul Cook (ex-Wigan boss) gave me the perfect education and opportunities.

“Cooky took me to Wigan before I’d turned 30 and made me the youngest coach in the Championship. On my first day at pre-season training at Wigan he said to me, ‘don’t worry, I’ll ease you in’. Then what did he do? Threw me straight out there to take the first coaching session. It was the best thing that could have happened.

“The perception might have been I was young, or I had not played at the highest level, but the work was there. I felt ready.”

Belgium’s secret weapon? An Englishman who watched 17,000 throw-ins - Anthony Barry with the Champions League trophy - Anthony Barry
Belgium’s secret weapon? An Englishman who watched 17,000 throw-ins - Anthony Barry with the Champions League trophy - Anthony Barry

Moving to Stamford Bridge and a squad packed with elite footballers could have been more intimidating.

“Because I was younger and working with some experienced professionals who had been around longer than me, some people told me to leave a marker on the older players,” says Barry.

“They said, ‘go at them straight away. Show them you are in command’ and that kind of thing. I rejected all that. That has never been me and never will. I wanted to go my own way. I would never speak down or condescend players.

“Whatever the level of the player, they respond to clear and precise detail. They respect seeing things from a different point of view when they know it can help. The modern way is to show players the details with video clips – where and how we want them to move, where they are going right and where it could have been better. That’s the big feedback loop of the modern coach. There are screens all over every elite training ground – whether it is iPads or even in the Belgium camp now, where we have them all over the canteen. We can take a player to the screen and show them a clip. If not there, you play out scenarios on the training pitch. We are all about building solutions. The evolution of coaching is about finding the next level of detail to impact on performance.”

This attentiveness led Barry to become the first student at St George’s Park to have course research published as an academic journal. Remember the mockery from traditionalists when Liverpool appointed a throw-in coach in pursuit of a marginal gain? Barry provided compelling evidence as to why others should follow.

“At Wigan we were desperate to come up with ways to get more possession. We wanted the ball. Normally it is about more passing drills in training, maybe playing an extra midfielder,” says Barry.

“On the Saturday we had lost 3-2 away at Luton – a real bad one for us – so the next day I sat at my desk. Liverpool had just appointed Thomas Gronnemark as a throw-in coach. There was no preconceived bias. I just wanted to know what the data said and if and how it really made a difference.

“First up I started watching videos of Championship games and realised that West Brom and Brentford were enjoying between 20 and 30 seconds of possession after every throw-in. At Wigan we were averaging between two and eight seconds, losing the ball too soon. Add it up and the difference is huge, especially when you think there could be as many 45 throw-ins a game. The impact on possession stats is huge, with as much as 21 percent of possession a direct result of throw-ins. This has nothing to do with the level of players in your team, but is all about the set-up and how you go about retaining possession from a throw-in or getting it off the opposition quickly.

“For my study we analysed a full Premier League season of throw-ins – 17,000 of them – with data scientists. You could see the impact of the work Liverpool did with Gronnemark and now it is a trend which has caught on across football.”

Belgium’s secret weapon? An Englishman who watched 17,000 throw-ins - Anthony Barry - Belgium FA
Belgium’s secret weapon? An Englishman who watched 17,000 throw-ins - Anthony Barry - Belgium FA

Set-pieces are but one facet of Barry's work. Looking at the World Cup, he does not hesitate when asked where data analysis will be focused. “Substitutes,” he says.

“How the subs will impact is going to be the key theme of football going forward – how to keep energy on the pitch and keep the tactical idea. If a player is playing 70 games a season, you can only retain energy with substitutes. All 23 outfield players will be used in this World Cup and as coaches you have to marry training and the game ideas to keep players at an optimum level.”

Barry is sure to be at the forefront of post-tournament research given his insatiable appetite for the next 'minor detail to make a major difference'. He watches at least ‘seven of eight games a week’ to study opponents, takes in academy development games when time allows, and then generally catches whatever appealing live games are available on TV ‘because I just love watching football’.

“My first experience of international football was the Euro 96 games at Wembley,” says Barry.

“I was 10 and went down for the Holland and Germany games with my dad and brother. There is more physical intensity in Premier League football. International football has more in common with club European football. England will have an advantage if they can bring Premier League intensity to international football."

And what of Belgium’s chances?

“Roberto is an elite manager working with elite players. This group was close in Russia and now we’re looking to take the last step. It’s all about finding that extra 10 per cent.”