Exploring what the offside rule means to football

Exploring what the offside rule means to football

In my previous piece for These Football Times, I quoted a New York Times piece about how because in most games, no more than three goals are scored, and the typical margin of victory is a single goal; about how a football match isn’t a statistically sound way to measure which team is the best.

“To a scientist,” the piece argued, “the measurements are too few to draw a statistically reliable conclusion about which team is more skilled.” In it, there was a passage in that article that I did not quote, but that caught my attention: the author John Tierney argued that perhaps changing the rules to allow for looser offside rules would lessen football’s sample size issued, because it would encourage more scoring, thus providing for less room for randomness to impact on a game’s outcome.

I found that idea interesting, because although he’s right about how the game would likely reflect the relative strength of competing teams more accurately if it was a higher scoring sport, it severely misunderstood the way the offside rule affects the behaviour of teams on the field.

The offside rule is the most important in football. It’s what makes the game what it is. It’s even more important than the rule that states that you can’t use your hands unless you’re a goalkeeper, or Diego Maradona. Being able or not being able to use your hands is not what separates football from its cousin rugby, or from team sport handball – it’s the offside rule.

Without a more permissive offside rule than the one adopted in rugby, football would be nothing more than a version of that game, only one played exclusively with your feet. Without it altogether, it would be handball played without the use of hands. The offside rule is integral to the nature of the sport. Change it and you’ll change the game. Or worse, kill it completely. Try to picture The Jersey Shore without its cast getting drunk, or the Kardashians without incessant displays of shallowness. That’s how drastic it would be to mess with the offside rule.

In yesteryear, when football was in its infancy, the game was as moronic as the plot of a Michael Bay movie. Play consisted of a bunch of private school boys running around a ball trying to kick it into the goal or, in their preferred scenario, trying to kick their opponents in the head.

Once a player had the ball at his feet, he was supposed to run with it like there was no tomorrow, or until a defender made sure that, at least for him, there really was no tomorrow. As Jonathan Wilson writes in his wonderful Inverting The Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics, “Head-down charging, certainly, was to be preferred to thinking, a manifestation, some would say, of the English attitude to life in general.” One of the reasons for this, aside for the apparent British natural contempt for Homo Sapiens-like behaviour, was the offside rule.

In that Mesozoic period of the sport, if a player was ahead of the ball when his teammate passed it to him – regarded as an unmanly course of action, one might add – he was offside, just like in rugby. As Wilson points out, this meant that the most intricate collective form of play that could be expected was what was called “backing up”, that is, having a player closely following the ball carrier in case he didn’t carry a big enough pair of them and so decided to pass the ball instead of stoically waiting for his knee to be blown away by a charging opponent.

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Read  |  A brief history of tactical phenomenas

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However, in Eton they played with a different rule. There, a forward pass was legal if the pass receiver had at least three opponents between him and their goal when the pass was made. When the Eton rule was universally adopted, the floodgates for the evolution of the game were open. Suddenly, passing became an attractive option to those who had been blessed with the ability to use the brain (surely an exception in those early days), and after a few decades even the more Gumby-like practitioners of the sport adopted the forward pass more or less often in their game plans.

The Eton offside rule allowed for formation variation and tactical fluidity. If every player has to be behind the ball when it is passed, there’s not much you can do. But if instead you allow players to be ahead of the ball, with a minimum of three opponents between them and the goal, then the deployment of your players on the field of play becomes an important issue. Strategy suddenly became as important – if not more – as mere skill and physical power, as a coach needed to figure out how many players to use in which roles in order to better counter the other team’s plans and to explore their own style of play.

While in rugby every team uses the same formation that has been used for years, in football, the more liberal offside rule not only allowed the evolution of tactics throughout the years, but also the variety of tactics employed by different teams in different games in any given historical period.

In 1925, the rule would again be changed: from then on, an attacking player would only need to have two opposing players between him and the goal. But the principle – allowing players to be ahead of the ball – was the same, and the profound impact it had on the evolution of the game could not ever be erased.

In fact, without the adoption and subsequent liberalisation of the Eton offside rule, what is arguably some of the most beautiful and exciting football ever to be played would not have been possible. The Total Football of the Ajax and Dutch national teams of the 1970s, as well as the present day spiritual heirs of Pep Guardiola coached teams, would not have been allowed to have ever come into being.

In fact, their style of play is predicated on taking advantage of the offside rule in more ways than one: on the one hand, it takes advantage of the freedom of the forward pass and stretched playing area to pass the ball constantly and move the players around in order to deprive their opponents of possession and confuse their marking assignments; on the other hand, it is meant to actually squeeze the playing area for the opponent. By playing a high defensive line, these teams pushed opponents away from their goal, simply because they could not be ahead of their last two defending players.

Players like Cruyff, Neeskens, Guardiola, Laudrup and Messi, and memorable games like those of the Clockwork Orange Dutch teams in the 1970s and the crushing of Manchester United by Barcelona in the Champions League final a few years ago would not even be imaginable if not for the way the offside rule works.

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Rinus Michels

Read  |  Rinus Michels and the Total Football rebellion

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Because the previous liberalisations of the offside rule had such a positive impact in the way the game was played, one might be led to believe that the way to take football into the 21st century – making it more exciting and pushing for further tactical evolution – would be to further liberalise the offside rule. However, every liberalisation of that rule, even the first one, actually made the game more defensive than it previously was.


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I have no idea what Hans Monderman thought of the offside rule, or if he was a football fan at all. But I do know that he understood the basic human impulse behind the increasing defensive outlook in football that followed each liberalisation of the offside rule: the safer we feel, the more we risk; the more unprotected we are left, the more cautious we become.

Monderman’s field of play was not the green grass of football but the black asphalt of the roads of the Low Countries. Born in the small Dutch town of Leeuwarden shortly after the Second World War, he would become a civil engineer and also worked as an accident investigator and as a driving instructor. By the time he was chosen for the job of traffic safety officer for the Dutch region of Friesland, Monderman had already developed a stronger disregard for traffic signs than Two and a Half Men writers have for comedy.

The man simply found them useless at best, and often counterproductive. He argued that a road “with a lot of signs is telling a story, that it’s saying go ahead, don’t worry, go as fast as you want, there’s no need to pay attention to your surroundings.” His theory was that as people feel safer, they become careless; if you strip away the road signs and the traffic lights that say go ahead, they’ll have to pay more attention to what’s going on, and will behave more carefully.

The village of Oudehaske was the testing ground for his theory, and its success in reducing driving speed much more effectively than other attempted measures meant that soon it would be copied by many other cities, in Holland and elsewhere. Monderman believed that risky and dangerous human behaviour is often a product of us being told a story that assures us there’s nothing to fear. By making things perilous to those involved in a given activity, we would encourage them to behave in a safer, more cautious fashion. It’s a principle that holds in every walk of life, including football.


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Just as the traffic lights are meant to protect drivers and pedestrians, the purpose of the offside rule is to protect the defence: it stops opposing players from just sitting behind it, waiting for long kicks that will catch it unaware and leave a forward alone in front of a panicking goalkeeper with no help whatsoever.

Like the Dutch teams of the 1970s and Barcelona today, simply by advancing your defensive line you take advantage of the offside rule, because you are forcing your opponent to follow the defence away from your goal. If you liberalise the offside rule –  i.e. if you make it easier to an opposing forward player to remain closer to the defending team’s goal before the ball is passed to him – you’re exposing the defence. They’ll have to be more careful. By making life easier for forwards, one actually ends up forcing everyone to become more defensive.

That’s how the 2-3-5 pyramid was born. Most teams used to play with one defender, one or two other players in midfield, and seven or eight strikers. Once those strikers became free to be ahead of the ball before a pass was made to them, opposing defences needed another player in the back and an extra-midfielder to better occupy the space where the attacking players were now free to run around.

After 1925, when the rule was further liberalised and took more or less the reading it has kept until today, the result was the further withdrawal of players into a more defensive role. As Wilson notes in his book, whereas before, when there had to be three players between the forward and the opposing goal when the pass was made, defences “had been able to retain one full-back as cover as his partner stepped up to try to catch the forward”, now, as that number was reduced to two players, defences were more exposed, for a misjudgment risked leaving the forward through one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

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Read  |  Herbert Chapman and the legendary W-M formation

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The solution to this problem was the W-M, a formation with three defenders, a first line of two midfielders, an extra-line of two inside-forwards, and three forwards. And even the free-flowing, constantly-passing, frantically-attacking Total Football teams of the 1970s used a 4-3-3, a variation of the earlier 4-2-4, a formation devised to nullify the three forwards of the W-M by using an extra defender.

The rule would suffer a minor tweak in 2005, further liberalising it, not by changing the number of players that have to be between the attacking player and the goal, but by changing minor details like what counts as interfering with the play or what parts of the body of the attacking player must be taken into account when judging his position.

Wilson, for example, believes these changes were “a work of genius” because they expanded the playing area in midfield, thus allowing players like Barcelona’s Xavi and Iniesta to flourish. But, as Wilson himself notes, this only became possible because teams responded to this further liberalisation of the offside rule by becoming more defensive: many teams stopped playing the offside trap – the previously described strategy of the Total Football teams – and began defending deeper, closer to the penalty box.

Any further liberalisation of the offside rule would be unlikely to produce benign results. A new offside rule that would further expose defences to deep-sitting forwards would end up forcing them to sit deeper themselves. The game would become something more akin to handball, with every player – or almost every player – forming a wall around the penalty box and the goal, and turning the midfield into nothing but a no man’s land to be ran across but in which nothing of real import would actually happen.

The game would in effect regress to its Neanderthal days of the 19th century, not turn into a goal-scoring, skill-fest show that could be seen as an improvement on its current state.

Of course every football fan, no matter how much he or she loves the way the game is played nowadays, would be ecstatic if it could be made into something even more exciting than it is now. But I doubt changing the offside rule would be the way to do it. As a wise man once said, you can’t always get what you want.

By Bruno Alves. Follow @ba_lifeofbruno

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