Why Does Soccer Have Offsides?

Picture the following scenario.

You’re casually sat down in your living room, watching the heated North London Derby between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur on the telly.

At one point, Heung Min Son makes a darting run past the Arsenal defence but the assistant referee on the far side raises his flag just after the through ball intended for him has been played.

The South Korean was penalised for straying past the last line of the opposition defence, but why?

Offside rules were implemented in soccer due to the fact that without them, the game would be deprived of dynamic movement and spacing. Before the advent of offsides, strikers would often position themselves near the opposition goal and simply wait for the ball to be hoofed towards them, and it created sterile matches that were largely comprised of long balls punted into the 18-yard box.

Now before I dig even deeper into why this regulation was put into effect, I’ll start by giving a brief definition of what it entails.


What is an offside in soccer?

According to Law 11 of the International Football Association Board, an offside offence occurs when a player in an offside position – at the moment the ball is struck or touched by a team mate – becomes involved in active play by way of things like:

  • Challenging an opponent for the ball
  • Interfering with play by being part of the attacking move
  • Making obvious actions that impede an opponent’s own ability to play the ball

However, it’s also quite important to note that being in an offside position is not an offence in itself, as a player is only penalised for being offside if he is adjudged to have been involved in the play.

For the sake of clarity, I’ve provided a short clip below which explains the rule more succinctly:


Why was the offside rule introduced?

In the article’s introduction, I alluded to two main reasons why offside regulations were created.

I’ll now expound upon these in turn:


1. Eliminating goal hanging

why does soccer have offsides - eliminating goal hanging

With any game, there are methods of exploitation that players can use to gain an advantage over an opponent.

In football, the offside rule was brought in to neutralise the competitive edge that attackers would have by straying beyond an arbitrary point.

In its absence, it would be so easy for a team to send up three or four forward players to just loiter around the penalty area and wait for a long ball to be hit towards them, as there would be no penalty for doing so.

Even logically, it would make more sense to send the ball directly into the opposition box aerially instead of patiently building up play from the back, because you could easily bypass an entire defence and midfield with a long ball hit high in the air as opposed to the latter.

Strikers would contest for headers and loose balls and it was quite difficult for defenders to keep track of the opposition as the team with the ball could simply flood the 18-yard area with a tonne of bodies.

A goalmouth scramble would then ensue, which not only increased the odds of the attacking team scoring but also raised the likelihood of penalties being called in the attacking team’s favour, as the desperation to protect the goal caused defenders to make reckless challenges.

But with the rule initially drawn up by the Football Association in 1863 and then modernised in 1990, attackers could no longer stray beyond the second last defender without consequence.


2. Promoting attacking variation

why does soccer have offsides - promoting attacking variation

Before offsides came into effect, defenders would be drawn towards the unmarked attackers in the box and the game would descend into an aerial battle with emphasis on physicality as opposed to technical prowess.

Without the modern offside rule in play, football games were often boring affairs devoid of any creative tactical setups.

In fact, the 1924/1925 season saw an incredibly low average of 2.58 goals scored per game, which forced the Football Association to have a look at amending the rule set to enhance the sport’s overall entertainment value.

They eventually settled on a requirement that allowed only two defending players to be in advance of a forward for the latter to be onside, and with this change put into motion, the average goals per game value for the following season shot up to 3.69.

If these rule changes were not passed through, there would be little to no use for skilled midfielders or overlapping wingbacks as ball progression would simply involve long aerial punts upfield.


Can you be offside in your own half?

A player cannot commit an offside offence when they are within their own half of the field.

Even if the player reaches the opposition’s side of the field by the time they receive the ball, they will not be flagged for offside.

This is because the call is always made at the time when the ball is struck, not when it’s been latched onto by the recipient.


What would soccer be like without offsides?

All sort of sophisticated football strategy would fall out of fashion in an instant.

Because both sets of teams would be able to attack freely without the positional restrictions brought about by the offside ruleset, patterns of play would be largely disorganised.

Matches would become snooze fests as players would simply attempt to hit long balls deep into the opposition penalty area.

Furthermore, the game would be comprised of even more one on one situations, as defenders would always have to keep the exact position of their opposing attacker at the forefront of their mind and defensive strategy.

Instead of holding a straight defensive line with their team mates and occasionally making use of offside traps, defenders would physically contest for the ball in isolation with their opponent.

Another thing that would happen is that large gaps in the centre of the field would emerge, as the split between attack and defence would grow in size.

Emphasis would be placed on performing quick transitions from back to front, with the midfield area being bypassed in favour of direct passing passages of play.


Final thoughts

The concept of being offside was introduced to add creativity to the game, as well as to deter forwards from the act of “goal hanging” where they would loiter around the opposition box whilst waiting for the ball to be passed aerially towards them.

Samuel Waihenya
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