The Offside Rule
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The Offside Rule: Football Essentials

The offside rule, at times, can be the most talked about moment across football for many controversial reasons. 

It is a rule used to stop players from “goal-hanging” and so make a more skilful sport and most importantly, a more enjoyable one. 

What is Offside? | History behind the Rule

The offside rule was 1st introduced into football in 1883. At this time the sport was a very different game from how it is now. During the day, it was a mix between Rugby and Football. It was around this time that assistant referees were added to the sport. Their job is to watch the defensive line and when there is an offside, they raise their flag up to indicate it. 

The 1st law stated that no forward passes were to be made. Unless the ball was hit from behind the goal. In 1907, a new addition to the offside rule was added. Meaning that you could not be offside in your own half.

Teams in the early 1900s adopted formations that would often leave no defensive players in their own half. And so many people were getting caught offside in their own half. Which slowed down the speed of the game dramatically and so this new rule helped the game significantly. 

About 20 years later, the Scottish FA changed the rule. The player was considered offside unless two players of the opposing team are in front of him (including the goalkeeper). They tested this rule in a match at Highbury. It concluded that this new rule would reduce stoppages, and avoid refereeing errors, and improve the spectacle. However, lots of people were opposed to this new law as they felt it unfairly gave an advantage to attackers.

In the next couple of years, the number of goals scored in games on average hugely increased, since teams had not adjusted correctly to this new system. In the 1st season, 4700 goals were scored in 1800 football league games. And in the following season, this number rose to 6300 goals in the same number of games. 

The Modern Offside Rule

This rule stayed consistent for many years to come until 1990. The rule now stated that the attacker is onside. Only if they are level with the 2nd last defender, where previously they would be considered as offside.

This did reduce the number of controversial decisions linesmen made. 2005 saw different parts of the body be considered. Whether an offside should be given or not and they concluded that the part of a player’s head, body or feet closest to the opposition goal line would be considered.

The arms and hands are the only part of the body that are not considered to be “gaining an advantage”. In 2016, it was cleared up that a player on the halfway line itself cannot be offside. 

In modern football, when a goal kick is being taken, it is impossible for a player to be offside.

This also goes for throw-ins as well. But before 1920, this did not apply and you could be offside on a throw-in and also the same applies to corner kicks. However, the final type of set-piece, a free kick is different to the rest meaning that you can be offside from this situation.  

How to use the Offside Rule effectively? 

Over the recent years, teams have started more and more to try and use this rule to their own advantage. It used to be the case before this rule was implemented.

Those strikers would stand near the goal and just wait to receive the ball. Which abused the laws of the game and so it was changed. Now, teams’ defences try to use this so they can catch opposition attackers offside and so win free kicks, which is called an offside trap

It is a defensive manoeuvre where the defence moves forward in sync, just before the ball is played to the attacker, causing him to be offside.  

The offside trap was 1st brought into the game by Arsenal in the early 20th century. It requires extensive practice, communication and synchronisation. This means that is a very risky tactic to pull off. If you mistime it, the striker will be played onside and will most likely be one on one with the goalkeeper.

Not only does the offside trap cause the attacker to be offside, but it also lowers the angle at that the player with the ball has to play the pass. It means that the ball is intercepted by the defence more often.

When this tactic fails, it is mostly because one defender may not react quickly enough. Another reason could be that the striker you are playing against is mentally aware.

Therefore, he holds his run waiting for the ball to be played and then even sometimes, another attacking player who doesn’t seem as though they are involved has lots of space to go and win the ball back. 


Applying the Offside Trap

It’s important when deciding if you, as a team, would like to involve the offside trap in your game.

You need to have a mature team and so using this tactic at the youth level or with an inexperienced team may not be the best idea as they are not seasoned veterans at the sport.

It’s also important to have a mentally strong team. It is bound to happen that when you start using the offside trap, someone will make a mistake and therefore concede a goal.

This could badly affect the defender and they could struggle to bounce back knowing that they have let the team down. The offside trap should be used when playing against teams who often play through balls and so are more vulnerable to this.

Playing against a team full of fast attackers probably isn’t the right time to use the offside trap. They are more likely to make the run behind your defence quicker than you can adjust for. It’s most effective against tall/stocky attackers who may not have the best agility or speed as they will struggle to quickly adjust their position and so they will get caught offside. 

In defence, there should be one player, who signals and calls for the offside trap. This person should have good communication and high levels of awareness. In a back four, one of the two centre-backs should be this person as they are able to make the best judgement of their surroundings.

Furthermore, in a back three, it should be the middle centre back as he is usually a few metres further back than the rest of the defence. This player needs to make sure he gives a clear signal, something short and snappy. 

How to coach the Offside Trap? 

You can have a practice situation on the training ground that requires 16 players. There need to be three squares that are around 30 metres out. First is central, second to the left sideline and third to the right sideline.

In each square, there should be 2 attackers and one defender bringing about a 2v1 situation. The defensive team needs a goalkeeper and either a back four or a back five, depending on the formation in which you play and the attacking team needs an extra two players who are hanging around the back line.

The coach should play the ball to one of the squares and should look to play the ball out of the square and then put the ball in behind the defence for the two attackers to run onto.

You should put a cone on the side-line indicating where the defence starts and another cone as to where they should push up to. A point should be given to the attacking team every time they score. Points should be given to the defending team every time they catch the attackers offside. 

This drill not only helps the defenders but also the attackers. The offside rule does not only benefit the defenders but can be used to help the attackers find gaps in defence when they are trying to play a high line. This is why the offside rule is such a fascinating rule in this marvellous sport as it brings out another tactical chance to become better in one way or another. 

Filippo Inzaghi

“That lad must have been born offside” – a famous quote by Sir Alex Ferguson on Pippo Inzaghi. When we talk about offside nowadays, usually the first player that comes to our mind is Filippo Pippo Inzaghi. Pippo is the most offside player in the history of football, however, it was a most practised tactic for him, securing him goals season after season.

Playing off the last defender and just waiting for an error was his main focus, showing his excellent positional sense in the area. His ways of beating offside traps helped him score 197 career goals, the 2006 World Cup with Italy and 2 times Champions League with AC Milan!


Most probably, without the offside rule, football wouldn’t be as interesting as it is. Even though offside was a subject of a lot of controversies in football history, today’s game wouldn’t be imaginable without it. With VAR introduced, the margin for errors is brought to a minimum, however, anticipation for linesman raising the offside flag remains the same.

Modern football requires taking advantage of any situation to either score or defend a goal. Having that in mind, the number of teams used offside as part of their strategy. Building offside traps, and set pieces or attacks to beat them is an essential part of football and one of the reasons why we fall in love with the game.

Tell us what you think in the comments below, what do you think of offside and why do you think it’s important to the game of football?

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