The offside rule is a central aspect of football, and fans will forever berate referees and linesmen for wrongly judging a player onside or offside and subsequently allowing or preventing a goal. Current debates on the rule also revolve around the usefulness of VAR, which should supposedly prevent incorrect offside calls in addition to other poor decisions. However, something which is not so widely discussed is whether the offside rule itself is harming the game by preventing goals which could have spiced up a match and made it more entertaining.
Offside rule traps some and trips others
Without the offside rule, football would likely be dominated by goal hanging, with attackers positioning themselves very close to the opposition goal, allowing their team mates to boot the ball up to them so that they can score. Therefore, in order to prevent very high-scoring games characterised by continuous direct long balls, the offside rule is certainly necessary. Furthermore, exploiting the offside rule adds an extra tactical dimension to the game. Indeed, it has become a mark of a well-drilled and solid defence to catch players offside by staying disciplined and keeping in line with each other or by playing an offside trap.
However, in spite of its clear benefits, the severity of the offside rule can diminish the excitement of football when goals are disallowed. One goal can change the entire nature of a game, it can completely shift the momentum, as a team looking comfortable in a two-goal lead can be stunned by conceding a goal and can lose their shape and composure. On the other hand, a team trailing can receive a boost of confidence with a goal. Particularly in cagey, tactical matches between two big clubs or rivals, a goal can open up a game and encourage teams to be more adventurous.
Case in point
The recent FA Cup final between Chelsea and Manchester United (19 May) is a good example of one of these types of games. Both sides went in with the intention of being defensively solid and, after going 1:0 up through a first half penalty, Chelsea became even more defensive and United’s lacklustre attack was unable to break it down. United were generally poor, but experienced some joy through set pieces, and in the 62nd minute Alexis Sanchez managed to tap in a rebound from a saved Phil Jones header, however, the Chilean was in an offside position and the goal was disallowed.
As far as offside calls go, this one was relatively clear as Sanchez was standing slightly further forward than any of the Chelsea payers. However, in this instance, the call was not preventing goal hanging and Sanchez was not committing any real offence by standing half a yard offside and, had his goal stood, the match may have opened up and turned into a much more entertaining spectacle than the dull 1:0 which resulted.
It is on occasions such as this that the offside rule can ruin matches, as the rule is realistically serving no meaningful purpose but is simply preventing a more exciting match from developing. There are also much closer calls than Sanchez’s offside ruling, as players can be caught out by the tip of their boot being in an offside position. There are certainly times when players can be criticised for not staying onside, but many others where players are simply unlucky to be an inch or so offside. It is therefore unfortunate that the offside rule is so severe in its ruling, and that match-altering goals can be prevented by the rule when the calls are so tight.
Of course, the offside rule—as entrenched in the game as it is today—cannot be abolished. Further, it is also very difficult to think of a way of reforming the rule to improve it. However it must be admitted that on many occasions, disallowed goals can prevent matches from becoming far more exciting for the neutral.
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