Why Offsides in Soccer? Essential Game-Play

The offside rule is one of the most important and significant rules in the game of soccer. It is one of the core influencers of gameplay, formations, and how the sport is played as a whole. It dictates what positions players occupy on the field, as well as when and where the ball is passed.

To get the official rule we have to consult the IFAB (International Football Association Board) rulebook. IFAB is the organization that governs the laws of soccer. They are an independent body and are the only organization authorized to decide and agree on changes to the Laws of the Game.  

Why offsides in soccer?

A player is in an offside position if: 

• any part of the head, body or feet is in the opponents’ half (excluding the halfway line) and 

• any part of the head, body or feet is nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent. 

The hands and arms of all players, including the goalkeepers, are not considered.

A player is not in an offside position if level with the: 

• the second-last opponent or last two opponents”.

IFAB

Why Offsides in Soccer?

Without the offside rule, soccer would descend to a game where the ball is hit from one end of the pitch to the other, with all players competing to score in a sea of chaos. It would be an unrecognizable game.

Thankfully, instead of this, we have ‘the beautiful game’: the most popular sport in the world, full of excitement, skill, athleticism, and tactical guile. That being said, many people don’t fully understand the rule.

Assistant referee flagging for offside (Why Offsides in Soccer?)
An assistant referee flagging for offside | Image courtesy of James West.

It’s not an offense to simply be in an offside position. If involved in active play from a touch by a teammate, the player in an offside position will be subsequently ruled offside and an indirect free-kick will be ruled against them. Becoming “involved in active play” infers that a player: 

  • Interferes with play by touching a ball that is passed or touched by a teammate. 
  • Prevents an opponent by obstructing their vision, by challenging them for the ball, or by making an obvious action to impact their ability to get the ball.
  • Gains an advantage or interferes with an opponent when the ball is rebounded from the post, cross-bar, *opponent or match official.  
Example of the offside rule. 1 (Why Offsides in Soccer?)
A graphic demonstrating an offside position being occupied by player A | Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

It’s important to note that if an opponent intentionally plays the ball and it is intercepted by a player in an offside position, this is not regarded as gaining an advantage and so they will not be penalized for offside.   

There are several pages of more specific circumstances and situations where offsides can occur in the IFAB rulebook. However, these are the ‘small print’ and are not important to discuss in general terms.

If you want to read up on these finer details, check out the IFAB rulebook and skip to page 98. In the most simple terms possible, offside is where a player is in their opponents half and they are closer to the goal-line than the ball and the second-last opponent when the ball is played.

There are exceptions to this rule. A player cannot be ruled offside if they receive the ball directly from a throw-in, a corner-kick, or a goal-kick. In most cases, the linesman or assistant referee, who operates on the sidelines of the field, is in charge of monitoring and flagging offsides. 

Here is the offside rule explained with some visual aids

In-game Examples of Offside

Below are some screengrabs of in-game offsides. This should give you a clearer indication of what offside is and when players are in offside positions. 

Clear Offside Example

Real match example of the offside rule in-game. 2 (Why Offsides in Soccer?)
Screenshot demonstrating offside | Courtesy of Everton Football Club.

In the above example, we can clearly see that blue number 18 (Morgan Schneiderlin of Everton) is in an offside position. If his teammate plays the ball to him in this situation, he will be flagged for offside.

The second to last red defender is their number 21 (Diego Rico of Bournemouth), who is clearly several feet in front of the attacker. This is a straight forward offside call. 

Clear Onside Example

Real match example of the offside rule in-game. 3 (Why Offsides in Soccer?)
Screenshot demonstrating onside | Courtesy of Real Madrid

In the above example, we can clearly see that the furthest attacking green player (Eden Hazard of Real Madrid) is in front of the defender when the ball is being passed. This means that the attacking player is in an onside position and play will go on as normal. 

Real match example of the offside rule in-game. 4 (Why Offsides in Soccer?)
Screenshot demonstrating onside | Courtesy of Real Madrid

In the above example, the passing player is kicking the ball to his left (to Karim Benzema of Real Madrid). The receiver is clearly in front of the second and third to last defender, meaning he is onside. Both of these examples are straight forward, onside calls. 

Close Offside Example

Real match example of the offside rule in-game. 5 (Why Offsides in Soccer?)
Screenshot demonstrating a close offside call | Courtesy of Real Madrid

In the above example, we can see an instance where it is difficult to tell from the naked eye whether a player is offside or onside. 

First, please note that the 2 furthest forward players in white are in offside positions. 

Now, please turn your attention to the player in white at the top of the image. From our angle, one could debate whether or not the player is in an offside position.

His feet appear to be in front of at least one defender’s. However, a player can be deemed offside if any part of the body that the player can score with is in an offside position.

In this instance, the attacker’s left shoulder is in a potentially offside position. It is tight calls like this when VAR and advanced offside technology comes in useful.

When we look at examples such as this one, there is no wonder that offside debates are had every week of the soccer season.

Offside Based Tactics

Offsides can be incorporated into certain tactical and formational plans made by coaches. They may use a high-defensive line or a low block defensive structure, depending on the playing style of their opponent. Offensively, certain players might occupy specific areas of the pitch that coaches see as vulnerable in offside terms.

Perhaps a player who lacks pace is consistently slow at joining their defensive line during transitions. This could lead to opportunities for a fast striker to gain a few yards on his/her defender if possession is turned over.

Offsides are part and parcel of the game, in all areas. However, there are instances where offside is used directly as a tactic. A good example of this is the offside trap.

What is the Offside Trap

The offside trap is a defensive tactic whereby the defense attempts to catch the attacking team into an offside position. It was first implemented by Arsenal in the early 20th century. 

The offside trap can be executed in several ways but the two main instances that we see it being used are when teams are defending free-kicks or if a player steps-up during a game to render their opponent offside. 

From a free-kick

It’s important to note that a player will not be ruled offside if they receive the ball directly from a throw-in, goal kick, corner-kick, or inside their own half.

The offside trap

Executing the offside trap: players line up in their usual defensive line. Just before the opposition plays the ball behind a team’s defense, the defensive line run ahead of the opposing attacker(s) to put them in an offside position.

As the name suggests, this is a ‘trap’, so it generally only works if the opponents don’t know that it’s coming. It’s important for the defensive team to have this well-drilled and to communicate with each other on the field so that they execute the play as a unit.

When it comes off, the offside trap from a free-kick works an absolute treat. However, it is a risky maneuver, particularly in the VAR era, where the defense cannot deceive the match officials. If the offside trap is not executed well, the offensive team will most likely have a clear goalscoring opportunity.

In-game Offside

This is a lot trickier as it involves quick thinking and is not a pre-meditated and rehearsed set-play. 

Offside trap failing from a set-piece

An in-game offside trap is where the last defender anticipates a pass to the opposition striker. The defender sprints ahead of their opponent, before their teammate passes the ball to them, leaving the attacker in an offside position.

This works more often than you may think, as generally the defender and the attacker are moving in opposite directions, meaning the distance between them can be created very quickly. 

The defender must be aware of their position as well as the position of their teammates. If a defender attempts to catch their opponent offside, unaware that their teammate is behind them keeping the striker onside, the striker gains a huge advantage. 

We often see defenders attempting to do this in a desperate panic when they are caught in a poor position.

History of the Offside Rule

Offsides have not always existed in the same fashion that they do today. It’s a rule that has undergone much change over the years. Let’s take a look at how it all started. Before the unified rules of soccer were agreed upon, the sport existed in many different forms.

Rulesets differed so severely that in some instances the game couldn’t even be compared to today.

The Cambridge Unified Rules of soccer were established in 1863. In the original ruleset, there had to be three defenders between the attacker and the goal, or else the attacker was regarded as being in an offside position.

This later changed to two defenders (in the 1900s). This simple change led to a 35% increase in scoring that year. 

Rule Change

With a change of emphasis on creating a more attacking playing style, a significant change to the offside rule was made in 1990. A player was now ruled to be in an onside position if they were level with the second to last opponent. This rule change would lead to a more free-flowing game. 

Since 1990, tweaks to the offside rule have been made from time to time, with a general focus on giving the attackers the advantage. The most significant rule change made to influence the game since then has been the introduction of technology into the sport of soccer, in particular, VAR (video-assisted referee).

Evolution of Soccer Rules

The sport of soccer is constantly evolving. There are adjustments to rules and regulations every season. We have seen considerable changes in the game of late, especially with the introduction of VAR and other in-game technology.

Goal-line technology detects all shots that cross the goal line. This has removed controversy surrounding close calls in the goalmouth. VAR was introduced to have a similar effect on offside calls.

However, as the 2019/20 EPL season has shown so far, offsides are still causing huge drama in the sport. We may yet see further changes to the offside rule and how it’s officiated in the coming months. Why offsides in soccer?

You decide, would the game be chaotic or entertaining – it sure would be interesting to see a game with no offsides! For more useful guides, see the articles below or visit our home page.

Is a player automatically offside if they are behind the goalkeeper? The goalkeeper is regarded as the ‘last defender’. Therefore, if a player passes a ball forward to a teammate when they are behind the goalkeeper, they are offside. 

What’s the maximum penalty for being offside? The maximum penalty for offside is an indirect freekick. It is not a bookable offense to be caught offside. 

Can a goalkeeper be offside? Yes. A goalkeeper can be offside in the same way that an outfield player can be. 

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