Further Tweaking of the Offside Rule Leads to More Confusion

This season referees have been messing around with what is considered “actively involved” in an offside play. If the aim is to favor offense, any benefit is outweighed by confusion.

Narrowing reading of “actively involved in play” is one reason John Carew was not deemed offside. Or, John Carew, in an offside position and actively involved with the obstruction of Lukasz Fabianski’s view, is not considered interference.

In 2005, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) clarified when a player is “actively involved in play”:

1.) Interfering with play means playing or touching the ball passed or touched by a team mate.

2.) Interfering with an opponent means preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision or movements or making a gesture or movement which, in the opinion of the referee, deceives or distracts an opponent.

3.) Gaining an advantage by being in an offside position means playing a ball that rebounds to him off a post or crossbar or playing a ball that rebounds to him off an opponent having been in an offside position.

A sequence of plays in a Champions League game between Auxerre and Real Madrid illustrates the disadvantage the defending team faces when active involvement is too narrowly interpreted.

Real Madrid is in firm control of the game, pressing the Auxerre goal. They are moving the ball around freely and beginning to stab Auexrre’s midsection. From the center of the pitch, maybe five meters outside the penalty box, a Real Madrid player sends an angled pass over the top of the Auxerre defense toward two Real Madrid players. The Auxerre defense, after attempting to clear the ball, had pushed up field, leaving the Real Madrid players lingering in an offside position.

The pass nearly reaches them, but is headed away by an Auxerre player standing just in front of them. The Auxerre back line pauses, looking for the offside call. There isn’t one. The header can’t clear the ball effectively and Real Madrid retains possession and momentum. Xavi Alonso is particularly good during this stretch of the match, effectively pinning Auxerre deep and putting balls into the penalty box for his strikers.

Although the ball had only nearly reached the Real Madrid players, they are not deemed actively involved. It can be assume that if one of the Real Madrid players touches the ball, then the call would have been flagged and whistled.  With this in mind, the play was not a threat, although the Auxerre players couldn’t be certain of this until the play was stopped.

Play perversely continues in a manner more consistent with an advantage awarded instead of a foul. No Auxerre player would have found this advantageous. The French side was under pressure and searching for anything that could disrupt the momentum. The offside call would have given them respite, but instead they were forced to bear the threat of a subsequent play that may have seamlessly emerged from the preceding one, and yet was also distinct, since it has nothing to do with offside situation.

The affects of a narrowing reading of what is active involvement doesn’t stop with the physical relationships of players in space, but continues by extending into a player’s mental space.

 There have been many instances when a pass is played to a player in an offside position, who then feigns taking control and lets the ball go past him, so that another player, who began the play onside, can take possession. Active involvement is further reduced with regard to physical space. The gesture or movement of gesturing nothing or not moving at all—without moving even though the ball is inches away—is not considered active involvement.

An example from the Liverpool-Arsenal game last August shows that distraction and deception, the interfering with an opposing player’s mental space, is also not active involvement. The defensive player’s attention and focus is unfairly divided between the offside player and the other offensive players who become a threat when offside isn’t called.

In this clip, Raul Meireles, lingering upfield, lets the ball bounce right past him. He can feel the ball’s wind. He doesn’t react to the ball coming at him, remaining unpoised, limp in the arms—physically communicating that he has no intent to touch the ball.  Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny, along with everyone else, knows Meireles is way offside. Any defender would have paused knowing there was no threat.

Yet, the referee deemed Meireles not actively involved and let play continue. Koscielny suddenly has to recover, because a Liverpool player, initially onside, has raced to the ball and gained possession. The way Meireles turned and took off just as Koscielny went by looked calculated, made his lingering behind the defense seem intentional. Not only does Koscielny have to recover positioning, but has to glance over his shoulder to see if anyone has slid in behind him. And whom does he find? Meireles wide open and waiting in the box for a juicy cross.

This is absurd.

The most common effect of the narrow interpretation is the excessively delayed offside. The ball is played through the defense to an offensive player in an offside position, but the play won’t be flagged offside until another action takes place. Most often this is the offensive player touching the ball, but also when a goalkeeper gets involved.

The interpretation of a play like this considers the offensive player, in an offside position when the ball is played, not offside until he touches the ball, until he becomes actively involved. Yet his intention from the moment the ball is played is to touch the ball in a way that helps him score a goal, and the opposition knows this just as well. The play is not offside until it is. Is it different if the play is offside until it isn’t? Why not just blow the whistle?

A few weeks ago in a QPR-Leicester match, the play isn’t called offside until the QPR goalkeeper takes control of the ball. Just as in the other two examples, the play should have been called offside. There’s no advantage to be made from the delay, for allowing time for some kind of development. It’s unnecessary to let play continue for it only adds pointless chaos and miscommunication.

This makes fertile soil for injury and intensified anger. The Leicester striker has to leap over the diving goalkeeper on what is essentially a dead play. This has got to make managers, weary and terrified of injury, quite upset.  From the moment the play is potentially offside to the moment it is not called, the well-practiced movement off all the players, the knowledge of the momentum, speed, and position of each other, is disrupted. Some pause, some continue running at full strength; the entire fabric of the play becomes pulled and wavy and out of sync.

This looks like a recipe for injury.

In the first two examples, the narrowed interpretation of active involvement achieves a continued flow of play and allows for a greater possibility for scoring. But this comes at the cost of greater chaos on the pitch. There is too much subjective interpretation. The measure and reference of what is offside is as unpredictable as the possible outcomes. Which situations and contexts are considered active involvement should be broader and more objective. A Liverpool goal on a play like the above is as absurd as the beach ball goal they conceded last season. The game’s integrity is already in short supply. This is not an effective way to tweak the game in favor of offensive or for a general heightening of excitement.

There has been a lot of necessary attention given to diving. If subterfuge is not cheating then it is cheapening. Mostly it is irritating. But what is more irritating is the widespread arm-waiving appeal by defending teams when they consider a play offside. No plea has ever convinced a referee to change his mind.

Playing to the whistle has been forgotten, possibly due to the fact that it is one of the first things players learn as children. It’s confounding to see players time and again stop to contest a call, which isn’t given, and the offensive team takes advantage of the lapse and scores. Why keep pleading? Why continue to look so foolish? These players are professionals, possessing talent none of us have, and to see them be so stupid, is in some way cheapening as well.

If nothing else, by adding a little extra doubt, the delayed offside call could improve the game if it put an end to this behavior by reinforcing the old habit of playing to the whistle. Eight months into the season proves this is wishful thinking.


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