Tuesday, June 19, 2012

An offside conundrum

If you've read anything I've written about soccer before, you probably already know that perhaps nothing annoys me more than when a team is falsely penalized for offside. So in a surprising turn of events, I'll be writing today about a new problem: the offside rule as currently interpreted allows for certain plays that should be sanctioned for offside. As you might, expect, two recent examples from Euro 2012 motivate this post: Bendtner's first goal for Denmark against Portgual, and Jesus Navas' goal for Spain against Croatia. The offside rule should be clarified so that these types of goals don't count.

The "Laws of the Game" state that a player is guilty of an offside violation if two conditions are met: 1) He is in an offside position when the ball is last touched by a player on his team, and, 2 "He is involved in active play by [either] interfering with play, interfering with an opponent, or gaining an advantage by being in that position."

Now back to the two goals I linked above. In the first, Bendtner is in an offside position when the ball is initially crossed to Krohn-Deli. He is clearly not in an offside position when Krohn-Deli heads the ball back across to him. On the initial cross, he is neither interfering with play, nor interfering with an opponent. But surely he gains an advantage by being in an offside position at that moment. If he weren't in an offside position, he would be closer to both Pepe and Bruno Alves, who could more easily track him and mark him on the following play. Now it turns out that both Bruno Alves and Pepe are giant ball-watchers, and simply turned their heads and watched as the play unfolded, in this case. However, even if they were decent defenders, they wouldn't have been able to get back mark Bendtner and prevent the goal, precisely because Bendtner was already closer to the goal. Thus, according to the clear and obvious meaning of the words in the offside rule, Bendtner is guilty of offside.

But wait! Since the offside rule is so complicated, FIFA appends a whole section to the "Laws of the Game" clarifying its interpretation. As you can see if you care to look at page 109-110 (that's right) in this PDF, you'll see that precisely this type of play, is deemed "not an offside offence." In fact, the phrase "gaining an advantage by being in that position" is furthermore defined to encompass only two specific situations, namely being an offside position when a teammate makes an effort on goal that rebounds off the goalpost or the goalkeeper.

That's it! Of course, FIFA can define the rules as it wants. But is it really "fair" in some more objective sense to allow these types of plays to proceed and not be offside? Well, by now you probably know what my answer is! To help you see why I think so, take the situation to its logical extreme. Imagine that one striker on an attacking team is camped out in the opposing team's penalty area (cherry-picking, as we say). Surely, the other team doesn't have to mind him when the ball is in the other half, since he's so far offside! That's the whole point of the offside rule, to essentially eliminate that player from relevance! But clearly, as the rule is currently interpreted, the defending team does have to mind the cherry-picker, because of the following possibility (illustrated in the awesome image below). Imagine a long, well-timed through pass is played toward the defending team's corner flag. One attacking player, who was already running toward the corner when the ball was played, chases it, and is tracked by a single defending player. But not all the defending players were running back when the ball was played because they weren't similarly tracking penetrating runs. But what would normally be a defensive situation totally under control, as the player running toward the ball is under pressure even if he gets to the ball first, is now a very worrying situation, because the attacking player can make a simple pass across to his teammate who is now waiting, onside, inside the penalty area, without a defender anywhere in sight! This is analogous to the goals linked above; according to the rules, the play is not offside, but clearly, it should be, because the cherry-picking player in fact compels the defending team to defend him, in a manner completely contrary to the spirit of the offside rule (and, indeed, to the most reasonable interpretation of the language of the rule).


  1. FWIW, Sam, I think you have misread the rule insofar as you suggest that the "clear and obvious meaning of the words in the offside rule [make]Bendtner . . . guilty of offside. The rule says he must be BOTH in an offside position when the ball is, in your words, "last touched by a player on his team," AND, among other things, taking advantage of being in that position. But you are judging Bendtner's position not at the moment the ball was "last touched" by his teammate Krohn-Dehli, but rather when it was played TO Krohn-Delhi.

    And to address the question of fairness, you make pejorative references to "cherry-picking" but miss the dynamic of how offside often works in a game. The defenders are constantly trying to move up to "trap" attackers offside. When it doesn't work, sometimes they hold up their arms appealing for an offside call, instead of continuing to defend (it was not so clear to me that the Croatian defender with his arm in the air could not have got back in time to interfere with Jesus Navas' tap-in).

    I don't think we have to go so far as Paul Gardner (http://www.socceramerica.com/article/47088/the-anti-goalscoring-bias-of-the-soccer-rulebook.html) and change the rules to make it easier to count goals as having been scored. But this particular aspect of offside seems about right to me.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts...let me clarify, because I think you've slightly misinterpreted by argument. Bendtner is in an offside position when the cross is played to Krohn-Deli. He gains an advantage by being in that position. The advantage he gains isn't fully manifested until later, when he plays the ball. However, the advantage is there on the initial cross. It's like a player waiting for a rebound off the goalkeeper in an offside position; the offside violation isn't flagged until later, should the player actually make an attempt to later play the ball. Bendtner's offside offense originates with the cross but isn't completed until he later plays the ball himself, thus realizing his initial advantage.

    You may be right about the Croatian defender, and I make the same point about Pepe and Bruno Alves. But given that Bendtner has a two yard head start (and according to this interpretation of the rules, could have a 40 yard head start and still not be guilty of offside) on the two defenders, and Navas a slight head start as well, the defenders would have to be FASTER than either of them to catch up and defend them properly. The bottom line is that they're at a clear disadvantage tracking back to mark for the second ball coming back across from K-D or Iniesta. This disadvantage doesn't depend at all on the defenders' trying to trap anyone.

    The cherry-picking example on the other hand, is hypothetical. The point is that the situation I describe, though perhaps rare or anomalous in practice would not be offside, though it seems terrifically unfair, don't you think?

  3. sorry, one more try, and then i rest my case (for now)...maybe you're right, Paul, about the meaning of the words in the rule. thus my argument (to borrow the parlance of constitutional law) should be less a textual one, and more structural. consider the following, more realistic scenario. a corner kick is cleared and the defending team marches up in lockstep. imagine there's a really lazy striker on the other team who stays put on the penalty spot. the beauty and elegance of the offside rule come from the fact that the defending team can essentially ignore this lazy striker as an attacking player, and the rule should render him irrelevant. but, in the end, he's actually smarter than anyone realizes, (including himself), for (surprise!) he will be positioned perfectly for the second ball. a pass is played diagonally right to left as the left back on the attacking team sprints forward to meet it, onside. again, the right back on the defending team sees the run, and though he can't stick right with the player and win the ball, is close enough to apply pressure. but all the left back has to do now is pass the ball to the lazy striker who now looks like a genius. the purpose of the offside rule is upended because the defending team is not caught out by a cleverly timed run, but by sheer laziness. the defending team is thus relatively powerless to render attacking players inactive...

  4. I think I'm with you, Sam ... Bendtner is in an offside position when the initial ball is played to Krohn-Deli - he's not flagged because he wasn't involved in the play, and he didn't "gain an advantage." But as you say, he did, subsequently, gain an advantage from having been behind the last defender -- even though when the ball is played from Krohn-Deli to Bendtner, the latter is no longer in the offside position.
    I think the offside rule would be better with less (or even zero) discretion in the officials; they have a hard enough time figuring out whether someone IS in an offside position (a judgment they get wrong 25% or the time or so); asking them to make the much more nuanced judgment (Did he 'gain an advantage' from being in the offside position?) seems misguided to me.

  5. And I've been thinking more about the "constitutional" issue ... You think that Bendtner should be flagged offside, because he did gain an unfair advantage from being behind the last defender when the FIRST ball was played TO Krohn-Deli. Let's say I agree.
    At what moment, though, does the linesman declare it offside? When the first ball is played to K-D? Bendtner isn't involved in that play, and he hasn't yet gained any advantage (has he)? So the flag goes up when the ball is played to Bendtner (which is the moment he realizes the advantage he gained)? That seems odd, to me - and asking a great deal of our beleaguered linespeople ...

  6. Shouldn't be too odd, as it's the same standard for getting a ball off the goalpost or off the goalkeeper. If K-D scores, great, flag stays down. Imagine that the initial cross to K-D had been a shot instead: If the ball ricochets off the post to K-D, flag stays down, and he is free to shoot and score. If it ricochets to Bendtner, flag goes up. Same thing here: flag goes up only if/when Bendtner plays or attempts to play the ball.