Play of the Week 16: Offside position

By PRO Director of Training and Education Paul Rejer

In Play of the Week 16 we are examining arguably the most difficult decision in the game, judging if an attacking player is in an offside position. Firstly, what does the Law say about being in an offside position:

Offside Position

It is an offense to be in an offside position if:

– any part of the head, body or feet is in the opponent’s half (excluding the half way line) and

– any part of the head, body or feet is nearer to the opponent’s 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:

– Second last opponent

– Last two opponents

When you examine the Law in regard of ‘any part of the head, body or feet is nearer to the opponent’s goal line than both the ball and the second last opponent’, it relates to any part of the body that can score.

It is a decision that needs to be judged on freeze-frame, even then you often need lines drawn across the field to make it more definitive. When the Law first specified this criterion, it was recognized that in real time, at full speed, how difficult it is for an assistant referee to decide whether a part of a player’s foot or head is in an offside position, so tolerances were accepted in the game despite the Law being specific.

I recall one senior referee manager announcing in the press that there has to be ‘daylight’ between the offside player and the second last opponent before he is given offside. At the time it was unreasonable to expect ARs to be able to interpret the Law as it was written but, over the years, those tolerances have become almost non-existent due to the high standard of AR decision-making all over the world, and our ARs are no exception.

When I say ‘almost non-existent’, the phrase ‘benefit of the doubt to the attacker’ is still used widely. I believe that when ARs afford the benefit of the doubt to the attacker, they have more chance of making the correct call due to the effects of flash lag, which I have described in previous plays of the week.

The flash lag illusion or flash lag effect is a visual illusion wherein a flash and a moving object that appear in the same location are perceived to be displaced from one another. In other words, a player moving towards goal would appear far more in advance of static defenders or those moving in the opposite direction, cross-over.

But the term benefit of the doubt is also used as a criterion when judging the accuracy of a decision. For example, if an AR signaled a player offside and disallowed a goal and it was proved that only his big toe was in an offside position, which can be done with modern technology, it’s not what soccer would expect or accept but technically it would be correct.

It is incredible that ARs at the highest levels typically achieve between a 95 per cent to 98 per cent accuracy rate on these close calls. Our most recent PRO stat was at an impressive 97.4 per cent.

I would like you to look at three offside decisions from MLS Week 16, where ARs have kept the flag down and goals have resulted.

Firstly; a clip from the New England Revolution versus Chicago Fire game. 

In real time, Fire’s Nemanja Nikolic appears to be well offside, this is due to the flash lag illusion. He is clearly onside but this is not an easy call to make.

The ball is played from distance and Nikolic is moving at speed – as is AR Craig Lowry – who has to judge the exact moment the ball is played and at the same time know the position of  Nikolic in conjunction with the second last defender. Lowry uses his vast experience, skill and judgement to make the correct decision. Nikolic goes on to score.

The second play is from Toronto FC versus D.C. United.

At the moment the ball is played to Jozy Altidore, look at the freeze-frame to see the excellent decision made by FIFA AR Adam Wienckowski, who correctly refrains from raising his flag. Altidore goes on to score.

This also is not an easy call for an AR to make. The ball is played from his left side and he has to know the exact moment it’s is played, and the position of Altidore and the second last defender. Altidore is also leaning forwards which can be tricky as we will see later.

Next, we have a play from the game between Philadelphia Union and New York Red Bulls.

What makes this call particularly challenging for AR Oscar Mitchell-Carvalho, is that when the ball is played to prolific striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, it would have been difficult to see the moment the ball is passed, and also tough to see the ball itself. ARs have to judge if any part of the head, body or feet is nearer to the opponent’s goal line than both the ball and the second last opponent.

You can see how challenging and close this is for Mitchell-Carvalho, who makes the correct call by keeping the flag down based on the fact he has no evidence of an offside offense.

In summary, these three plays and the subsequent decisions provide further evidence that offside position is the most difficult decision in the game. Here we see judgments that are not only outstanding but, quite frankly, defy logic!

The game is about goals, and ARs are encouraged and trained to give any benefit of the doubt to the attacking team.

Correct offside adjudications require the following skills:

– Optimum positioning: Must be level with the second last defender

– Fitness: To be in the correct position on a quick break in play

– Concentration: Any lapses will result in an incorrect call

– Awareness: Staying aware to the the players’ positions

– Alertness: Being alert to any potential unexpected occurrences, deflections/first-time pass

– Experience: Training to deal with the flash lag effect and knowing, through practice, the tolerance to allow the benefit to the attacking player

All of these attributes were seen in these three plays. There is no doubt that the beautiful game was richer in Week 16 from the benefit of the doubt afforded by these ARs.

To demonstrate how difficult these calls are please challenge yourself with Greg Barkey’s perception test – click here to access the test.

Play of the Week: Click here to read more educational material from Paul Rejer