Why don’t more sides score goals like this?

December 15, 2010

Ruud van Nistelrooy, king of the 'offside position'

The modern offside law continues to frustrate defenders and pundits alike, but the men who should benefit from it – strikers – have not exploited it to its full potential.

First, some background on the offside law is needed, specifically the recent changes to it.

Jonathan Wilson’s piece gives a history of the law along with some implication for tactics, whilst the Premier League’s head of referees Keith Hackett outlines the ‘new’ law in detail.

In this article, we are dealing with a very specific outcome of the changes. Now, a player who is in an offside position when one pass in a move is played can go onto participate in the rest of the move as long as he doesn’t touch the ball from the initial pass.

If play catches up with him, and a second pass is played to him when he is in in an onside position, play can continue.

That’s a long-winded way of explaining something quite simple – goal-hanging is now an option.

To illustrate this with an example, Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal against Racing Santander earlier this season works very nicely.

There doesn’t look to be a tremendous amount of danger in this photo. Angel di Maria is on the ball on the right flank (yellow) with has no pressure on him, and Mesut Ozil (red) is about to make a run off the shoulder of the last defender. The centre-backs should be able to cope.

The situation is complicated, however, by the fact that Ronaldo is still inside the penalty box, off-screen to the right (blue). Previously, Ronaldo would be deemed to be ‘gaining an advantage’ in that position and would not be able to take part in the move.

Now, however, as soon as Mesut Ozil sprints with the ball to a position level with Ronaldo, Ronaldo becomes onside. Ozil squares the ball, and Ronaldo taps in.

Here’s the video, at 3:20:

See how easy it is? Granted, that was poor defending. You shouldn’t play such a high line with no pressure on the ball, and by the look of Ozil’s positioning the second picture, he probably could have gone onto a one-on-one himself.

It’s not just a problem when playing with a high line, however. Holland’s second goal against the Czech Republic in 2004 was very similar.

Here, Ruud van Nistelrooy (green) is the goalscorer, and Arjen Robben (blue) is the provider. Van Nistelrooy is clearly offside from Edgar Davids’ initial pass (red), but because Robben gets himself ahead of van Nistelrooy, he is allowed to square the ball for van Nistelrooy to finish.

Here’s the video, at 0:22:

Therefore, it seems very easy to score through this route, illustrated by the diagram below. If the blue team’s winger (let’s say Theo Walcott) can run from a to b quicker than the defence, and the through ball is vaguely accurate, it’s almost a surefire assist.

The 'offside' goal

There’s no ’scandal’ here – if Walcott was positioned in the centre of the pitch and outpaced the defence to a through ball, he’d be through on goal himself.

But straight balls over the top of the defence are relatively difficult to play, as there’s a good chance they’ll skid through to the goalkeeper. In that position, Walcott would generally be up against two centre-backs, whereas a winger v full-back situation is much more obviously 1 v 1, and the diagonal ball makes it much easier for the winger to reach first.

Perhaps the situation has changed, and, as Wilson mentions, defences are defending deeper to nullify the threat of this type of attack. The Holland goal above, though, shows that it’s not only possible to score like this against sides playing a high line – you just need a winger with great acceleration over ten yards, and a midfielder capable of playing a fairly simple through ball.

Defences have still not adapted to the threat of a player wandering back from an offside position, however. It is still natural for them to stop playing if a ball is played through the defence in the vague direction of an offside striker – but if the striker doesn’t touch the ball, he is not interfering with play.

Javier Hernandez’s goal against Spain in August demonstrated this well – his strike partner Carlos Vela is in an offside position and the Spain defence completely stops, allowing Hernandez forward from an onside position to score. The goal is completely legitimate, but the defence has been completely thrown by a player who (a) does not touch the ball and (b) cannot touch the ball.

This type of goal isn’t relevant to the examples shown above, but it does show how unnatural it is for defences to keep on playing if a ball over the top is played, and a striker is offside – which would again favour the attacking side.

So why don’t more sides use this tactic? The problem, of course, is that the striker is completely separated from the rest of the game, and is unable to hold the ball up or link play.

But it’s something a side should experiment with. Certain wingers are quicker than almost every full-back and centre-back they’ll face this season, so as long as they can play a 15-yard square ball to a striker, the striker should have a couple of seconds to control the ball and finish.

At Premier League level defences might be wise enough to deal with it, but lower down the pyramid, the combination of 15 stone opposition centre-backs and a pacey winger would surely reap rewards…

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