There’s always been one thing about The Beautiful Game that has bothered me. It doesn’t take advantage of its best asset – the goal.
Not everyone sees it that way, however. As Chris Anderson and David Sally point out in their book, The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know about Soccer Is Wrong, and their accompanying Slate article, an argument can be made that not every fan wants to see more goals. They reason, “What we really want to see are matches in which every goal is essential and potentially decisive.” They continue by saying that “the industry of soccer has delivered its customers exactly that – tight, nail-biting matches in which no team is guaranteed a thrashing or is facing insurmountable odds.”
While I appreciate their perspective, well researched and with an eye toward tradition, I disagree with their take. A game with fewer goals does not address the problem of a disparity amongst teams as much as it prevents better teams from setting themselves apart. In a game where goals are hard to come by, it is often an errant call, a random deflection, or any other chance encounter that determine the outcome of a game. When there are more goals scored in open play, the effects of these circumstances are diminished. The team who is better at scoring has a greater likelihood of winning the game, which is how it should be. The result should match the performance.
If this isn’t enough, goals are exciting. Why wouldn’t we want more of them? It is possible to increase the number of goals without cheapening them. Fans would welcome an increase in scoring after decades of stagnation. Offensive-minded players would relish the opportunity to put more in the back of the net. Competitive defenders would accept the challenge of a more offensive-minded game. And it would reduce the probability of big matches being reduced to penalty kicks, not to mention 0-0 stalemates, the ultimate in sports futility.
As Anderson and Sally astutely point out, defensive tactics have stifled any recent offensive innovation, leading to an average per game goal scoring average of 2.6 in the English leagues, a number that has remained consistent since 1970. Goals per game in the other major soccer leagues don’t drift far from that figure. The sport, as Anderson and Sally say, has “found its equilibrium.” For nearly 50 years the offense has been balanced by the defense, and the subtle changes in the rules to promote offense have done nothing to change this number.
Yet in these attempts to create more offense via minor alterations to the rules, there is sentiment that an increase in scoring would benefit the game. This suggests that not everyone is content with such an equilibrium. We also see that the focus of many of these attempts has been on amending the offside rule. The problem is it hasn’t gone far enough.
In 1863, when the Laws of the Game were first ratified, there was no forward passing. The game resembled rugby as players had to dribble into the defense in order to advance the ball. Three years later, the rule was altered to state that a player could receive a forward pass if there were three defenders ahead of him. This was changed to two defenders in 1925 and further revised in 1990 to assert a player was onside if he was even with the second to the last defensive player.
Other subtleties to the offside rule have been added. In 1873, being offside was determined by when the ball was played instead of when the ball was received. This allowed players to release into open field earlier in the play. One of the more recent changes came in 2005, which changed the wording of the law to state that a player in an offside position will only be called for the infraction if said player proceeds to touch the ball or is in position to make contact with a defensive player. In essence, those players who are in an offside position but are not involved in the play will not be called offside. As Jonathan Wilson, author of the great historical book on tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, noted in The Guardian, this was a way to reduce the effectiveness of the offside trap and stretch the field. It is in this most recent framework of rules that soccer, Wilson says, “at last seems to have got it right.” Without the defenders rushing up the field to get the offside call, the offense has a larger area of the pitch to work with, creating a style of soccer that allows skilled midfielders to flourish.
What we learn in all of this is that there is precedence in encouraging more goals in soccer. As FIFA’s own website states, the changes in the 1990s were “a series of amendments, often referred to as for the ‘Good of the Game,’ which were designed to promote attacking football.” And from Wilson, we also find the notion that allowing players greater use of the field creates a more exciting brand of soccer.
It is with this in mind that a further modification to the offside rule should be considered.
The proposed rule would place a line 22 yards from both goal lines, at the top of the penalty arc. (I suppose the placement of this line could be debated and good arguments could be made for an 18-yard line or further out at, say, 28 yards.) Once the ball has entered this offensive zone, a player may pass it to any teammate without that teammate being offside. In advancing the ball to this area, the current offside rule would apply. Once the ball has been legally brought into this area under the existing offside rule, players could receive a pass, regardless of their position or the position of any defender. (The proposal is similar to hockey except I don’t think it would be necessary for players to vacate the offensive zone once the ball has been brought of the area.) It prevents players from camping near the goal, while still allowing them to release into the end of the pitch once the ball has advanced into the offensive area, and in a game where goals are hard to come by, scoring chances would increase, bringing more excitement and a greater likelihood the better team walks away with a result.
Of course, we never know exactly how it will operate in practice unless a league out there has the gumption to try such a thing. Indeed, there have been leagues that have experimented with the offside rule but with less than stellar results. In the mid 1970s, the Scottish Football Association introduced the 18-yard line where players were not offside up to the line; if they crossed to the opposing side, they could then be called for being offside. In 1973, the fledgling North American Soccer League began their experiments with a similar idea but used a 35-yard line instead.
In both cases, forwards parked themselves at the line waiting for a long ball. Defenders spent less time on the attack and more time marking the opposing forwards, who could be closer to the goal without being offside. In effect, the midfield game diminished in favor of the long ball. On the other hand, the proposed rule keeps the midfield together while also allowing for more space once the ball has entered the offensive zone. There is a release point. This is accomplished while also preventing goal-hanging, which a total abolition of the offside rule could not do. Accordingly, the current rule is preserved for the vast majority of the pitch, but players for the ball being advanced to the offensive zone.
Ultimately, I believe in the rule change or, at the very least, the experimentation of it, but it would be met with resistance as the proposal would be too drastic for many. Traditionalists within the sport may argue such a change alters the game too much and is not align with its initial intent. To that, I’d say that tradition, in and of itself, is never a good reason to keep doing things the same way. We should be looking toward progress, and in doing so, the identity of the game does not have to be significantly altered in order to generate more offense. We just get more of what is best out of the game.