The offside rule can be one of the more confusing Laws of the Game, not least because its exact parameters have been shifted and changed several times over the course of world football history. However, any keen football player or fan needs to be well versed in what the offside rule is and how it impacts each game, whether at professional, semi-pro or amateur standard.
For that reason, in this article we'll be diving into a very specific aspect of how offside works in football. We'll be offering you a guide to how this rule is applied during goal kicks, throw-ins and corners. Being able to quickly glance across the field and instantly spot a player in an offside position is a crucial skill within football, whether you're a central defender or a wide attacker hoping to beat the offside trap and launch a dangerous attack. By the time you've finished reading this article, you'll not only understand how to achieve this during open play, but also during all the major types of set piece seen in football. Let's get started.
The offside rule is designed to prevent attacking players from gaining an unfair positional advantage by standing behind the defensive line (in other words, "goal hanging"). As defined by the Olympics website, "the offside rule mandates that during a move, an attacking player, when in the opposition half, must have at least two opposition players, including the goalkeeper, between him and the opposition goal when a pass is being played to him."
A player is offside when they’re beyond the defensive line when the ball is played to them. The best way to avoid getting an offside call against you is to time your run so that as the ball is passed before you run in behind the defensive line, collecting the ball in space in an advanced position beyond the opposition defense.
However, a player doesn't actually have to touch or receive the ball directly in order to be ruled offside. All a player has to do for an offside offense to be given is interfere with an opponent. This could be by obstructing a defender's line of sight, taking an action that impacts the defender's ability to play the ball, holding or touching the defender and thereby interfering will the ball, or gaining an advantage when the ball has bounced off the crossbar, goalpost, or goalkeeper. Any time an offside offence occurs, the opposition team is awarded an indirect free kick from the position where the offence occured.
To avoid breaking the offside law a player simply has to have two opposition players between them and the opposition goal. There are also some other things that can prevent a player from being offside on the soccer field. For example, it's impossible for a player to be offside when they're inside their own half when the ball is played (even if they've reached the opposing team's half by the time they gain possession). This rule has an important impact on one key area of the game...
According to the English Football Association (FA)'s Laws of the Game, no player can be offside directly from a goal kick. This means that when facing goal kicks, defenders have to structure themselves in a way that takes into account the freedom of movement opposition attackers can have across the field of play.
The reasoning behind this rule is that if attacking players could be offside from a goal kick, it would severely restrict the goalkeeper's ability to distribute the ball properly. If the defensive team pushed their entire back line up to the halfway line, it would mean that anyone on the opposition team in the offensive half of the field would be offside. The team in possession of the goal kick would be pushed deep into their own half as a result, removing one of the main purposes of the goal kick: to shift the ball into the opposing half of the pitch.
Therefore, it's fine if an attacking player is in an offside position when they receive the ball directly from a goal kick. Manchester City have used this rule to their advantage on multiple occasions, employing goalkeeper Ederson's long-range kicking ability to exploit the opposing team's high defensive line. Against Watford, he produced an incredible assist for Sergio Aguero directly from a goal kick, while on another occasion he distributed to Gabriel Jesus when the striker was beyond the opposition's defensive line.
As these examples show, the fact that you can't be offside from a goal kick is something that benefits attackers and gives defensive players an extra thing to think about when setting up their back line. However, it's important to note that if a goalkeeper has possession of the ball and is performing a drop kick from their hands during open play, it is possible for attackers to be offside in this situation.
Another important consideration when looking at the offside rule in soccer relates to throw-ins: just like with goal kicks, it's impossible for an offside offence to occur directly from a throw-in. Given that throw-ins are a super common part of football, with around 40-50 of the set pieces happening each game, it's key that we flesh out why this particular rule exists.
This is a rule that has actually been revised on several occasions throughout history. In the original 1863 Laws of the Game, you couldn't be offside from a throw-in, but because back then throw-ins were required to be thrown in at right-angles to the touchline (like a rugby line-out), it didn't make much of a difference as there would be no advantage gained from being ahead of the ball.
When an 1877 rule change dictated that throw-ins could go in any direction, the law was changed, making it illegal for players to occupy an offside position directly from a throw-in. However, the law was amended once more in 1920, ruling that a player could not hold an offside position directly from a throw-in, and that rule has stayed the same ever since.
Offsides from throw-ins are permitted because if a player couldn't receive or touch the ball in an offside position from a throw, defensive teams would be able to simply stand in line with the throw-in taker and thereby prevent them from distributing the ball forward into a more advanced area of the pitch. In this situation, as soon as a player in a more advanced position went to kick the ball, the flag would go up, meaning that throwers would essentially only be able to throw backwards if they didn't want to run the risk of a player being called offside. This is why when a player receives the ball in an offside position directly from a throw-in, there will be no complaints from the referee or their assistants.
You might've guessed where this is going — you cannot be called offside from a corner kick. Corners happen on a fairly regular basis throughout most matches, offering attacking teams the opportunity to cross the ball directly into the danger area or a build an attacking threat from wide. And when a corner kick is taken, it's impossible for an attacking player to be called offside.
The reason for there being no offsides at corner kicks is a little different to the previous rules we've looked at in this article. That is, it's virtually physically impossible to be in an offside position at a corner, because being offside means a player is "nearer to their opponent's goal line than the ball" when it is played towards them, but at a corner, the ball is already on (or at least very near) the goal line when it is kicked. If the ball is already on the goal line, it's impossible for an attacking player to be further forward than that, because it would mean they'd be off the pitch.
If offsides from corners were allowed, it would create all sorts of difficult situations for match officials. At corners, the referee and assistant referees already have to closely watch both the corner taker and all the defenders and attackers in the penalty box to spot infringements and fouls, and adding another difficult call to the mix with direct offsides would further confuse things. So this exception to the offside rule is largely there to prevent officials from having to make extremely difficult offside decisions each time a corner is played.
To summarise, there is no offside in soccer when the ball is received directly from any of these types of set piece:
However, when it comes to the other most common type of set piece, the indirect or direct free kick, it is possible to be offside. The reason for this is that it would be very difficult for a defensive team to set up an effective back line if attackers were allowed to essentially "goal hang" in offside positions during an attacking goal kick.
If the laws we've explored in this article didn't exist, the role of set pieces in football would be extremely different. For example, cleverly-devised long throw-in routines (as performed by clubs such as Brentford) would be much more difficult to pull off, while the roles and responsibilities of the goalkeeper, who is often tasked with launching attacks from long-range kicks, would also be altered.
The crucial role of set pieces in modern football is something that we have discussed extensively on the Jobs in Football blog. If you're still looking to brush up on the basics, start by reading our guide to the throw-in (and how to perform them effectively). Or if you're more of a specialist set piece taker searching for some insight on how to improve your technique, read our fascinating Q&A with ball striking expert coach Bartek Sylwestrzak.