The Offside Trap In Soccer (Explained)

Fans of the 1997 movie “The Full Monty” might remember that the “Arsenal offside trap” was used to help some rather hopeless men with their dancing skills by getting them to move into a straight line.

An offside trap is a defensive technique used by multiple soccer teams the world over, and is a very effective yet risky way to stop attacks.

What is an offside trap in soccer? An offside trap is when all of the defenders go upfield towards their opponent’s goal just before the ball is kicked, forcing the ball receiver into an offside position. This can cause an offside offense and cue an indirect free kick for the defending team.

Brief Explanation of Offside Rule

The Laws of the Game state that a player is in an offside position when the player receiving the ball from a teammate is ahead of the second-to-last defender (with the last defender usually being the goalkeeper) when the ball is kicked.

In general, the player taking the kick has to be behind the last on-field defender when the pass begins. It is designed to keep attacking players from simply hanging around the goal area, waiting for a long pass that they can lob into the net.

Changes to the offside rule mean that simply being in an offside position is no longer an offense, but instead that the player is only called offside if she or he participates directly in the play.

You can learn more about the offside rule in this post.

History of Offside Trap

As with so much of the game of football as we know it today, the offside trap originated in England. Notts County FC is the oldest professional soccer club in the world, having been in consistent operation since 1862. In the early 20th century, Notts County deployed the first known instance of this defensive strategy. 

However, the offside trap didn’t stay confined to the Great British Isles. Its value was seen by Argentinian coach Osvaldo Zubeldia and Italian manager Arrigo Sacchi, as well as countless others throughout the history of the game.

Argentina

Zubeldia was the coach of Estudiantes de La Plata from 1965 to 1970, and his strategic, philosophical approach to the game saved them from relegation and inked them into the pages of Argentine’s soccer history. 

The first notable time that Zubeldia employed the offside trap when his team played at Old Trafford against Manchester United.

His defenders used this tactic to render the two best Manchester United attackers almost useless. The game ended in a 1-1 draw, which was a surprising result given the apparent mismatch between the two teams.

Italy

Manager Arrigo Sacchi also deployed this strategy when he was trying to help turn AC Milan from a struggling club into an Italian powerhouse.

His defenders would simply charge in the direction of their own goal, stranding the attacking players and raising the flag from the line judge. Even though Sacchi coached in the late 1980s and early 1990s, his influence is still seen today.

Liverpool manger Jurgen Klopp has cited Sacchi as one of his largest influences as a manager, and the current Liverpool squad has an offside trap that works in a remarkably similar manner to Sacchi’s, although it has been adjusted for rule changes that have happened since Sacchi was on the sideline.

Pros of Using an Offside Trap

The offside trap has similar advantages to other strategic fouling, although in this case, the defending team is causing the attacking team to commit the foul rather than committing it themselves. It’s not uncommon throughout sports to use fouls in a strategic way, and the offside trap is no different.

Since the sanction for an offside ruling is that the defending team is awarded an indirect free kick at the spot of the foul, this gives the defending team an opportunity to slow the pace of the game. It causes the attacking team to lose their momentum, and the defending team will then have possession of the ball.

Additionally, if a player in an offside position receives the ball and subsequently scores, that score won’t count. Soccer fans the world over have celebrated a goal, only for it to be called back because the scorer player was offside.

If a player looks to be in a strong position to score, defenders could render the goal null and void if the offside trap is successfully executed.

Cons of Using an Offside Trap 

And that is a big if. Not only do the defenders have to have gotten into position before the ball is kicked, they are taking a chance by depending on the referee or line judge. Everyone has seen it happen. A foul occurs in the field of play, but it isn’t called correctly, and the result of the play stands.

If the timing isn’t done just right, the defending player will not actually put the attacking player into an offside position.

For example, if they move upfield just after the ball is kicked, they haven’t caused the attacking player to be offside. Instead, they’ve left them wide open and will have to change course in an attempt to defend.

Additionally, the rules have been updated many times throughout history. As it stands, a player standing in an offside position will not receive a sanction. They have to actually participate in the play.

Therefore, if an attacking player sees the offside trap and realizes they will be committing a foul if they play the ball, they can simply chose to not make the play. Instead, they can communicate with their teammates or let the ball go out of bounds, which will result in a throw-in, not an indirect free kick.

How to Defend Against an Offside Trap

Since the rules changed, the more simplistic technique employed by Sacchi and Zubeldia—which caused stoppage if even one player was stranded offside—the offside trap is easier to defend against.

Field awareness is key. Players need to be able to see where they are in relation to the last defender and make the choice to not play the ball if they’ve been left in an offside position.

When playing a team known for using a defensive strategy that will lead to a lot of offside calls, like Liverpool, then it may make sense to have the forwards playing a little less forward. Instead, have the forwards stick closer to their own goal and call out to the midfielders.

Remember, a player is allowed to outstrip a defender or move past the defender once the ball has been passed. This means that practicing timing is critical for attacking players to defend against an offside trap and exploit their opportunities on goal.

VAR and the Offside Rule

Video Assistant Referee technology hasn’t been universally adopted in the soccer world, and since it is a new tool, the rules around it are changing.

The Premier League was one of the leagues to use VAR to help determine offside offenses in the 2020-21 season, which caused 32 goals to be disallowed over the course of the season. However, the Premier League has relegated that VAR particular technology for 2021-22.

As many as 19 of the 32 were considered “marginal” and would have been allowed under the new system that they’ve brought in, which was used by the UEFA Champions League and at Euro 2020. These systems give more benefit of doubt to the attacking player, and it means that players have to be more than 5 centimeters or around 2 inches offside.

These technologies and how they work are going to be critical to teams looking to employ offside traps, as they’ll need to know how sensitive the rulings are and compensate accordingly.

The offside rule is a controversial one, and for some reason, non-fans of soccer always seem to struggle with understanding it. There is a hilarious video of retired USWNT player Abby Wambach attempting to explain the rule to her wife using the cups on the table at a restaurant.

However, those who understand the offside rule intimately, such as managers and players, can use it to their advantage, if they can manage the risks with the rewards of springing an offside trap on their opponent.

Connor Smith

I'm Connor, the guy behind SoccerPrime. I'm a former NCAA Div 1 college player that retired at the age of 21 due to injuries - which led me into a new career as a soccer coach.

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