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The offside trap: Explaining one of football's (soccer's) defensive strategies

Updated on July 3, 2011
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There is an old adage that “rules are meant to be broken.” In the case of association football (soccer), that could be adapted to “Laws can and will be circumvented and exploited.” The offside trap is a way to circumvent and exploit the offside law, use it to frustrate opposing attackers and break down promising plays.

Initially, the objective of FIFA's Law 11 – the offside law – was to facilitate a free-flowing passing game, by punishing attackers who were guilty of loafing or “cherry-picking.” However, players and coaches soon realized that they can use this as part of their defensive strategy.

The offside trap seeks to place opposing attackers in an offside position somewhat artificially, i.e. not because they are loafing. Although the “offside trap” was against the spirit of the offside law, it is well within the law. It is not considered unsporting because it would be problematic to do so and because it is a high-risk strategy anyway.

A successful trap. The attacker (red #10) is placed in an offside position at the moment the teammate plays or touches the ball.
A successful trap. The attacker (red #10) is placed in an offside position at the moment the teammate plays or touches the ball.
A failed trap. The attacker (red #9) is kept onside by the defender on the far left.
A failed trap. The attacker (red #9) is kept onside by the defender on the far left.

How it works

In executing this defensive strategy, a team’s entire defensive line moves closer to the halfway line in an attempt to clearly place the opposing attackers in an offside position at the moment the ball is played to them by a teammate. A central defender would usually be responsible for orchestrating the offside trap. Timing is critical in this move, so the defender responsible must be on-point with the instructions and the defence should be very responsive. Usually, the central defender would give the command to “push” or “step.”

For the offside trap to work effectively, awareness and anticipation is important. Defenders must not only be aware of their position relative to each other, but also the position of the opposing attackers. The co-ordinator of the offside trap should be the last in line at most – if not all – times. In addition, the defence must maintain their shape throughout the game when this strategy is in force.

Judging the offside trap

Executing the offside trap is different from the defensive line moving towards the halfway-line when their teammates are in possession of the ball. This is merely a way to gain territorial advantage on the field of play and also to support the attack. The offside trap, on the other hand, is a deliberate strategy designed to obtain favourable offside decisions from the referee and his assistants.

The offside trap is high-risk because it is notoriously difficult to judge sometimes. In the split-second after the ball is played/ touched by a teammate of the attacker, the attacker and defender can be two yards from each other once they are moving in opposite directions. In moments like these, an onside attacker could easily appear offside, especially when he is quicker and blazes ahead of the defence. An inexperienced, nervous or intimidated assistant referee may easily make errors.

Conclusion

Indeed, the offside trap also attempts to exploit the perceptual limitations of the assistant referee. If it fails, the attacker has a clear run at goal, usually with defenders yards behind the play. When it works, the attacker is called for an offside offence and the defending team gets an indirect free kick to restart play. Although it is a high-risk strategy that exploits the offside law, the offside trap makes the game interesting and even more dynamic.

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