Onside vs offside explained

One of the most significant barriers for those interested in learning how soccer works is the offside rule. Now, for those who thought we had wrapped our heads around it, VAR’s presence in the Premier League has made even the most hardcore fan doubt they genuinely understand what it means.

Association football attracts billions, and the English Premier League puts the country on the map. Having spanned three centuries, the game has witnessed many massive changes, from the shoes, uniforms and ball design to completely reshaping the offside rule. Often, the sign of understanding any topic is being able to explain it as simply as possible, so that’s the challenge we will set ourselves for today. 

Why offsides are becoming more scrutinized in today’s game

Understanding on and offside is often the last hurdle before you completely understand how the game works. In today’s world, offside has been brought even further under the microscope due to the emergence of the poorly embedded video assisted referee (VAR) system and how it continues to highlight the contradictions and ambiguities within the modern game. 

Throw in the fact that derivative, in-play gambling markets now take wagers on the number of offsides in one game or the first player to be flagged offside and the focus becomes even more specific on the rule itself. Linesmen and referees get it right (or wrong) every weekend — usually, depending on the team you support. 

When they do get it wrong, those placing bets on the outcome of a game that is decided by a dubious offside call are understandably unhappy. Sportsbooks that stream different sports live and use in-play technology are acutely aware of the difficulties bettors face whenever an offside ultimately decides whether their bet is successful or not. Maybe you’re seeking clarity on the rules because you feel hard done by in your gambling venture. In any event, let us try to boil it down to the bare minimum definition to avoid doubt.

The textbook definition of offside

According to the English FA — and this is a rule that has been verified by FIFA too, which is the global governing body — any part of the attacking player’s body closer to the goal than the opposition constitutes an offside. So, whenever the ball leaves the foot of the player attempting to pass it to the attacker, a measurement takes place. At that point, if the receiving player’s arm, toe, shoulder or head is closer to the goal than the last defender, it would be considered offside.

The goalkeeper is not considered part of the equation, as they are usually the last line of defense. However, in cases where defenders are on the goal line or behind the keeper, they are considered the last line of defense. If a striker keeps themselves just behind the line of the last defender, they’ve managed to stay onside.

Problems in practice

Now, while this might sound simple enough on paper, the interpretation and overall implementation have left a lot to be desired. For instance, Romelu Lukaku’s disallowed goal in the 2022 Carabao Cup final against Liverpool is still a sore point for many Chelsea fans, and understandably so. 

VAR takes considerable time to draw its conclusions, and it still leaves many fans guessing about how the technology actually works. Many ex-players, fans and analysts believe that the striker should be given the marginal benefit of the doubt — especially when it is particularly close. However, defenders would argue the other way. Nuances to consider

Players are not offside if they are inside their own half when the ball is played. Even if the opposition are all in the opposing box, so long as they are behind the halfway line when the ball is played then they are onside. The introduction of multi-phases has further muddied the waters, with passages of play going on for more than 30 seconds before being called back for a VAR offside check. 

Likewise, a player can’t be offside from a throw-in even if they are standing right on the opponent’s touchline. Finally, if a player passes the ball back to their goalkeeper, but an opposing striker intercepts this, it is not considered offside either. The ball needs to be passed by somebody on their team. 


The offside rule is by far the most difficult rule to get your head around. While on paper, it might seem okay, but as we have discussed, there are a lot of issues with the physical implementation and interpretations. The introduction of VAR into English football has been one of the most significant sports changes over the century thus far. However, whether it will be around in another decade is anyone’s guess — especially with growing calls for it to be scrapped.

Many managers and players have their own belief systems about what should be changed. Although the overwhelming support for VAR warranted it in the first place, the ridiculous way in which video offsides can decide games has turned a lot of fans against the technology. However, hopefully, you’ve got a grasp of what onside and offside actually mean — on paper at least.

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