It’s offside, but not as we know it

Wednesday, November 9, 2011
5:30 PM

For those of us of a certain vintage the Arsenal back four from the George Graham era was held up as a bastion of best practice.

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Supporters of opposition sides up and down the land became routinely sick of hearing the chant ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ ring around their stadiums as Graham’s steamroller pocketed another three points or eased through to the next round of a cup competition.

Arsene Wenger brings his modern-day Gunners to Carrow Road after the international resumption. The Frenchman’s attacking philosophy could not be more marked from one of his predecessors; think Susan Boyle rather than Jedward.

Arsenal may no longer be the ‘Invincibles’, but Robin Van Persie’s class of 2011 is still a sight to behold in full flow. But I digress. Graham’s backline, marshalled by Tony Adams adhering to the Scot’s ‘no risk’ approach, underpinned a dominant era that brought two league titles, one FA Cup, two League Cups and the Uefa Cup Winners’ Cup to Highbury.

If synchronised arm waving had been an Olympic sport at the time, Adams and Co would have been gold medal contenders. Arsenal had the old offside rule down to a fine art; pressing high up the pitch in a uniform line running horizontally across the park from Lee Dixon to Nigel Winterburn. So the legend goes, Graham the disciplinarian perfected this routine with a simple piece of string which both full-backs and the two centre-halves would spend hours holding in unison on the training field.

The rest of the football fraternity may have frowned upon it, but Graham had the trophies and medals to throw across any pub table in the land to shut the critics up. Yet how many would he have had if the current offside law been in place?

Try wrapping a piece of string around what constitutes an active or inactive player. Or devise a foolproof method for defining different phases of play. Or debate why the benefit of the doubt appears always stacked in favour of the attacking side.

The genesis of the rule change was clearly to foster more offensive styles of football. More goals, more entertainment.

Look at the numbers scored in the Premier League this season and the law makers within the dark recesses of Fifa can give themselves a collective pat on the back. But the art of defending is becoming extinct. Do we care? Well, yes, I do.

Allied to outlawing the ‘dangerous’ tackle – the quote marks are deliberate – our game is in danger of becoming sanitised. No-one wants to see players suffering horrendous injury, but the current imbalance presents its own unique set of problems.

Former England and Manchester United defender Gary Neville sparked debate recently when he insisted the concept of playing an offside trap is now dead. Paul Lambert had his own views when pressed at his pre-match Aston Villa briefing.

“That is a grey area and I think it has been for a number of years,” he said. “I don’t think there should be a grey area.

“The last line of the pitch is a vital part and we all need to be clear what is offside and what is not. I think at the minute it’s a difficult one. You don’t want to play it because of inactive or active, so you are bit unsure at times.

“I think if you are in any doubt whatsoever then you can’t play it. You have to take that out of the equation. It’s not for me to decide the rule, but if you are in any doubt then don’t play it.”

If top-ranking Premier League managers and coaching brains are unable to come up with a foolproof antidote, you know the issue has now morphed beyond mere pub debate into something more troubling.

I’ve no interest in a return to the days of ‘boring, boring Arsenal.’ But the offside law in its current guise is not fit for the purpose.

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