In November 2019, the phrase ‘armpit offside’ entered football vocabulary.
In an English Premier League match that season, Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino scored a goal against Aston Villa but it was disallowed by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) after the forward was ruled offside. So close was the call that the Premier League wrote on its official Twitter handle: “…his armpit, which was marginally ahead of the last Villa defender.”
The decision led to a furore over offside laws and the role of the VAR.
However, such decisions could soon be a thing of the past. World football’s governing body FIFA will be trying a new offside law, proposed by legendary football manager Arsene Wenger, in what is said to be the biggest change to the rule for a century.
Wenger, who is called ‘The Professor’ for his ideas and managerial abilities, proposed a change to the existing offside rule in October last year. According to his theory, a player should be judged offside only if any part of the body with which he can score a goal is past the last defender.
“I would like it to be that there is no offside so long as a [single] body part which a player can score with is in line with the defender. This could be too much of an advantage for an attacker because that obliges the defenders to play higher up,” Wenger told L’Equipe.
After a meeting of the International Football Association Body (IFAB), which forms the laws of the game, FIFA said they would try this rule in a Chinese league. Based on the reports of the trials, they would decide if it can be applied globally.
The current rule
While FIFA has tinkered with a lot of other rules of football, the offside law has by and large been untouched despite being one of the most controversial ones.
If Wenger’s proposal is accepted, it would be the biggest change to the offside rule since 1925. That year, the number of defenders, including the goalkeeper, that had to be between the attacker and the goal was changed from three to two.
In 1990, the rule was amended to specify that if the attacker was level with the last defender (outfield player and not goalkeeper), when the ball was played forward, he would not be offside.
There are a couple of other points with regards to the current offside rule: A player cannot be offside if he is in his own defensive half of the field or if the game starts with a throw-in. It becomes one (in case of a throw-in) only when the particular player is involved in the move.
The impact of the proposed rule
If Wenger’s idea is made a rule, it would simplify the offside rule to some extent.
The criticism of VAR is it has started to flag situations where even millimetres of toes and fingers that stray beyond the last defender – or armpit, in Firmino’s case – as offside.
However, that could change going forward. For instance, if the majority of a players’ body is in an offside position when the ball is passed to him but his foot, head or shoulder are in line with the last defender, then he would not be considered offside and the goal, if scored, would stand.
As Wenger pointed out in his interview with L’Equipe, the rule would also make the game a lot more attacking as it would give the forwards a lot of leeway when they attempt to sneak behind the defence line to score goals.
How would it have impacted games
If the ‘Wenger Law’ would be applied to the 2006 Champions League final, then the controversial goal Samuel Eto’o scored for Barcelona against Wenger’s Arsenal would have been disallowed.
With Barcelona trailing by a goal, Eto’o received a pass from Henrik Larsson and slotted it past the Arsenal goalkeeper. Replays, however, suggested Eto’o was offside. Wenger has pointed out several times that if VAR existed back then, the goal would have been disallowed.
Even with his own theory, the goal would not have stood since Eto’o would be ruled offside as his leg was marginally past the last defender.
Firmino’s ‘armpit offside’, though, would not have stood if this rule was applied, leaving the football lexicon that much poorer – or not.