One of the key moments that defined the way football is now played was the 1925 offside rule change. It did nothing more than reduce the number of the defending players needed for a play to continue from three to two, but the consequences were enormous.
The rules of the game as we know them in the 21st century came as a result of a long evolution that began long before the first Fourteen Rules were agreed upon at the historic meeting at the Freemasons’ Tavern in London, back in 1863 (various sets of rules had been adopted all over England in the preceding years, including Eton (1847), Cambridge (1848), Sheffield (1856) and Uppingham (1862), but none of them was widely accepted).
One of them, FA Rule 6, was the Offside rule. Initially the players were deemed offside simply for being in front of the ball, just like in various rugby codes, and forward passes were allowed only from behind the goal line.
This impeded the passing game, so by 1866 the rule had already been amended: forward passes were allowed as long as there were three players between the receiver and the goal line at the time of receiving. That decision was completely in accordance with offside “Sneaking rule” adopted 19 years previously at Eton.
Incidentally, that was the same year that a player was caught offside in an official game, and it was none other than Charles William Alcock, famously the creator of the FA Cup.
Back in those days there was no such thing as the crossbar, net, referees, corner kicks or indeed the penalty box, so the game looked very different from what it is today.
One year after the first international (England vs Scotland in 1872) the law was modified so that offside was judged only at the moment of kicking, rather than when the player received the ball.
Early in the 20th century additional Offside rule changes were introduced. From 1903 offside was called only when the player in that position caused the play to be affected. The rule was implemented over the full length of the pitch until in 1907 when it was decided that a player could only be offside in the opposition’s half. Fourteen years later it was impossible to be offside from a throw-in.
Despite those changes, which were aimed at helping the attackers, the game was becoming uneventful. The defenders kept pushing the line higher, nearer to the centre of the field. The pioneers in the use of the offside trap were Notts County full backs Herbert Morley and Jock Montgomery, before the First World War.
After the Great War similar tactics were deployed by another team playing in black and white, Newcastle United, led by their experienced Irish full-back Billy McCracken.
During 1922-23, McCracken’s last full season as a player (after spending 20 years at Newcastle he left them halfway through the following season to become the manager at Hull), the Magpies kept 18 clean sheets in 42 games and failed to score 16 times. Spectators were less than amused by seeing fewer than two goals per game when they played (as opposed to three goals per game watching their neighbours from Sunderland). Newcastle scored fewer goals (45) than second-to-last Stoke City (47), but still managed to end up in the fourth place.
Something needed to be done. In late January the FA took advantage of the fact that some big name clubs were already knocked out of the FA Cup and conducted a series of experimental games. Two solutions were proposed: limit the offside rule to within 40-yards of each goal or reducing the number of defenders needed to allow play to continue from three to two. Each was tested over one half of the game, and the latter solution was accepted by the majority of onlookers. One of the referees was quoted in Athletic News:
“If two defenders, instead of three, govern the operation of the offside law, football will be faster and a tremendous amount more interesting. I feel absolutely confident that the suggested alteration will make the game much more interesting for spectators”.
The decision, on reducing the number of defending players needed to keep a player onside from three to two, was made on 13 June 1925 at the International Football Association Board meeting in Paris.
The increase in the number of goals scored in games was immediate and unexpectedly steep. After a mere 2.54 goals per game in 1924/25, the spectators were treated to 3.45 goals per game the season after. The two-man rule was the final piece of a jigsaw that turned football into the high-scoring and immensely entertaining game that we all love (though at first there was a visible fall in quality, as described by the refereeing expert Julian Carosi, at least until the teams adapted).
The defenders were forced to play closer to each other and much nearer to their goal – but not too near so as to allow the attacker to shoot without first beating them to the ball. Attacking players began to use the long ball played between the two defenders, but even more importantly they were able to make more use of their wingers, who were allowed lots of space in the presence of only two full-backs.
The need for a third defender was obvious, and the W-formation (or WM as we know it today) was born. That was the impetus for further tactical changes which would slowly evolve into ‘total football’ over the following half a century.
The man who made the most of the rule change was Herbert Chapman. The former Huddersfield manager, who led the Terriers to two league wins in their until-then unprecedented hat-trick of consecutive titles, had only just signed for Arsenal. The North London giants’ trophy cabinet was virtually empty back then, their previous two campaigns ended in 19th and 20th place finishes respectively, but after a slow start and some heavy defeats Chapman helped the nearly unchanged team to second place in the league. Top Eleven will be writing about the WM and arguably the greatest English manager of all time soon.
The offside rule was remodeled in 1938 by the future FIFA president Stanley Rous (at the time he was The FA secretary), but it took the International Football Association Board more than five decades to make significant changes once again.
After the 1990 World Cup served as a proof that the game was gradually sinking into a low-scoring and low-entertainment affair once again (even the then dominant AC Milan had eight 1-0 wins in a row at one instance around that time), several new rules were introduced, including allowing the attacker to play when in-line with the last two defenders or one of them.
Even though these changes helped to push football in the right direction once again, their consequences were not nearly as dramatic as the changes introduced in 1925.