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Arsenal v Boro – Does the Offside Goal Expose a Flaw in Refereeing?


This is not a post to moan about a referee getting a decision wrong.  Rather, this particular incident got me wondering, “How is that supposed to work then?”  Maybe you have the answer…

It’s been reasonably well accepted that Arsenal’s opener against Middlesbrough should have been flagged offside (video link).  Graham Poll on Setanta’s Football Matters thought so.  So did the Right Result website.  So did Allison Rudd on The Game podcast.

Although Nicklas Bendtner didn’t play the ball, he impeded the goalkeeper’s ability to save the shot from an offside position by running into his path at a crucial moment.  The flag stayed down though and Arsenal went on to win the game 2-0.

But here’s the thing that made me say “Hmmm”.

  • The referee can see whether the player is interfering with the goalkeeper, but not whether the player is offside.
  • The assistant ref can see whether the player is offside, but (possibly) not whether the player is interfering with the goalkeeper.

How can the ref and lino collaborate to make the right decision in such cases?

Should the assistant have put his flag up, even if he’s not sure whether the offside player was involved in play?  Should the referee have gone and talked with the linesman even though there was no flag?  What if play had somehow continued with Arsenal in possession, not allowing for a quick chat between the officials?

Are there any referees out there – real ones or couch referees like myself – who can help clear this up?

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  1. Jasbrit

    April 29, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    In my opinion, there are really only 3 options to changing the offside rules:
    1. Offside is offside – go back to the old rule. I have never agreed with the concept of “active / inactive players” or “players aren’t interfering with play”. There’s too much of a grey area. As many great managers have stated – “if a player is not interfering with play at all times, then he shouldn’t be on the field”. It shouldn’t matter if he’s 50 yards away from the ball, the defensive unit need to be considered, and is there not something to be said for all players requiring a fitness level to keep up with play at all times?. Most of the time when attakcing players are “jogging back” from offside positions, they’re jogging back because they are conserving energy, knowing that they’re not going to be flagged offside.
    2. Segment to field. Add an “attacking zone” to each end of the field, about 20 yards outide the penalty area (remember the Subbuteo field?) All offsides are offside (similar to the old rule) but you can only be offside in an attacking zone (not the middle section of the field). At least with this system, if you’re in an offside position in the attacking zone, it’s offside. it doens’t matter if you’re next to the corner flag or in the box… offside is offside.
    3. Introduce team challenges (instant replay) – kind of like the system used in the NFL, tennis etc. Provide the manager with 2 challenges per half. Referees are instructed (as they are in the NFL) to allow play to continue. If a challenge has been made, the action can be reviewed (with a time limit) when the plays stops. If a challenge is made, the manager presses a button and it warns the referee that the play has been challenged. Yes, it’ll slow the game down – but will also increase the level of excitement and anticipation. Obviously there’d need to be clearly details on what can an cannot be challenged – but in this day and age, it shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out.

  2. Matt

    April 29, 2009 at 11:46 am


    As Bendtner makes his way toward the keeper, he becomes a threat for a cross and, as one can see from the keeper’s reactions on the play, he is indecisive about defending the cross and the strike.

    A “good yard” in front of the keeper is close, not far. The ball whizzes very close to Bendtner. I’m a referee. For me, it’s obvious. For Graham Poll it’s obvious. More importantly, if you look at the offside illustrations in the LOTG, you’ll see one example that is identical to this.

  3. Phil McThomas

    April 29, 2009 at 7:31 am

    “At the top level where everyone is connected with headsets, after the goal and before the kickoff, you would expect the AR to ask the referee if *insert player #* was interfering with the GK. If the referee says yes, then the AR informs him that the player was in an offside position and the goal should be disallowed.”

    This would mean disallowing a goal for offside without the lino raising his flag (or raising his flag five seconds after the goal has been scored). I’m not saying it’s wrong, just that I’ve never seen it happen.

  4. Jaime

    April 29, 2009 at 6:59 am

    He did not impede the keeper. He saw the shot the whole way and Bendtner was a good yard in front of the keeper. Of all the bad calls this season this is probably the least controversial. I do agree though that the refereeing this year has been mediocre at best at least in the EPL. If Howard Webb is the best we have to offer it doesnt say much for the EPL refs. I have noticed that the refereeing on the CL has been top class. There have been few, if any, controversial calls.

  5. Matt

    April 29, 2009 at 3:48 am

    Re: that 2nd Arsenal/Boro game last season, the referee as I recall was Mark Halsey.

  6. Matt

    April 29, 2009 at 3:47 am

    You’ll recall last season in the second Arsenal/Boro game, a perfectly good Arsenal goal was disallowed, after a Boro player (can’t remember who) played the ball (not deflected, played) and it went to Adebayor who then scored a perfectly acceptable goal.

    Last season, Arsenal took more than their fair share of lumps from poor referee decisions (did you happen to see the CL matches with Liverpool?). This season, we’ve had a few go our way. Happens to everyone.

    On the balance of play, you can’t be too upset with this result. When you create a hundred chances and the other team only creates two, odds are you’re going to get more calls in your favor.

  7. Andy Smith

    April 29, 2009 at 3:02 am

    John T – The problem with the old style rule and your interpretation is that the old-style “offside” player, could be nowhere near the ball and still be offside.
    Despite the “new” problems with interpreting and applying the rule, I still believe the “interferring with play” aspect to be a step forward. I just think the application of it needs to be improved.

    Matt – I don’t believe Chris Foy to be a cheat either but this is not the first time that his performance has been brought into question after being in charge of a game involving one of the big 4 Premier League teams. I think it raises a larger point about the lack of preparation for these mentally-tough fixtures. Unfortunately, in this instance Boro have paid the price again.

  8. John Thomas

    April 29, 2009 at 1:44 am

    Quite simple really change the rules back to as they were, offside is offside and that would be an end to it, 2 players between attacker and goal when the ball is passed, if only one player then offside, there was never any problem prior to FIFA changing the offside rule and most refs and linos don’t seem to know how to interpret these recent offside rules.

  9. cy

    April 29, 2009 at 1:09 am

    At the top level where everyone is connected with headsets, after the goal and before the kickoff, you would expect the AR to ask the referee if *insert player #* was interfering with the GK. If the referee says yes, then the AR informs him that the player was in an offside position and the goal should be disallowed.

    If the referees are not connected, after the goal and before the kickoff, the AR should raise his flag and get the referee to come speak to him.

  10. Matt

    April 29, 2009 at 12:09 am

    First of all, this is a very insightful post. Unlike most “armchair referees” you were able to understand the nuance of this situation and understand why it’s difficult to make such a call correctly, rather than jumping to the conclusion that the referee or the assistant referee is a cheat. Chris Foy isn’t a cheat. Like the penalty claim against Bendtner, Foy (and his assistant) simply missed it.

    In such a situation, the assistant referee and the referee need to consult with each other. I don’t often see EPL referees do this. They have the microphones, so perhaps I’m missing their conversation. I do see referees from other countries get this call correct on occasion (a famous instance occurred during the last World Cup).

    But as you have pointed out, there will be instances when both the referee and his assistant are missing just enough information on the play so they don’t even know that they need to ask the question.

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