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Why ball direction is irrelevant (offside case study)

The relevancy of ball direction at offside situations. I never thought it was a big issue, but I was wrong. In matchdays, I post screenshots on my social channels like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. As Watford scores the 3-3 equaliser against Liverpool, I share a screenshot from television. The idea: can you see if the attacker in offside position is closer to the backline then the ball or the secondlast defender. But I got a lot of comments on the fact it is a backpass. In this offside case study I explain why the the ball direction is irrelevant.

Please answer for yourself if the player is in offside position. A little exercise now: summarize the offside criteria for yourself. Write them down before you scroll down to the video and explanation.

Ball direction in offside situation

A close offside call

Yes, it’s very difficult to spot, because it is so close. And in the real game it happens at high speed, which makes it almost impossible for the AR to call. To begin with it’s good to know that “it is not an offence to be in an offside position”.

The criteria to be in offside position are:

  • any part of the head, body or feet is in the opponents’ half (excluding the halfway line) and
  • any part of the head, body or feet is nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent

The second-last opponent is too far away to make him onside. Then the position of the ball is relevant, which means not the toes of the player who passes the ball. It’s a very close call. My idea is that he is in offside position, but love to see a 3D model of the situation. Let’s assume he is offside, but is it an offence?

The ball direction is backwards

Let’s get into detail what actually happens after the moment of the shot/pass by Watford 11. The ball goes backwards, touches a Liverpool player, Liverpool goalie Mignolet and the bar. Then Watford attacker Britos, who was probably in offside position, scores. An analysis below the video.

Analysis offside situation

The first thing: the ball goes backwards. Lots of referees replied on the social channels that it therefore can’t be offside. That surprises me, because it’s a wrong assumption. Not the ball direction is relevant, but the position of the players.

Because the Liverpool player is so close to the situation, he can’t respond properly. This not a save or deliberate play, but a deflection.

Interfering with an opponent

As the goalie touches the ball, the attacker has not played the ball yet. But the question is if he’s interfering with an opponent.

The Laws of the game say that players are interfering with an opponent by:

  • preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision or
  • challenging an opponent for the ball or
  •  clearly attempting to play a ball which is close to him when this action impacts on an opponent or
  •  making an obvious action which clearly impacts on the ability of an opponent to play the ball

In this situation the attacker interferes with play and he impacts the ability of the goalkeeper to play the ball.


In this situation the goal should have been disallowed if the attacker is in offside position, because he interferes with the goalkeeper. Please keep in mind the player might be centimeters offside, so it’s something which is very difficult to spot during the game at full speed.

But most of all, I wrote this case study to explain that ball direction is not relevant.

If you see an interesting situation on the pitch, please let me know via


  • Michael

    Hi Jan,

    Enjoyed your latest case study so to confirm;

    If I am one v one situation with the GK and pass it to you regardless of a backwards pass or a forward pass, you are offside, correct?

    Where as if I were in the same situation to take the ball around the GK and then pass it to you regardless of direction then no offside?

    I’m a new referee and this one has me confused.

    • Jan ter Harmsel

      Hi Michael,
      Good question.

      The backward-forward thing is not relevant indeed. But the position of the attackers is. Someone is in offside position if any part of the head, body or feet is nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent. In this situation the secondlast opponent is not relevant, as he is one on one with the goalkeeper. So it all comes down to the position of the ball and the attacker who receives the pass. If he is is what we call behind the ball (so further away from the goal line) he is not in offside position, so there’s no offside for sure. If he is in offside position, then other criteria apply because then it’s the question if he plays the ball or interferes with an opponent and so on.

      In the second situation the same thing applies. Position is key here. Where is the attacker

  • Layth Jato

    Two calls could have been made:
    1. Offside: Player was on the GK Back throughout the play from the Corner Kick being taken. Is hard to call? If the AR was awake throughout rather than watching the ball, he could have called it easily.

    2. DFK: As the player interfering with the GK, you would have had the AR calling that one easier as it was staring at him in the face. Even the Watford player checked first that no call was made before celebrating the goal.

    3. DFK: Interfering with GK before the ball crossed the line and as it was directed to the net. Easy call for the referee.

    Having said that, the Liverpool GK did not do a good job bringing the attention of the referee to the interference as many smart GKs do even before the Corner Kick was taken. Think, if this was Real Madrid, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Man UTD, and many other teams they would have been all over this rather than felling sorry, as Liverpool player did, after this mess.

    • Jan ter Harmsel

      I am just wondering why you give a direct free kick for interfering? Direct free kicks are for a foul like pushing or so.

  • Robert Schaap

    Hi Jan,
    Great article. I think Referees need to go back to basics (and back to the LOTG) when dealing with situations like this. Law 11 states “A player in an offside position at the moment the ball is played or touched by a teammate…. (etc)”. There is no mention of the direction of the ball in the LOTG. Yes, the above scenario is close and is very difficult for the AR to spot (luckily we have VAR now!!) but the situation doesn’t even have to be so close to understand the mechanics. If an attacker with the ball is on the 20 yard line and a teammate is on the 15 yard line (clearly in an offside position) and the ball is kicked back to the 30 yard line where the offside player collects the ball, it’s an offside offense. He was in an offside position when the ball was played to him by a team-mate. Again, as you’ve stated, the direction of the ball is irrelevant. Back to basics!!
    — Robert
    Former National Referee – Canada (2013-2016)

  • Amin Abdi

    Hi Jan,
    You mentioned something about behind the ball ( further away from the ball) and you said “he is not in offside position for sure” that really confuses me, what if he is in behind the ball and the last opponent is also behind the ball but the position of the attacker is close to the goalie and the side of the ball. I also have one comment about the Watford and Liverpool goal, I think since the attacker was behind the last opponent he is clearly in offside position regardless of whether he touched the ball or not. My third question Jan is what if he is in the position he is now and he don’t interfere the goalie but then all over sudden the ball comes back and hit his body like head and score like that, would that be offside goal or not since he didn’t do any interfering with the ball neither the goalie.

    • Jan ter Harmsel

      If the ball or secondlast defender is closer to the goal line than the player who receives the ball it is not offside. If that is close to the goalie is not relevant.

      When you look at the pic you think it’s offside. But looking from it from one angle might deceive us, that’s why I mentioned the 3D-model. But being in offside position is not an offence by itself.

      If a player in offside position receives the ball and plays it, he interferes with play.

  • George Nelson

    Excellent case study. For me , I would called offside right away. Why? simple rules of offside I would apply here. I will be thinking about the direction the ball but mainly on the second to last defender and the attackers. Clearly, the attacker interfering with the goalie.

    I do look forward to these case studies each week since I am asked to come out of retirement plus I have to resit the referee exam and the fitness exam. My preparation for the fitness is good at moment just need to work on my sprints and I am ready for Saturday, August 19, 2017.

    It will be rough season ahead to balance work, school and officiating.
    I am from Jamaica.

    • Jan ter Harmsel

      Hi George, thanks for your message. I’ll try to share as much as possible. I will also share more fitness exercises.

      Good luck with your test next weekend!

  • Vic Road

    Just to add:

    You have to also look at the spirit of the rule,
    ‘making an obvious action which clearly impacts on the ability of an opponent to play the ball’ … Think of this as the Rooney dummy rule, a different situation.

    Britos at worst was alongside Mingolet but not obstructing his line of sight nor his path to the ball so where exactly do you draw the line?

  • Álvaro

    Are you sure that pass direction is irrelevant?
    Spirit of the rule is to avoid getting advantage from a determines position.
    If a player in an offside position runs back to get a backwards pass from a teammate, didn’t he lose all advantage from the offside position?
    It happened today at the Real Madrid-Valencia game, backwards pass from Vinicius to Mendy.
    Please look at It.
    Thank you.

    • Jan ter Harmsel

      I’ve seen that situation and it also shows that pass direction is not relevant. The position of the player at the moment of the pass is relevant. And the player who scores is in offside position at the moment of the pass. He jogs back and becomes involved in play by touching the ball. His position is crucial to make the right decision here. Where the ball is going, is NOT.

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