Anyone who’s familiar with football is likely also familiar with dads screaming from the sidelines at referees when that flag goes up to catch a player offside. When it comes to the professional level, it’s not just dads screaming, but millions of fans. Unfortunately for those screaming dads (and millions of fans), chances are, the attacker should have timed their run better to avoid the question even being asked in the first place.
Since Graham Potter took over at Chelsea, this has been a reoccurring issue for the Blues (staying onside; not screaming parents). To their detriment, the Blues had several of their best chances (including two goals!) this past weekend ruled out due to the offside flag.Embed from Getty Images
The art of timing runs effectively as a forward is never an easy task, as it requires adequate scanning of the four pillars to the game: ball, opposition, teammates and space (BOTS). Most notably, the timing of the run has to match the timing of the pass from their teammate, and the timing of the movement from the opposition defensive players up or down. Both of these factors often remain out of the control of the centre-forward, and so it is not entirely their fault for an inability to stay onside. However, with proper scanning and adjustment, offsides can be avoided almost entirely.
When it comes to the Blues, there have been some repeat offenders when it comes to staying onside, who may need to take a look at their movement patterns in ensuring a more successful approach to timing those forward runs in the future. With that, I give my best tips and tricks for avoiding that offside line, and the art of staying onside as a forward.
SCANNING FOR THE NEAREST DEFENDER
Part of the problem when it comes to staying onside is that an attacker must be aware of the positioning of not just one defender, but several. But it does not have to be this way! Since even being behind one of the defenders in a line will almost always help you come to an onside ruling, attackers can focus on the nearest defender in their periphery. The reason why this works so well is that this is often the defender that has their attention turned toward the attacker anyway. If the attacker can ensure they remain in line with the defender closest to their peripheral vision, they can stay onside without having to scan for four-five players.
Here is a great example where an Augsburg forward has seen the positioning of the nearest defender (Nico Schlotterbeck), while also positioning their head and neck in a way where they can see their teammate on the ball and effectively time their run to match.
Let’s say that Schlotterbeck now steps forward to try and keep the Augsburg man offside. The centre-forward has no clue what’s behind him, and they now have to scan again. So what do they need to look for? First, they have to make sure their teammate isn’t already shaping up to the play the pass. So they need to first glance at the ball. Then they can check their shoulder to see what they’ve missed since they last scanned in that direction. If they now recognize they’re onside (all within a one-two second span ideally), they can now react to the moment again and receive the pass in space.
But now let’s say that the second last defender behind him is nowhere near the situation. They then must read the situation to adjust their body positioning quickly, hold their run without stopping their momentum, and try to get in line with the nearest defender approaching again. He should be able to hear Mats Hummels careening down his neck, and should be able to assess the defender’s movement to momentarily slow his run before continuing.
If we now go back to the example against Fulham where Kai Havertz found himself offside, all he needs to do is arch his run in this case to match Tim Ream’s positioning (the nearest defender in his periphery).
He fails to adjust, and he’s caught offside as a result.
ARCHING THE RUN
In the previous section, we mentioned how Havertz could arch his run to ensure he stayed level with the nearest defender until the pass. That way, if the pass doesn’t come when Havertz desires, he remains onside until the moment the ball is played. This is true of many offside situations, particularly if there is space to the right or left of the defensive line. Take this example from the recent 1-1 draw with West Ham.
Kai Havertz has acres of space to advance into, and he does not need to advance into the space with any degree of haste. He can scan for the ball, immediately then scan for the nearest defender in his periphery, and “arch” his run to match. When we say “arch his run”, this basically means to bend the run in such a way where he’s running sideways until the time of the pass, and then curls his movement toward goal.
But instead of making that kind of curved run shown above, Havertz looks only at the ball before moving into the space ahead of him. He fails to properly scan for the opposition, which means the moment he steps forward rather than sideways, he’s offside.
When we spoke of the movement patterns of some of the best centre-forwards in the world, this is something they all have nailed down to a tee. The arched run is a hallmark of players like Edinson Cavani, Cristiano Ronaldo (before he turned weird), and the modern day greats like Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappé. In fact, most modern forwards in Havertz’s position don’t even let themselves get into those types of situations, simply by always maintaining a distance away from the defenders and then ghosting in. This is something that Liverpool’s strikers like Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota have made a habit over the years.
That leads us to our third and final point. The centre-forward does not have to fulfill the role of a False 9 and constantly play deeper on the field, linking the play and spraying passes around. But if they can constantly maintain a sound positioning away and in front of the defensive line, they will always be onside.
Arching the run helps in specific moments, but it does not entirely solve the issue. Sometimes the flight of the ball and the proximity to goal does not allow the centre-forward to arch their run. Take this example from Joao Felix against Fulham. If he now bends his run to match the nearest defender, he won’t make it in time to receive the cross, and he certainly won’t make it there with the proper body shape.
In this situation, Felix must momentarily slow his run – similar to what we discussed earlier with the Augsburg forward. If he fails to adjust, the flag is bound to be raised. But starting from that deeper position would have helped Felix to avoid slowing his run at all.
While positioning yourself in between two defenders on the last line always makes you more difficult to mark, it can also run the risk of keeping you offside if you don’t time that run to perfection. Felix could have positioned himself between the two defenders from a yard deeper, and then sprinted between them to match the cross at the vital moment.
Here’s another example where he nicely found a gap in between defenders, but went too early from an initially high starting position. If he can start lower and later, he’ll have the momentum to beat the defenders to the ball. If you look at the defenders in the image below, you will see that they are all faced toward the touchline or the player on the ball. If they are now required to run back toward their own goal, they have to adjust their feet.
Felix on the other hand has the momentum and forward body position to win the race, and requires no foot adjustment if he times his run right. Unfortunately, he goes too early, and his phenomenal chip is swiftly disallowed.
One of the best of this art is Diogo Jota, who we’ve spoken about at length in both ‘How Diogo Jota scores so many headed goals‘, and as a case study in The difference between seeing and understanding in analysis. Jota times his runs to perfection by positioning himself in front of the last defensive line, and then ghosting in between the gaps that he sees at the vital moment – perfectly matching the pass.
But not just timing of the leap. It’s about the timing of the run into space. Here’s a perfect example. Just press and play, and remember to focus away from the ball. Take notice of Liverpool’s #20 and his movement, scanning and awareness of space in particular, with the ball as context. Check out this goal from a few seasons back against Watford and just watch Diogo Jota (#20) at the left of your screen.
Restart the clip as many times as you need, focusing on the angle where you can see Jota’s movement in full (2:02).
The more you watch it, the more you will see the brilliance. There’s never a split-second in this clip of Jota having any chance of being called offside. That’s because his starting position was markedly away from the last defensive line.
At first, he wanted the ball – likely to drive into space himself. But as the passes continued to go into other players, he continued to slowly advance forward, without even needing to pay attention to the nearest defender in his periphery. He could then pay attention more to the space in behind for exploitation, and the timing of the pass, without having to worry about being called offside. This remains one of my favourite examples of off the ball movement, due to the smart adjustments he continuously makes from not receiving that first pass, to scoring that sweet headed goal.
When it comes to staying onside, the key to success is in scanning for the nearest defender in your periphery and properly adjusting your position to match. Arching your run will then help in that process if the space allows, ensuring you can bend toward the space at the right moment. But if you start from a deeper position and ghost in later on, you won’t have to worry about the offside line, and can instead focus your perceptions on the ball and the space to exploit.
Coaches must be mindful of these facets to effective timing of runs and distill information related to all four pillars (BOTS) when making coaching interventions. Simply saying “time your run” or “stay onside” is not enough contextual information, and will likely only confuse the player as they halt their run prematurely, or fail to adjust. If coaches can create game-realistic exercises that allow players to effectively work on their timing, they will reap the rewards. Perhaps Graham Potter will need to implement some exercises of his own, ensuring the likes of Kai Havertz and Joao Felix make better adjustments in the future.
So there it is! My best tips for staying onside. Be sure to check out more of my Player Education pieces, and follow on social media @mastermindsite and @desmondrhys. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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