United’s pass completion rate was around 55% 20 minutes or so into the game before improving to 73% by the time referee Paul Tierney blew very promptly for half-time. As the teams left the field there were two pieces of data that seemed important. Firstly, the game was 0-0, the inexorable score in this fixture, and secondly Manchester United had been caught offside seven times, with Marcus Rashford responsible for four of them. Eventually. Once the flag had gone up.
16% of Man Utd’s PL offsides this season came in that first half.
— Duncan Alexander (@oilysailor) January 17, 2021
Remember offsides? They were big in the 1980s, as was crowding around the halfway line and triggering the hated “offside trap”. Stone-faced managers in car coats who could drill sides into flag-provoking machines were respected and paid handsomely, even if fans despaired at the seemingly endless raising of the linesman’s flag. The 1986 World Cup saw an average of 7.6 offsides per game, and this rose to an all-time record of 8.5 in 1990. Back passes and offsides: ambassador with this negative football you are really spoiling us. The psychic pain ran deep, and seven years after Italia 90, the Half Man Half Biscuit song, Paintball’s Coming Home, contained the line ‘If I were a linesman / I would execute defenders who applauded my offsides’.
And yet here in 2021 few defenders can dream of applauding the assistant referee because the flag is being raised so late. Since the start this season, the Premier League has been subject to the new delayed flag law, which states: when an immediate goalscoring opportunity is likely to occur, the assistant referee will keep their flag down if they think there is an offside until the passage of play is completed. Once a goal is scored or the chance is gone, the assistant will raise the flag to indicate the initial offence. Theoretically this makes sense when you have access to video refereeing. Let the play continue and check whether a goal is onside once the attack has concluded. What felt off at Anfield, though, was the number of United positional offences that were so clearly offside that there seemed little point in waiting to see what happened. It feels like we’re only a matter of games away from a player pulling his hamstring chasing back (or running through) in a phase of play that was never going to be permitted but happened anyway.
A corollary of this change is that 2020-21 is the first season in recorded Premier League history to see an increase in offsides from the previous campaign. We have this data from 2003-04 onwards and each successive campaign from then through to last season saw a lower number of offsides per game (from 6.34 in 2003-04 down to 3.39 in 2019-20). This season has seen an (admittedly small) increase to 3.47 but the Liverpool vs Manchester United game showed late offsides have the potential to become enough of an aesthetic annoyance that they get looked at. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Jurgen Klopp apparently agreed mid-game that it was less than ideal and as we saw with the strict-then-relaxed VAR handball interpretation at the start of this season, the chance of a mid-season adjustment is much greater than it used to be.
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