Marco van Basten wants rid of the offside rule. Perhaps you have heard that before when it made headlines around the world and assumed it to be some flight of fancy. Think again. The Dutch legend still believes football should follow hockey and scrap offsides.
“I am still very curious about the offside rule because I am convinced that it is not a good rule,” Van Basten tells Sky Sports. “At least I would like to trial it to show that football is also possible without the offside rule. I am convinced that football would be better without it.
“Football is a fantastic game but I still think that we have to do much more to make it better, more spectacular, more interesting, more exciting. We have to work on that.”
It was Van Basten’s job to work on that when he was employed by FIFA as their technical director from 2016 to 2018. Offside was just one aspect of the game that troubled him. He is speaking fresh from watching a Barcelona game that has proven particularly irksome.
“If you look at how often people waste time, delay over throws and injuries, this is what people don’t want to see. We have to do something about it. People want action. There are so many situations where you are watching nothing. It is not good for the game.”
Van Basten has his issues with VAR. “I am very disappointed about how it is being used right now.” He is unhappy at the lack of progress that has been made in preventing referees from being harangued. “We were talking about that at FIFA but now you don’t hear about it.”
Effective playing time, a stopped clock like basketball, interests him as a solution to timewasting. “These are all things that I think are good for football, we just have to work on it. It is still a nice sport but we have to improve it by making it more honest, fair, exciting.”
Many would echo those sentiments but when it comes to offside, that is something that is seen as so fundamental to football that even to float the notion of its removal is to court controversary – and even ridicule. How could someone who knows football even think it?
There is a particular irony that it is Van Basten making the suggestion. Arguably the greatest striker that Europe has ever seen, he will forever be associated with the great AC Milan team of Arrigo Sacchi. “We dominated the world of football,” he says, breezily.
They did so by playing a tight 4-4-2 formation that transformed Italian football. In a league where sweeper systems were the norm, Milan bucked the trend by pushing up and utilising the offside trap, squeezing the space and playing the game in the opposition half.
It was the secret to their success but Van Basten wants another way.
He has heard all the criticisms. The suggestion that this would destroy football as we know it. That he is ignorant, stupid or both. But he is neither. He has considered the implications of his logic. He simply does not think the game would develop as his detractors believe.
“Teams would find a way of playing without it,” he explains.
“If you do away with the offside line then the defence will drop deeper. They will say that you cannot get behind us because they will be afraid of the opponents getting in behind. But if you go too far back then the 18-yard box is going to become a melee and the goalkeeper will not be able to see anything, so teams will know it is not the solution.
“As a result, the goalkeeper will want everybody out and that is exactly the point at which it would become so interesting. If the attackers can move behind the defenders there are much more possibilities for goals. It will make the defending more difficult.
“On the other hand, when you are defending, if there is no offside, you can always have one or two players far away so that when you get the ball you can put it to your forwards in the other half. The attacking team will have to be much more aware than they are now because the field is being made bigger.
“When the field is made bigger there are much more options for the players in possession and for the trainers to come up with the best way to exploit that. The problem now is that we do have offside and how often are we talking about the offside decisions? A lot.
“If you do not have offside you have a lot less problems and the teams will still find other solutions to have a good game that will be just as spectacular as it is now but without this bad rule. I am still very interested in it. It would just be nice to test it.
“I am sure football would find a way to become even more interesting.”
That is exactly what happened in hockey.
The offside rule in field hockey was in place for much of its evolution. In 1972, the rule was changed so that the attacking player was only offside if he or she was beyond the second-last opponent rather than the third last – the same change that football had made in 1925.
But hockey went further. From 1987, offside only applied inside the 25-yard area. By 1998, it had been dispensed with entirely. It did not mark the death of the game. It improved it.
Kate Richardson-Walsh, captain of the Great Britain team that won gold at the 2016 Olympics, grew up playing the sport during the era of offsides. She is just old enough to recall the naysayers, those who said it would not work but eventually accepted that it did.
“It was hard for some people,” Richardson-Walsh tells Sky Sports. “I did not feel the extreme change whereas for people who had been playing a long time it would obviously have been a massive change in terms of tactics, formations, skills and style of play.
“The game was very confined. There was a need to open the game up and make it faster just to develop the game. It also coincided with the time when hockey started to be played on astroturf instead of grass. That added to the speed element of it. Everything changed.”
Before the removal of hockey’s offside rule, much of the flow of the game was shaped and influenced by its tactical ramifications just as football is today. It was a seismic shift.
“Defenders needed to be disciplined to play a high line. They needed to be very mindful of the ball coming through you and over the top a little bit, particularly in the ’80s. Those skills, the timing of those runs by the forward off the back of the defender, they just changed.
“Without offside, you then have more running skills, more dribbling with the ball, more one-on-ones and ball carries. Now you see that big outlet shape, stretching play as much as possible to stretch defences so you can then play either around teams or through teams.”
As Van Basten predicts with football, coaches adapted.
“It just changed the skill sets, the tactics and the formations,” adds Richardson-Walsh. “Australia dominated from the 1990s into the 2000s because they had a coach in Ric Charlesworth who understood how to manipulate that change to the offside rule.
“Younger coaches will come in with new ideas and fresh takes. I think as long as different coaches with different perspectives are coming into the game, that is enough to sustain football. Working the ball out from the back is pretty new for football. Pressing higher up, earlier and for longer, that has changed the game too.”
The usual theory when discussing what football might look like without offsides is that the game would descend into a goal-hanging contest. Strikers would stay in the box and wait. As soon as possession was turned over, the ball would be fired in their direction.
But would that really happen? The long ball is trickier to hit with a hockey stick but it has not been an issue in that sport. “It depends on the coach and the skills of the team. There are teams that will play with a tight defence and park the bus just to keep everything tight.
“But there are also teams who still think they can press up really high, just like in football, trying to win the ball or force errors high up the pitch so that they win the ball back in midfield rather than having to work their way through the opposition again.”
That was the approach that Richardson-Walsh favoured.
“I wanted to win the ball as high as possible,” she explains.
“If a forward pulled off the back of me and was kind of goal-hanging way up the pitch, I could still be in front of them thinking that if we apply enough pressure to the ball to stop the big overhead pass, I could still try with my team-mates to win the ball higher up.
“If we were organised as a team and did that well, then the person way up the pitch becomes redundant and I do not have to worry about them. That is the cat and mouse of it. Do I start edging back? If I do, that is when the dribble space becomes open in the midfield.”
This is Van Basten’s great hope for football. He does not believe it is a given that every team would retreat. He is convinced there would still be tactical variation. But even those teams that did drop back would keep some players up, making for a more stretched game.
The result would be more space for the playmakers.
That was the story in hockey. “It just played into the hands of the players who could carry the ball and play lovely little through-balls on the run,” says Richardson-Walsh.
“In the women’s game, the world’s best player was Luciana Aymar of Argentina. She was just phenomenal and could carry the ball beautifully through the midfield and play those balls to forwards who were behind the defenders. It opened it up for those kind of players.
“And it opened it up for forwards who were quick, could dribble and were happy to take players on one-on-one. It still helped those out-and-out goalscorers. You want those players in your team, the players who can, in football, be in and around the six-yard box.
“For defenders, marking becomes even harder. Passing on players becomes important because you want to be as efficient as possible now that forwards can be behind you all the time. What is your body shape when you are marking someone behind you? None of that was foreseen, it was just about opening the game up and making it faster.”
The introduction of the back-pass rule in 1992 certainly had that effect in football. “It was a good rule because it made the game quicker,” says Van Basten. “All these little things help and they should be taken more seriously to get the game moving.”
Does Richardson-Walsh want football to scrap offside? Perhaps surprisingly, she stops short of agreeing with Van Basten. In part, because she enjoys the distinction. “You do not want to give up what that sport is about because it feels instrumental to how it is played.
“I am a total tactics geek so I love watching football for the same reasons why I love watching hockey – who is going to stay disciplined? It only takes one player to start edging back to their keeper and they have played them onside.
“I am really torn because there is something about the discipline in football of maintaining the offside line and it being up to the forwards to manipulate that, forcing defenders to feel they need to go deeper, the timing of the passes. You lose out on all of that.
“But what you would gain is what hockey has gained. It would just be different. The skills would change, it would benefit different players as opposed to others. Because we don’t have it, I almost feel like it is so unique to football that we probably should not take it away.
“I just think there will be too many people angry and disappointed if they take that offside rule away. It is not a reason not to change it but I think it would be strange not to have it.
“Interestingly, with all the VAR decisions, will that force the issue a little bit? I don’t know. I don’t know whether there will be a relook at the rules, where maybe they are refined.
“It is a conversation worth having.”
Van Basten still wants to have that conversation.
Very few want to have it with him.
“I have a lot of ideas, I don’t have the whistle but at least I have the initiative,” he says.
“When I went to FIFA I had a lot of ideas and I hoped that I could help the game of football but it was so complicated with all the politics and with IFAB. I was maybe a bit too honest and open. I just told them what I was thinking. It was far too much for people.”
Maybe it still is.