Plus ca change: 1925 and the Off Side Rule

In June 1925, at a meeting in Paris, football’s international governing body voted through a change in the off side rule: Julian Carosi summarises the reasons why:

Defending players had this law worked to such a fine art, that in the early 1920’s the full-backs had developed an almost fool-proof tactic to catch attacking players off-side. They would position themselves almost up to the halfway line, one staggered slightly behind the other, enabling them to catch attacking players off-side with such success, that the game had so many stoppages for off-side offences, it became monotonous. Credit for exposing and exploiting the old rule is usually given to a full-back who played for Newcastle, Billy McCracken, who with this full-back partner would advance to as near the halfway line as possible (a player cannot be off-side in his own half), moving up quickly and timing their runs, so as they would often catch two or three forwards off-side. Opponents could find no way to master this tactic, which very quickly caught on with other teams.

The rule change came into effect in the 1925-26 season. Now, only two players were required between the attacker and the goal line when the ball was last played.

The effects were immediate, at least in Football League Division One, as it was then. In an article complaining at the poor quality of foreign players in the English league (Scottish players, back then, but a familiar complaint now, encapsulated in the charming phrase “Carlos Kickaball”), The Times looked back on a year of the new set-up:

It was hoped that the alteration of the off side law would make for improvement, but unhappily expectations have not been realised. As a matter of fact the change has brought about an even greater looseness in the constructive art of the game. It is said, and probably truly, that the new off side law does not demand any change of methods, that all the fresh formations which were tried last season were unnecessary. But today every team is far more apprehensive in the matter of defence than used to be the case when an opponent was only legitimately placed if there were three men in front of him when the ball was last kicked. The result has been a tendency to concentrate on defence by half backs and this has meant a weakening in attack. At the present time it is not unusual to see a gap of twenty or more yards between half backs and forwards and, in such conditions, there must inevitably be a lack of combination between the two sections of the team. The Times 25 October 1926

Julian Carosi writes again here (excellent site, incidentally)

The alteration from three to two dramatically decreased the off-side offences. In the season 1925-26, goals scored in the Football League were a third up at 6,373 compared to the old off-side law era 1924-25 season’s tally of 4,700. Although crowds relished the glut of goals, perceptive observers saw a sudden decline in the quality of the game. The law change also meant that the defending players were forced to play squarer to each other and much nearer to their goal – but not too near as to allow the attacker to shoot without first beating them to the ball. Attacking players began to use the long ball played between the two defenders, and made more use of their wingers who (with only 2 full-backs being employed) had ample space to ply their trade.

In 1925, Yorkshireman, Herbert Chapman (a modest player with half a dozen clubs, and later a manager with Huddersfield) eventually became manager of Arsenal. Chapman (on advice from the veteran inside-forward Arsenal player Charlie Buchan) changed the role of the all-purpose midfield player, and evolved and refined a new extra defensive position called the ‘centre-half’, whose job it became to block off the ‘through ball’, and to cover the wingers if they beat the other two defenders. The ‘stopper’ had arrived; and other teams soon followed this idea. The standard 2-3-5 formation (two full-backs, three half-backs and five forwards), became 3-3-4. Deep-lying inside forwards began to adopt pincer-movement goal-raiding tactics known as the ‘W’ plan. Having a centre-half in the team, meant one less player concentrating on attacking, thus enforcing an initial negative type of defensive play that has taken many years to develop into the more offensive and exiting counter-attacking style that we enjoy today.

The long ball game, the yawning gap between the forwards and the rest of the team, the skill deficit.. plus ca change, and here’s that Times article on the England team as they played Ireland that year:

Because there were so many exciting incidents the game was a popular success, and because the English side were three times a goal behind and yet saved the match it was said that here at last was a team who would roll up their sleeves and fight to the bitter end. But from an English point of view the game was a comparative failure. To have been a success Ireland should have been handsomely beaten. To appraise the merit of England’s performance the strength of the opposition must be taken into account, for it is as true today as ever it was that a team play as well as the other fellows let them. At the present time Irish football is impoverished seriously.

Now, all of this has its comic side, to put it mildly. We would appear to have had the same problems for a full eighty years, but so greedy is the wandering black hole of football memory that all this can be blamed on Sven. The Times of 1926 wouldn’t have done – this is from the same article!

It has always been the policy of Scotland to play the 11 cleverest football players they could command against England and to do this it has occasionally been necessary to place men out of their customary positions. One has seen a centre-forward on the wing and a wing man in an inside position. England would have nothing to lose from following this example. If there are no half backs why not create them? Clubs are often driven to do this, and there have been a good many instances of ordinary forwards being converted into brilliant half backs.

The press might have been as wildly off in 1926 as I think they are now.. in which case, they have a true “living tradition” of being wildly off, which must be passed down from generation unto generation in some kind of occult ceremonial in bars metres deep under Fleet Street..

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2 responses to “Plus ca change: 1925 and the Off Side Rule

  1. That point at the end is similar to one I made a while back: you can only explain England’s football record (and even more, rugby record) vs Scotland over the course of a century or so, by assuming that England were routinely a poorly managed side. I don’t know about football, but England’s rugby record vs Ireland might also suggest a tradition of poor England team management. P.S The 1925 3-3-4 was the formation I played in at school ca 1960, though we didn’t describe it numerically. Of course, the defence had an extra advantage in those days because pitches were so muddy and the ball got so heavy.

  2. The teams I played in at school, at the high point of State School sport in the ’70s and early ’80s, had four at the back, which I remember because I was one of them. What went on further up heaven knows –

    In one match, I was asked to act as “Sweeper”. Not knowing what this was, I played my accustomed game – such as it was! No one seemed to notice.