When Arsenal changed the laws of the game

by Andy Kelly

Up until 1925 the laws of football stated that an attacking player required at least three opponents between himself and the opponent’s goal to be onside. In the early days of the game, tactical naivety meant that there were still plenty of goals to keep the fans happy. In Woolwich Arsenal’s last pre-first world war season, there were an average of 3.03 goals per game

However, after the first world war the football authorities were becoming concerned with the lack of goals which they feared could result in reduced attendances. The first five seasons after the war saw the total number of goals in the first division fall by 14% – down to 2.47 goals per game. There was a slight recovery during 1924-25 but it was nowhere near enough to reverse the trend. The following graph shows the total goals scored in the first division for the first 6 seasons after the war.

Total goals scored in first division 1919-20 to 1924-25

This was due to managers such as Herbert Chapman becoming more tactically aware. The following graph shows the goals conceded by the first division champions for the same period. Chapman’s Huddersfield were champions in 1923-24 and 1924-25.

Goals conceded by first division champions 1919-20 to 1924-25

The Scottish FA tried to change the offside law in 1923; but the International Board that was in charge of the laws of the game voted against this. The International Board comprised one representative from each of the English FA, the Scottish FA, the Welsh FA, the Irish FA and one member representing the whole of FIFA. This still stands today.

During the 1924-25 season the International Board decided to experiment with the offside law and chose Arsenal v Huddersfield Town on 14 February 1925 as one of two games for the experiment. For these two games, an attacking player would only need two opponents between himself and the goal to ensure he was onside. Chapman took full advantage of the rule change as his Huddersfield side took a quick 3 goal lead and easily won the game 5-0. The other game finished Bury 4 West Ham 2.

The experiment was deemed a success and during the summer of 1925 the laws were changed permanently. The results were immediate with a whopping 43% increase in goals in the first division to 3.69 goals per game.

The following graphs show the effect of the law change for the next 5 seasons.

Total goals scored in the first division 1919-20 to 1929-30

 Goals conceded by first division champions 1919-20 to 1929-30

It is believed that it was Chapman’s ability to adapt so quickly that initially drew him to Sir Henry Norris’ attention. Although Chapman left Huddersfield for Arsenal during the summer of 1925 the deal was done before Leslie Knighton was dismissed. Chapman’s effect was immediate with Arsenal finishing 2nd behind Huddersfield with an extra 89% goals scored. He didn’t have it all his own way though –  on 3 October 1925 Arsenal travelled to Newcastle and were trounced 0-7.

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