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Popularized dramatically over the last two centuries, soccer has blossomed into the most popular sport in the world. With rules constantly changing alongside technological advancements, soccer has evolved.
How soccer players play, how tactics are formed, how coaches train players: everything in soccer has continued growing. In many ways, soccer positions have also evolved too.
Yes, the goalkeeper position is a norm, but what sort of roles can a goalkeeper play? We all know what the defenders do, but how can a central defender like Ronald Koeman score 21 goals in 32 games?
Soccer positions, the roles within each position, and the tactical instructions for each position define soccer today. Without a proper understanding – and implementation – of these positions, winning an entertaining and attractive soccer game can be difficult.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at soccer positions in this ultimate 2021 guide.
What are the Soccer Positions?
Starting at the very back, we have the goalkeeper (GK) whose main duty is to keep the ball from entering the net.
In front of the goalie, there’s the sweeper (SW), the center-back (CB), the full-back(FB), and the wing-back(WB).
Above the defense positions, the defensive midfielder (DM) connects the defence with the midfield.
In the midfield, we have the center midfielder (CM), wide midfielder (WM), and attacking midfielder (AM).
Above the midfield are the wing-forwards (WF) and the center-forwards(CF).
Soccer positions explained
Let’s go into detail with each position, how they can be used in tactics, and the benefits of each position for any team.
The goalkeeper’s essential duty is to protect the team’s net by ensuring that the ball doesn’t get in.
While other players in the team can do their best to prevent the opponent from scoring, the real work lies with the goalie.
This is one of the most important positions in the field. In fact, a team is entirely useless if they don’t have someone between the sticks.
While it’s uncommon to see a sweeper in modern football, the position remains quite handy in three-defender formations. The sweeper sits just behind the defensive line, right in front of the GK.
Their duty is key against teams with fast strikers: sweep up any balls that get past the defense before the opposing players can get to it.
With goalkeepers evolving their roles to include sweeping, coaches haven’t found much use for sweeper defenders.
The center-back, also called a central defender, usually plays as one of two or three central defenders. Like the GK, center-backs are highly valuable to every team, and that’s because they primarily hold down the fort with the keeper.
While they are required to remove the ball from dangerous situations, experience and skill will often determine how efficiently they do their duty.
Clearing the ball, heading the ball out of the box, chasing down opposing attackers, and communicating with each other are all requirements for center-backs.
In modern football, CB’s are more inclined to help the team recycle possession and aid attacks as well.
Similar to the CB, the full-back is primarily a defensive player. However, the full-backs take their spots on the left and right sides of the field. T
heir main aim is fairly straightforward: protect the team’s goal from attacks in wide areas and assist the center-backs in the middle.
Because full-backs have to deal with pacey wingers out wide, they need to be fast and great at tackling.
Their speed also comes in handy when they overlap on the widths of the pitch to help in attacking plays for their team.
Very similar to full-backs, the wing-back takes his position in the wider areas of the pitch. The major difference between both positions is how high the wing-back plays.
Sitting above the defensive line, wing-backs are useful for increasing the team’s width during attacks or spells of possession.
The wing-back has to supplement their attacking exuberance with some defensive output too. They need to track back to defend when caught out of position, which requires high stamina and work rate.
Because wing-backs influence the attack, they need to be adept at crossing the ball into the box, as well as making key passes in the final third.
Defensive midfielder (DM)
While the team attacks and wing-backs drive into the final third, it is the defensive midfielder who has to ensure defensive solidity in case of a counterattack. This makes them useful members of any team.
They are highly adept at defense, and they dutifully aid the defenders in holding off opposition attacks and intercepting passes through the midfield.
However, they come in very handy in starting up attacks and recycling possession for their team.
Central midfielder (CM)
Often seen as the most valuable role, central midfielders must be adept in defensive and offensive plays.
When the ball is with the opposition, they have to chase down the opponent, trackback to help the defense, and provide numbers to withstand the opposition in the box.
During attacks, they are the direct link between their team’s defense and attack. They have to keep up with the ball’s movement, determine the tempo of the game, and distribute important passes to more attacking players.
Wide midfielder (WM)
Often called wingers, the wide midfielder sits ahead of the wing-backs on the flanks. Like the central midfielder, wide midfielders must be adept defensively and offensively.
Tracking back to support the defense is usually a requirement, but their main duty is supporting the attack during offensive plays.
Playing on either wing, wide midfielders need to be pacey and good dribblers. They also need good positional awareness, especially during attacking plays.
Most coaches use wide midfielders to deliver crosses into the box for strikers to score. Often enough, the wide midfielder can create opportunities for themselves to score as well.
Attacking midfielder (AM)
The attacking midfielder is the key that unlocks the route from the midfield to the offensive players.
Like the central midfielder, they need a great vision for passing and shooting. However, attacking midfielders rarely need to track back into the first third for defensive output.
Often prowling in the middle of the pitch, the attacking midfielder is there to create and finish attacks. They are also seen as playmakers.
Playing above the wide-midfielder position, wing-forwards have become a key position in modern football.
Tracking back to defend only when necessary, the main part of a wing-forward’s game revolves within and around the final third.
Wing-forwards need strong one-on-one skills because they need to dribble past their marker to get into threatening positions.
Skillful and decisive, wing-forwards have to either cause havoc within the box or layout passes and crosses to the team’s strikers.
Often called strikers, center-forwards have a singular focus in the game: putting the ball in the opponent’s net.
How they do it, really, is entirely dependent on tactical instructions and formations, but they are highly focused on their primary goal.
They often need to be strong, fast, or both, and they need to be clinical in front of goal.
Whether they head in goals, score with their feet, or fumble the ball into the net somehow, they need to remain focused on their primary target.
Strikers usually sit above the other players on the field, as the focal point of the team’s attack.
Soccer positions and numbers
You might have heard about classic No. 10 players like Lionel Messi whose sublime vision and passing skills are game-changing.
You’re certainly familiar with No. 7s like Cristiano Ronaldo whose ruthlessness from the wing can be a threat to the defending team.
Rather than some mathematics, these numbers merely represent player positions on the field. The numbering of positions started just over a hundred years ago and has slightly evolved over the years.
Numbers don’t matter too often these days, and a great example of this is Thierry Henry. The prolific goal scorer was one of the best strikers in the world during the 2000s.
However, rather than the customary No. 9, he wore the No. 14 jersey. Hicham Zerouali moved to Aberdeen in the Scottish league, where fans, upon seeing his name, urged him to wear the No. 0 jersey and he obliged.
So, let’s take a look at how each position is historically numbered:
|Sweeper (or center-back)||5|
Soccer position roles and instructions
On a team, player roles act as tactical templates within each player’s position. Each role suits the coach’s tactic or suits the team’s dynamic. In reality, there are no “default” roles.
For example, a team might have a right-wing-back who is highly efficient at getting forward in attacking situations and crossing the ball in.
They may also have a left full-back whose strong attributes lie in defense, rather than in strengthening the attack. Because of these two players, the coach might ask the team to attack the right flank more.
This will improve the chances of the right-back driving the attack down the right flank and contributing towards a goal.
The left-back can stay back and easily support the defensive line, especially during counterattacks.
Also, note that position instructions are very dependent on position roles. Certain players are instructed to play in a certain way to suit their role on the pitch. Very few players are left with little or no instruction.
Often, roles are intertwined and interchangeable. How players perform in their given roles is based on the skill level and playing style of each player.
So, let’s take a look at the position roles in soccer today.
The goalkeeper’s duty is quite straightforward: defend the goal. Essentially, the goalkeeper is the last line of the team’s defense.
They have to make saves, punch away difficult-to-catch balls, and direct the team’s defenders. There are two roles within this position: the traditional goalkeeper and the sweeper-keeper.
This role is simple: it covers the goalkeeper’s main duty. This goalkeeper is often tall with quick reflexes. Rarely playing a possession game, they boot the ball up the field any time they receive it. They rarely venture out of the box.
A goalkeeper in this role is also dedicated to how the team attacks, not just in defensive plays. This goalkeeper is often braver, pacey, and has a keen eye for key passes to attacking teammates.
They can stray outside the box to aid in retaining ball possession, and they are usually quick to rush out from the post in a bid to intercept through passes or crosses.
The sweeper-keeper also tries to influence the offense by distributing accurate balls to attackers.
The central defender’s traditional duty is to limit the opposition’s presence in the box. They work to break up attacks while holding a firm defensive line.
They need to mark attackers and tackle the ball when necessary. They also need to remove the ball from danger in the simplest and most efficient way.
Free from fluid tactical instructions, the traditional center-back has only one goal: stop attacks.
They win the ball back from the opposition and clear it away without any risks. They can lay off simple passes to more creative players if the opportunity presents itself.
More fluid in building attacks than the traditional center-back, the ball-playing center-back has excellent passing skills.
This is a more common role in the modern game as defenders look to support the team in attacking transitions as well.
The ball-playing center-back will distribute passes from the outback and even send long, defense-splitting passes to attackers in the final third.
While they are center-backs, they look to advance into more midfield-like roles when their team is in possession.
Essentially acting as a midfielder, the libero will come forward from the defense line in a bid to aid the attack.
In some cases, liberos have been known to even venture into the final third to pick a shot at a goal.
Liberos have to be highly creative defenders who are adept at tracking back quickly, tackling players, and starting attacking plays.
Much like the traditional center-back, the sweeper’s focus is singular: clearing the ball.
Dropping deeper than the defensive line, sweepers will aim to cover any holes in the defense and sweep up any long balls.
The position and the role are seen as the same thing, with center-backs performing sweeper roles during a game.
Sweeper keepers also handle this area by rushing out of their goal to sweep up long balls and intercept the opposition’s attacks.
The full-back is primarily a defensive player who will move forward to aid the team when an extra man is required in the attack. Sitting on the flanks, full-backs maintain a supporting role going forward.
Similar to the traditional center-back, this full-back has no intentions of moving forward to aid the attack in any way.
Their duty is singular and free from tactical fluidity: protect the goal from the flanks.
They may enter the midfield to receive back passes and distribute from there, but this is the extent of their attacking input.
Supplementing their defensive duties with some attacking prowess, the supporting full-back will look to move into the midfield during attacking transitions.
They will also aid attacks with key passes, through-balls, and an early cross into the box when necessary.
Shedding a little more of their defensive duties, the attacking full-back will look to influence the game down the flanks in the final third.
Attacking full-backs need speed and stamina to get forward quickly and fall back during defensive play.
Popular for their efficiency in the final third, wing-backs will often shirk their defensive duties in order to aid the team’s attack. Wing-backs need a lot of stamina to act as a winger in the final third and act like a full-back in defense.
Much like the attacking full-back, the supporting wing-back will look to change the game from the flanks.
They have to be adept at crossing the ball, distributing accurate passes, and even running past their marker when necessary.
Playing a more similar role to the libero, these wing-backs will move towards the center of the field during possession plays.
Instead of attacking down the flanks like the standard wing-backs, the inverted wing-back will seek to add numbers to the middle of the field.
These wing-backs love to influence the game in the final third, putting killer balls into the box, dribbling past their marker, and even taking direct chances at goal.
Unlike the other wing-backs, their defensive duties are covered by other defensive players. They, on the other hand, are given full reign to bomb down the flanks or through the midfield with abandon.
Sitting just above the defensive line, this midfielder’s duty is essential to many teams: protect the defensive line and support the midfield.
Depending on their role, the defensive midfielder can act like an extra center-back or an extra central midfielder.
Capable of controlling the tempo of the game and chasing down opposing players, the defensive midfielder’s roles are expansive.
Traditional defensive midfielder
In the original sense of the role, this “old school” defensive midfielder will hold their position above the defense.
They will aim to win the ball back quickly and pass it to a more creative teammate upfront. They also aid with recycling possession with simple passes.
Defensively, they are more useful. They chase down players and look to intercept passes through the middle of the field.
These defensive midfielders operate as the route between the defense and the midfield.
They drive further up the pitch than the traditional role permits in a bid to kickstart attacking plays. While they are skillful and creative passers, their defensive duties are similar to the traditional defensive midfielder.
Ball winning midfielder
The duty is explained in the role. These defensive midfielders are simply intent on winning the ball back from the opposition as quickly as possible.
This will require high stamina and efficient tackling skills. Depending on the coach’s tactic, ball-winning midfielders may stray higher than their normal position in order to win the ball back higher up the pitch.
This role is similar to the traditional defensive midfielder role. They sit between the defense and the midfield, intercept passes, and win back the ball.
They essentially anchor the defense without straying from their position. They don’t join the defensive line, nor do they join the midfield.
These defensive midfielders will play as an extra center-back when necessary.
During offensive play, they will join the defense to recycle possession and pass to more creative players. During defensive play, they will sit near the defense to offer extra protection.
While similar to the deep-lying playmaker, the regista is given free rein positionally. They dictate the play and pass creatively, just like the deep-lying playmaker.
However, they can also venture as high as they like in a bid to offer the team an extra creative outlet during the attack.
Unpredictable and aggressive, the regista needs to be pacey and capable of finding their way through tight situations.
This attack-minded defensive midfielder’s duty is to receive the ball in deep positions, then dictate the tempo of the game and work it forward with dashing runs and creative passes.
They will go as far as the final third to look for shooting opportunities from outside the box. However, their freedom to roam will require extra defensive input from other players.
Directly translated to mean second steering wheel, these defensive midfielders are mainly defensive.
However, they seek to arrive late into attacking situations to provide support with creative passes or a shot at the goal.
While they may often run with the ball, their standout quality is when they arrive in threatening areas during offensive plays.
Seen as the key in the cog, central midfielders link the midfield and the attack. They control the tempo and pace of the team and support the attackers moving forward.
They are also hardworking in defense, sitting a little deeper and tracking opposing players in the middle of the pitch.
Their roles, like the defensive midfielders’, vary vastly.
These central midfielders aim to turn defense into attack quickly. Limited in their defensive roles, they look for opportunities to kickstart attacks when their team retrieves the ball.
They can either support the forward players with passes, or they can join the attack with darting runs and control the tempo in the final third.
Lots of stamina, a high work rate, and a hard-working footballer: these are what make up a box-to-box midfielder.
These central midfielders can also be defined as the workhorse of the midfield.
They are capable of nearly everything: they distribute passes, they look to score, and they also trackback to defend for the team.
Directly translating to half-winger or wing-half, these are central midfielders who like to influence the game from a slightly wider area.
They operate in half-spaces: holes within the opposing team’s defense. This allows them to contribute to the game further up in the field and influence their team’s attacking play in key areas.
Directly translating to railway man, these central midfielders cover the lateral areas of the pitch, thereby linking the defense with the midfield.
Hardly noticeable during the game, they dutifully support the team by linking the midfield lines. They are also adept in defensive play, tracking back to help the team.
These are adept wingers who can influence all areas of the game, depending on the roles they play.
Often used in the popular age-old 4-4-2 formation, these midfielders have simple roles from their respective flanks.
They either join the attack, support the midfield, or sit with the defense.
These wide midfielders focus on reducing the threat from the opposing team. Aiming to break down opposing attacks out wide, they charge their opponents down on the flanks.
They also look to cross the ball into the box or pass to a more creative player during attacking plays.
Simple role requirements: Stick to the edge of the pitch, dash down the flank, and cross the ball in to score.
Sometimes, more attacking wingers can run into the box and look for a chance to go at the goal themselves.
More creative wingers will look to skillfully leave their marker in the dust and lift the ball to a striker to score.
While on the attack, these midfielders will provide the team with creativity by looking for spaces to run through the opposition’s defense.
They are skillful passers and will bring others into the game, rather than create the game themselves. Defensively, they don’t have many requirements.
Rather, they act as the main creator of the team, waiting for potential counter-attacking opportunities.
Playing ahead of the central midfield, attacking midfielders are rarely found – or required – in defensive positions.
They purposefully link the midfield to the attack, creating chances and providing opportunities for the strikers. They’re also adept at fashioning their own chances as well.
Traditional attacking midfielder
The old-school attacking midfielders, often known as Classic No.10s, are rarely found in the modern game.
They sit in pockets of space, linking play with their teammates and ensuring that the game revolves around them. They can also drive into the box in a bid to take a direct shot or give the assist for their teammate to score.
Classic No. 10s tend to be highly skillful and athletic, a nightmare for opposing defenders.
In the attacking midfield position, advanced playmakers are the focal point of the team’s attack. Their main duty is to remain available for their teammates to pass to.
When they receive the ball, they distribute it deftly or drive into attack themselves.
Often, they seek to get into defensive holes and break down the opposing defense with an all-important pass.
Translated to mean three quarters, these attacking midfielders have the combined ability of a clinical striker, as well as the vision of a playmaker.
Rather than join the team during defensive plays, they drift into space, waiting to start the attack (and finish it, if possible).
Translated to mean Hitch, the difference between an Enganche and a trequartista is in movement.
While the trequartista moves to find open spaces across the pitch, the enganche sits as the pivot (or hitch) between the midfield and attack.
Attacking plays are made through the enganche’s links, as they position themselves to drive the team as the focal point.
Increasingly popular in the modern game, the wing-forward has an important duty: to ensure that goals are scored.
It often doesn’t matter whether they’re scoring the goals themselves or assisting other teammates to score.
They are positioned on the flanks beside the strikers and can be a menace for opposing defenders.
These wing-forwards focus on driving down the flank and launching quick crosses into the box to create goals.
Due to their pace and skill, wingers can launch a counterattack down the flank successfully and lay the ball off for a striker to score. When chanced, they score goals as well.
Rather than driving down the width of the pitch, these wing-forwards look to influence the game nearing the center.
They have the duty of drawing defenders to follow them, thereby leaving space for an overlapping player (like a complete wing-back) to receive the ball down the flank.
Similar to the inverted winger, the inside forward’s duty also includes scoring goals. This is one of the most used roles for wing-forwards in the modern game.
Driving in from out wide towards the center of the opposition’s box, the inside forward can choose to shoot or pass the ball. Usually, the player’s stronger foot should be the opposite of the side of the pitch he plays on.
Wide target man
Important for transitional play and picking up clearances, the wide target man is often tall and strong.
These physical qualities ensure that he can receive long balls, hold up the play to wait for his teammates, and pass the ball to a more creative player.
Translated to mean space investigator, this player’s aim is to find pockets of space out wide from where they can operate.
Once they receive the ball in such space, they source out passing or shooting opportunities. These players need to be highly creative and skilled to quickly cause havoc from those space pockets.
These players are the team’s direct source of goals. They need to be firm on their feet, but also highly clinical with a keen eye for putting the ball past the keeper and into the net.
Their roles, however different, lead to the same end-point: goals.
This player essentially shadows the team’s main striker. Playing off the shoulder of the striker, they look to create goals and drive through the opposing defense to take their chances at goal.
They need to be prolific goalscorers to be efficient in this role.
Similar to the attacking midfielder, the deep-lying forward falls back from the striking position in order to create chances for their teammates.
While they need to be creative and skilled to perform well, they also need to fashion out chances for themselves and score when opportune.
This player is usually the focal point of attack in teams. Sitting on the very edge of the opposition’s defensive line or coming lower to receive the ball, the advanced forward is a goalscoring threat from distance or in the box.
Other players will look to give the ball to the advanced forward once the player is in a prime position to score.
Similar to the wide target man, the striking target man’s position is at the center of the attack.
It is his duty to receive long balls, hold up play for his teammates, and score headers from crosses. The target man needs to be tall, strong, and capable of fending off opposing defenders.
Rarely partaking in the build-up play, the poacher’s focus on goal scoring is absolute.
They rarely create chances or pass the ball. They simply look to be in the right place at the right time to shoot and score goals.
This is an all-around forward who can create chances for other players, fashion chances for themselves, and partake in every part of the attacking play.
They are good with the ball at their feet and also good with heading the ball. They are creative and also prolific goalscorers.
An intended pun on the concept of the Number 9 striker, the false 9 falls back into a midfield role in order to attract the opposing defenders to break shape and follow them.
They are quick and efficient passers of the ball, and they have good vision for players making runs behind the scattered defense. They also have a good eye for goals.
Soccer position instructions
Player instructions can depend on player roles. For example, a complete wing-back might be instructed to stick to the edge of the flanks while waiting for the ball.
A false 9 might be instructed to dribble more than another striker would. A ball-playing defender can launch more long balls than the traditional defender.
With these in mind, let’s take a look at some usual instructions for each position:
|Goalkeeper||Distribute ball to strikers, close down opponents faster, don’t roam from position|
|Right full/wing-back||Roam from position, stay wider, cross more often|
|Left full/wing-back||Roam from position, stay wider, cross more often|
|Center-back||Don’t roam from position, pass ball shorter, tackle harder, mark opponents tighter|
|Sweeper (or center-back)||Don’t roam from position, pass ball shorter, tackle harder|
|Defensive midfielder||Tackle harder, pass ball shorter, close down opponents faster|
|Right wide-midfielder/wing-forward||Dribble more often, cross more often, shoot more often|
|Central midfielder||Pass ball longer, close down opponents faster, trackback during defensive plays|
|Striker||Hold up ball, pass ball shorter, shoot more often|
|Attacking midfielder||Pass ball longer, shoot more often, dribble more often, don’t trackback|
|Left wide-midfielder/wing-forward||Dribble more often, cross more often, shoot more often|
Soccer position skills
When playing in particular positions, players usually have a default set of skills that help them excel.
Sometimes, they may have added skills that improve their play, but the skills required to play their part is often sufficient.
In the modern game, however, soccer has become more fluid. Players find that they may have to play different roles against different opponents. They cannot rely on a singular skillset for a single role.
Here are the default skills required for each position in soccer:
|Goalkeeper||Reflexes, decisiveness, command of defensive line, ball distribution|
|Right full/wing-back||Pacey, tackling, marking, crossing|
|Left full/wing-back||Pacey, tackling, marking, crossing|
|Center-back||Tackling, marking, defensive awareness, heading|
|Sweeper (or center-back)||Defensive awareness, tackling, intercepting passes|
|Defensive midfielder||Intercepting passes, tackling, stamina|
|Right wide-midfielder/wing-forward||Pacey, crossing, shooting, passing, dribbling|
|Central midfielder||Stamina, passing, vision, ball distribution, defensive awareness|
|Striker||Shooting, heading, attacking awareness, decisiveness|
|Attacking midfielder||Passing, vision, dribbling, ball distribution, shooting|
|Left wide-midfielder/wing-forward||Pacey, crossing, shooting, passing, dribbling|
What is the easiest position in soccer?
There are no easy positions. Each position has an important part to play in any team.
However, it is usually argued that the full-back position is the easiest.
They make the least runs, touch the ball the least times, and hardly affect the game (compared to other positions).
The full-back position should not be confused with the wing-back position.
Though both are similar, wing-backs are highly effective in the final third of the pitch. Most teams today prefer to use wing-backs rather than full-backs.
What is the hardest position in soccer?
This is, according to most soccer fans and players alike, the goalkeeper. The goalkeeper is also the most important player on the field, and no team can start without one.
It also happens to be the toughest in terms of mental strain and public humiliation. While any other player can make mistakes on the pitch, the goalkeeper’s smallest mistakes can be very drastic.
A small mistake from a goalkeeper can mean losing the MLS Cup or any other important game. So, goalkeepers have to be in the top mental state to compete at the highest levels.
What is the most recruited position in soccer?
Interestingly, wing-backs are the most recruited position, strongly followed by goalkeepers and strikers.
It is very difficult to get a brilliant wing-back. Remember, wing-backs have to be very active in both offensive and defensive plays.
Poor wing-backs may attack efficiently without putting in the required defensive output, or they might stay back to defend and the attack falters due to their absence on the flanks.
Getting a hard-working wing-back with a high work rate is essential to many teams, and they’ll keep recruiting such players till they find their key man.