Soccer Academy 103: Player Positions & Roles

While formations are often considered one of the most important factors in a team’s success or failure, one must first understand the tactical foundation of formations: positioning. Positioning is the first and simplest thing to understand about soccer, for positions help define a player’s role and location on the field in a match. Here are the soccer positions that every soccer fan needs to know.

Goalkeeper

With all of the innovation and tactical focus involved in the modern game, the one true constant in a soccer match is the presence of the goalkeeper. While the number of defenders, midfielders, and forwards can and will always vary, there must be and can only be one goalkeeper per team in a match.

Goalkeepers are the only players on the field that can touch the ball with their hands. However, they can only use their hands in the 18-yard-box, the area in front of the goal that they often remain in for the majority of the match. A goalkeeper’s job is simple: prevent the opposition from scoring. Yet, this simple instruction is one of the most challenging aspects of the game, for goalkeepers need to react quickly, stay calm, have strong hands, be assertive, and quite literally put their body on the line. Most of the time, the goalkeeper is the last thing that can prevent a chance from becoming a goal, and it is those split-second moments that often distinguish a good performance by a goalkeeper from a bad one.

Some of the best goalkeepers in the world today are Jan Oblak, Alisson Becker, Thibaut Courtois, Manuel Neuer, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Ederson, David De Gea, Keylor Navas, Hugo Lloris, and Gianluigi Buffon.

Defenders

Defenders are the outfield players directly in front of the goalkeeper. A defender’s main job is to prevent the opposition from scoring. In terms of shape, defenders have the most constant shape out of the three outfield positions, holding a simple flat line in front of the goalkeeper, but there are also other formations that allow for a defender behind or in front of that line. The number of defenders varies more frequently, but four is still the most common number used by teams. Here are the different defensive positions.

Center Back/Half

Center backs, or center halves, are the central defenders that oftentimes position themselves as the last players before the goalkeeper. The number of center backs on the field per team is usually between one and three. Center backs control and hold the backline, beckoning the fullbacks alongside them forward and backward in order to maintain the shape of the defense. Center backs connect the goalkeeper to the midfield and are thus often involved in bringing the ball forward from the back.

Some of the best center backs in the world today are Sergio Ramos, Virgil van Dijk, Kalidou Koulibaly, Raphael Varane, Milan Skriniar, Dayot Upamecano, Aymeric Laporte, Jerome Boateng, Leonardo Bonucci, and Gerard Pique.

Fullback/Wingback

Fullbacks are the defenders on either side of the center backs. These defenders track the opposing team’s wingers or wide midfielders in order to prevent them from cutting in towards the goal or crossing the ball. Fullbacks often move further up the field than center backs during attacking plays and, therefore, usually have greater stamina and speed than center backs.

Similar to fullbacks, wingbacks are defenders that play on either side of the center backs. However, wingbacks are even more involved in attacking plays than fullbacks and often act and position themselves as wide midfielders. Wingbacks are often accompanied by three center backs in defense due to wingbacks’ tendency to push and remain forward.

Some of the best fullbacks and wingbacks in the world today are Marcelo, Dani Alves, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andrew Robertson, Joshua Kimmich, David Alaba, Alphonso Davies, Achraf Hakimi, Dani Carvajal, and Jordi Alba.

Midfielders

Midfielders play between the defenders and the attackers. There are many different types of midfielders, and different types of midfielders can have different roles. However, most midfielders often must contribute to attacking plays as well as defensively and, therefore, often end up at both goals and must be able to run the length of the pitch.

Defensive/Holding Mid

The role of a defensive midfielder is pretty self-explanatory. This midfielder, also called a holding midfielder, is positioned furthest back and directly in front of the center backs. A defensive midfielder’s main job is to intercept the ball before the opposing team can reach the defenders. Like all midfielders, however, defensive midfielders must also be able to pass accurately and contribute to the buildup of an attacking play.

Some of the best defensive midfielders in the world today are Casemiro, Sergio Busquets, Thomas Partey, N’Golo Kante, Fernandinho, Rodri, Fabinho, Wilfred Ndidi, Idrissa Gana Gueye, and Marcelo Brozovic.

Center Mid

Central midfielders are often the most versatile players on the field. They occupy the center of the pitch and help control the game. They are involved in both attacking and defending and usually have high passing ability and accuracy. Central midfielders must be able to control the ball, look up and see the field, and speed up or slow down the momentum of the gameplay around them. Many of the most technically gifted players in soccer are central midfielders.

Some of the best center mids in the world today are Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Frenkie De Jong, Saul, Paul Pogba, Jordan Henderson, Leon Goretzka, Thiago, and Marco Verratti.

Wide Mid

Left and right midfielders play on either side of the pitch. While they do help defend, their main role is to support attacks and cross the ball into the box. Wide midfielders often combine with fullbacks and central midfielders to possess and move the ball further up the field and usually take the place of wingers on the field. Therefore, the best wide midfielders will be grouped with the best wingers later on.

Attacking Mid

Attacking midfielders are often centralized and play directly behind the attackers. Attacking midfielders are often incredible playmakers that can create goalscoring opportunities for the attackers. Attacking midfielders often have great vision, passing ability, and dribbling skills, as well as strong and accurate shooting ability. Similarly to the central midfield position, many of the most technically gifted soccer players are attacking midfielders.

Some of the best attacking midfielders in the world today are Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Isco, Thomas Müller, Philippe Coutinho, Paulo Dybala, and Kai Havertz.

Attackers/Forwards

The main and most obvious role of attackers, or forwards, is to score goals. There are many different styles of attacking play, but the best forwards usually have great control, awareness, and accuracy, and thus are lethal finishers.

Winger

Wingers are attackers that play on the wing. They combine with a central forward, or striker, to create chances and score goals. Wingers can cut inside of defenders and shoot or attempt to outpace them in order to cross the ball. Wingers are usually some of the fastest and most skillful players on the field. The very best players in the world today are all wingers or forwards that often play on the wing.

Some of the best wingers and wide midfielders in the world today are Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Eden Hazard, Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Serge Gnabry, and Jadon Sancho.

Striker/Center Forward

Unlike wingers who help create chances and oftentimes have tricks up their sleeves, the sole responsibility of strikers, also known as center forwards, is to score goals. While this obviously isn’t the only thing strikers do, it is their main job and, therefore, the best strikers are simply the best finishers. Strikers can be quick and agile, slow and stocky, or tall and skinny, but at the end of the day, if they’re scoring goals, they’re doing their job successfully.

Some of the best strikers and center forwards in the world today are Robert Lewandowski, Luis Suarez, Sergio Aguero, Roberto Firmino, Karim Benzema, Timo Werner, Ciro Immobile, Romelu Lukaku, Jamie Vardy, and Erling Haaland.

Flexibility of Positions

Although formations and positions are an integral part of soccer tactics, the way that these formations and positions are used can vary greatly. In fact, certain players can change the meaning or purpose of a position. In other words, these players are not necessarily defined by the position they play but rather their greater tactical purpose in the team.

The most notable example of a player who does this is Lionel Messi. Lionel Messi plays as a forward for Barcelona and has occupied roles as a winger and a center forward in his career. However, no matter the position that Messi plays, he tends to drop back and take up an attacking midfield position throughout matches. His position doesn’t change mid-match; Messi simply gives new meaning to his position by playing it in a different way.

Roberto Firmino also does this for Liverpool. Bobby Firmino plays a striker/center forward for Liverpool, but his main purpose is actually not to score goals but rather help the wingers on either side of him score goals. All of Liverpool’s attacking plays go through Firmino, and he opens up space, connects, and creates chances for his fellow attackers around him. For this reason, Firmino is woefully underappreciated. The fact of the matter is, though, that Liverpool would not have achieved their recent successes without him.

Messi and Firmino are not alone in the category of players that play a position differently to benefit the overall tactics of a team, but they are certainly two of the most important. The meaning and purpose of different positions have changed throughout history, and they will most likely continue to do so. In fact, in the last decade, we’ve seen the purpose of a goalkeeper change fundamentally. To be a good goalkeeper in this day and age, shot-stoppers now must also be proficient with the ball at their feed. Manuel Neuer of Bayern Munich and Ederson of Manchester City are two notable goalkeepers that have fueled this new way of thinking.

Overall, positions are incredibly important and can have a huge effect on a team’s style of play, but the player in that position and how that player performs their specific roles is what truly matters.

  
Win, lose, or tie, Chelsea 'til I die, keep the blue flag flying high. Born and raised in New York City and an avid viewer of the English Premier League. Besides playing and watching soccer, I love to bike and write songs.

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