Sport never stands still for long. The game of soccer is constantly evolving, as coaches, tacticians, and players seek to find new ways to gain an edge over their rivals.
One of the key areas in which soccer teams look to gain advantages is by trying out new formations and tactical systems. Soccer formations can vary massively; shapes such as 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 are built on a strong, compact back line, while other formations like 3-4-3 can offer more varied attacking opportunities. One thing connects each of these formations: they require players to have a strong understanding of the different soccer positions on a pitch.
There are 11 positions per team in a soccer game, occupying 4 main areas: Goalkeeper, Defence, Midfield and Attack. The exact positions will vary depending on the formation played, but in the case of a traditional 4-4-2 formation they tend to be:
In this article, we'll be taking you through all of the most important soccer positions out there. You'll learn the vital role each position plays, as well as taking on board the key duties and responsibilities assigned to each job.
We'll also give you a few examples of well-known players that encapsulate the role of their position. Read on for our guide to soccer positions explained.
The best place to start is between the sticks. Goalkeepers are the last line of defense, a crucial and unique role that requires a specific set of skills that outfield players don't need. It's for this reason that goalkeepers and outfield players are separated during most training sessions at professional clubs.
Legendary Italian Goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon, in action for Juventus
Catching: a core skill in any goalkeeper's arsenal is the ability to catch the ball in all sorts of situations; from high crosses, low driven shots, defensive nod-backs, and more.
Shot-stopping: an ability to anticipate and block shots from opposition attackers, making judgments on whether to block, parry, or punch the ball when faced with particularly powerful or well-placed efforts
Organization: the best goalkeepers are adept at commanding their penalty area and organizing the defenders in front of them
Kicking: the prevalence of goal-kicks means that goalkeepers must be able to kick the ball with serious power, pace, distance, and accuracy
Footwork: in the modern game, footwork is super important. Possession-based teams rely on having technically-gifted keepers with great footwork, like Ederson at Manchester City
Reflexes and Agility: goalkeepers must be able to move around their goal with speed, agility, and flexibility. Having quick reflexes is crucial for making saves and interceptions
In soccer, center-backs are central defenders tasked primarily with stopping opponents from getting in on goal, winning the ball in defensive areas, and progressing it forwards to teammates in more advanced positions.
Some teams use three center-backs to cover a wider defensive zone and allow greater opportunities for keeping possession and progressing the ball forwards, while other teams will use two central defenders for a more compact, tighter partnership.
Positional discipline: center-backs must be able to maintain positional discipline and read the game, anticipating where the ball is going to go and what opponents are going to do in different situations
Aerial ability: being physically imposing and strong in the air is crucial. A big part of a center-back's job is winning aerial duels and outmuscling opposing attackers
Tackling: the ability to know when to hang back and jockey the opponent, and when to go in hard. Clean, strong, well-timed tackling is a crucial aspect of central defending
Passing: these days, it's super important that center-backs are able to control and pass the ball with confidence and efficiency, otherwise high-pressing attackers will be able to win the ball off them in dangerous areas
Leadership: not every center-back is a great leader, but the better your communication skills are, and the greater your ability to instruct teammates, the stronger a center-back you'll be
The term "full-back" covers two different types of soccer positions: left-back and right-back. It could also be used to refer to wing-backs, who are generally a little more advanced and less defensively-minded. Put simply, full-backs are wider defenders who sit on either side of the central defenders. A back four system (like you'd get in 4-3-3) would use a right-back, two center-backs, and a left-back. In the case of a 5-3-2 or 3-5-2 formation, these fullbacks would be regarded more so as a "wing-back".
As you might've guessed, full-backs primarily perform a defensive role. However, many are also expected to get up the pitch and provide offensive support in wide areas, particularly in the modern game. Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson are great examples of this.
Stamina: another physical attribute full-backs need is stamina, as their job involves getting up and down the pitch with speed throughout the game. Their fitness levels need to be incredibly strong in order to perform both their defensive and offensive duties
Positional awareness: without this, full-backs will get caught out and center-backs will be left exposed. Full-backs must be able to switch from covering their teammates to providing attacking options on the overlap
1v1 defending: left-backs and right-backs need to be competent, versatile 1v1 defenders. Timing, tackling, and aggression are all crucial aspects in these sorts of situations.
In the center of the field, center-midfielders play a vital role in connecting defense with attack. There are multiple different types of center-midfielder; CDMs (central defensive midfielders) focus more on protecting the back line and stopping opposition attacks (a double pivot is a good example of this player type), while CAMs (center attacking midfielders) have a much more creative role, operating as a playmaker and linking with forwards. There are also other roles that fall somewhere between these two positions, such as the kind of "Free No. 8" role that Kevin De Bruyne occupies at Manchester City.
Passing ability: perhaps the most important skill for central midfielders is an ability to complete a wide range of different passes, adjusting pace, power, and height, and being able to pick out accurate passes even when under intense pressure
Ball control: in order to keep hold of possession, midfielders must be able to control the ball with speed and precision, getting it out of their feet in order to move it on quickly
Dribbling: couple those possession-based skills with good dribbling ability, and you're onto a winner. Being able to turn with speed, dribble into open space, and beat opposition players is a major advantage.
Tackling and intercepting: when your team doesn't have possession, tackling and intercepting becomes of paramount importance. Being able to anticipate and break up opposition passes or win the ball from well-timed tackles is an essential skill
Shielding: this means being able to protect the ball using your body when in possession or dealing with opposition tackles. Under the constant pressure that players face in the middle of the field, shielding abilities help win you a little more time to look up and find a pass
Now, we start to move into the more glamorous areas of the pitch. Pretty much any common soccer formation is bound to base its attacking play partly on wide midfielders. Generally speaking, their role will be as a more attacking midfielder focused on linking up with forwards, getting into wider advanced areas, and creating attacking opportunities.
Wide midfielders can be set up in several ways. In a 4-4-2, they will be required to track back and defend, providing support for their full-backs while maintaining an ability to race up the pitch with speed, getting in behind the defense of the opposing team, and crossing the ball. Meanwhile, a 4-2-3-1 shape will give wide midfielders more freedom to create chances, attack the opposition goal and switch positions fluidly at the top end of the soccer field.
Technical ability: often the most technically-gifted players on the field will be the wide midfielders, who must be adept at controlling the ball, keeping possession under pressure, dribbling past the opposing team's full-backs, and delivering crosses and shots on goal.
Speed: much like full-backs and wing-backs, wide midfielders also need to have plenty of speed, as their role involves beating defenders and moving up and down the flanks in quick bursts
Dribbling: a quick, accomplished dribble can split a defense open in a heartbeat. Wide midfielders often use this skill to break past opposing players and create space for themselves to deliver the ball into the box or take a shot themselves
Shooting ability: scoring opportunities regularly come to wide midfielders, particularly the more offensive-minded ones determined to move past defensive players and get into the opposition box. Being able to dispatch these chances with accuracy and efficiency is a crucial attribute
Scoring goals is ultimately what wins games. This job inevitably falls to the more offensive players on the field, or in other words, the forwards. The term "forwards" encompasses a range of different positions, from tall, target man-style center forwards (players like Olivier Giroud or Diego Costa), to more technical false nines (Roberto Firmino), or inverted wide forwards that move from the sides of the field into goalscoring areas (Mo Salah, for example).
Some teams will operate with two forwards in a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 system, while others will choose to play with a lone striker. Whatever shape coaches go for, a forward will tend to have a variety of different responsibilities.
Shooting ability: forwards pride themselves on their ability to threaten the opponent's goal and get on the scoresheet. A range of shooting skills is necessary — forwards must be able to place the ball, strike it with power, chip, dink, lob, or volley it. Scoring penalties also falls under this bracket.
Composure: converting chances into goals requires a great deal of calmness and composure. Any soccer player needs these attributes to play at the highest level, but it's particularly true for forwards, who are regularly in high-pressure situations
Technical skill: this refers to ball control, passing, and dribbling. In advanced areas of the pitch, getting each technical action right is crucial.
Intelligent movement: forwards must have a deep understanding of when to drop back and link with midfielders, when to get into the box, how to beat the offside trap, how to time their attacking runs perfectly, and various other aspects of offensive movement.
Hold-up play: being able to act as a focal point at the top end of the pitch is also important. Hold-up play involves receiving the ball under pressure, shielding it from opponents, waiting for teammates to support you, and playing the right ball to maintain possession
Now that you've had each of the major soccer positions explained in detail, hopefully, you'll spend less time wondering about the question "What are the positions in soccer?", and more time being able to identify the specific roles each player is occupying when you watch live soccer.
If you'd like to find out more about tactics in soccer, check out our new article on the 4-2-4 formation, or if you'd like to dive into a slightly more technical term, take a look at our guide to the German concept of gegenpressing.
While numerous more specific roles can exist on a soccer field, the 4 main positional units are goalkeeper, defense, midfield, and attack. Within these broader groupings, different players will be assigned different individual roles.
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