Every position in soccer has certain responsibilities, which enable a team to function and be successful. Each positional category (goalkeeper, defenders, midfielders, forwards) has its own distinctive traits and presents its own technical, tactical, and conditional demands. This article explains the primary responsibilities of individual positions.
The primary job of a goalkeeper is to prevent the opponent from scoring goals. In the past, this was their sole responsibility. However, in modern soccer, their positional remit has become more complex and now includes steering build-up play from the back and giving directions to the defense. In order to do this, a keeper must move further away from his/her own goal to be able to complete long passes to the defenders, who in turn can then move the ball down the pitch. All of this requires excellent goalkeeping techniques (catching, punching, kicking, diving, picking up and throwing the ball), as well as the passing skills of outfield players and preferably that they are as equally strong with both feet. The best keepers of 2019, who were all in the running for FIFA’s Best Goalkeeper Award, were Alisson Becker (Liverpool), Ederson Moraes (Manchester City), and Marc-André Ter Stegen (Barcelona).
Central defenders, or center backs, are – as the name suggests – the central players of the defensive line. When playing with a back four there are two central defenders and when a back three is deployed, there are as many as the name would suggest. These players are responsible for stopping the opposing strikers from scoring and stabilizing the defense. In addition, central defenders are a huge part of build-up play as they move the ball down pitch to midfielders and attackers with passes or advancing from defense with possession. Players in this position must be good at tackling, as well as being technically adept in passing. Central defenders are often quite tall and strong It’s especially important how fast these players are, as they should be able to at least keep up with attacking strikers. One of the best pair of center backs recently has been Diego Godin and Mirando at Atlético. In the 2013-2014 season where they won la Liga, they only conceded 26 goals.
The position of fullback can be played by many different types of players. Some fullbacks simply take care of securing their side of the pitch, which means putting a stop to any opposition scoring opportunities by defending against their wide midfielders and wingers. Fullbacks who play more offensively are often part of the team’s attacking play and take up wide positions. In formations without wingers, fullbacks are often the only players positioned out wide in both offense and defense (for example 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond). Examples of excellent fullbacks are the Marcelo (Real Madrid) and Jordi Alba (Barcelona).
A defensive midfielder is traditionally the #6 in soccer and has the position just in front of the defensive line. Teams usually play with one or two defensive midfielders (which is called a “double six”). The #6 can be positioned as a “holding midfielder” to cover the opposition’s attacking midfielder. In addition, defensive midfielders have important roles in build-up play, as they are required to distribute the ball further up the field, which subsequently creates scoring opportunities. This requires finding the right balance between covering their teammates in counter attacking situations and playing their own role in any offensive phases. Currently the best defensive midfielder in the world is the Frenchman N’Golo Kanté of Chelsea.
If a #6 doesn’t just play in front of the defense, but rather further down the pitch, it is commonly referred to as a “#8,” or central midfielder. Toni Kroos of Real Madrid can often be seen in this position. Quite often a defensive midfielder playing deep is combined with a central midfielder higher up the pitch. In this case it’s important that both players are constantly adjusting their positions in order to keep spaces in the offense and defense balanced.
Traditionally the #10 in soccer, an attacking midfielder, is known as a playmaker. The use of zonal marking allows less space for creative build-up play. An attacking midfielder’s job is to use the gaps between the lines and try to stay open to receive passes. Depending on the situation, especially in formations with one striker, a #10 can shift toward the front and attack in the opposition’s box. An attacking midfielder must constantly have a good overview of the game, be able to anticipate plays, and be well-trained technically. This involves controlling the ball, dribbling and feinting, a precise passing game over short and semi-long distances, as well as good finishing skills in front of the goal. A good example of a great attacking midfielder is the Brazilian Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain), who can also operate in wide attacking positions.
Wide midfielders can play on the right or left wing. Their job is to support attacks on the wings and constantly put the opposing fullbacks under pressure. Running paths for wide midfielders can be straight or diagonal towards the goal line (for a cross-field ball) or towards the center, which allows them to advance into the penalty area and create scoring opportunities. Many teams position the offense with right-footed players on the left side and vice-versa, in an inside forward position. This has the advantage that a player can move towards the center and then shoot at the goal with his/her dominant foot. As for their role in the defense, wide midfielders are often those who initiate pressing situations and together with the defenders behind them, try to win back possession. Wingers have a similar range of tasks as wide midfielders but play further up the pitch. In modern soccer, there is quite a bit of overlap and players can play, depending on the situation, further up the pitch (towards to the front) or deeper (towards the back). Currently the Frenchman Kylian Mbappé (Paris Saint-Germain) is quite prominent in this position and very successful with his incredible speed.
This is the most offensive position in soccer, the primary job of which is to score goals. Teams usually play with one to four forwards/strikers, sometimes even without a nominal forward (for example with a “false nine,” which Lionel Messi often plays in Barcelona). The most common line-ups have one or two forwards. There are many different types of forwards, such as: a so-called “poacher,” who stays near and is deadliest in the box (Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang/Arsenal), a “complete striker” with great finishing abilities (Harry Kane/Tottenham r, a “target player,” who is generally large and good in the air (Romelu Lukaku/Manchester United), “agile, technical strikers,” who are great at dribbling (Lionel Messi/ Barcelona), “classic strikers” (Karim Benzema/Real Madrid), and many more. Depending on the strategy of the team, a coach could opt for a tall striker who is great in the air or a smaller, more agile striker in the center. If a team is playing with only one striker, his/her job is often to hold up the ball and then play it off to a teammate. Modern strikers should be fast, have great finishing abilities, and be capable of effective combination play with their teammates. They should ideally also be able to support the defense by putting pressure on opposing defenders and by doing so steer the opposition’s build-up play in the desired direction.
This description of positions merely offers a rough overview of the different responsibilities and behavior of certain players on the pitch. How these roles are interpreted, and tasks are implemented in a match depends on guidelines from the coach, the individual capabilities of players, and what the opponent allows.
August 19, 2020
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Defensive Compactness through the 4-3-2-1 System
The 4-3-2-1 formation, also known as the “Christmas tree,” provides maximum compactness in the center of the pitch and is used by teams that want to force their opponents to play on the wings.