Soccer Positions Explained

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soccer positions explained

How well do you know your soccer positions? Soccer is the world’s favorite sport, a game watched and adored by millions of passionate fans across the globe, but getting a grip on the different positions and formations a team of 11 can take can be confusing.

This is a guide to all the soccer positions a player might occupy, their functions, and the best current and past players in each.

Soccer Positions: Explained

There can be only 11 players on a soccer field at any time. All are trying to score goals for their team and at the same time preventing the opposition from doing so.

Despite the seeming simplicity of this, there are more than 11 positions players can play in and all are important. You only need to see the net worth of England’s Euro 2024 squad to know that players in all positions have an important jobs to do and are paid well to do it.

The formations teams can they can take, which we’ll get to later, are also hugely important when learning the game or trying to analyze it. For now, though, we’ll run through a list of all positions on the field and explain them fully.

soccer positions explained

Goalkeeper (GK)

This is the last line of defense, the only player allowed to handle the ball, and distinguishable by the fact that they wear a different color uniform from their teammates – and, usually, a pair of sturdy gloves.

The first requirement of a goalkeeper is that they are a good shot-stopper. They need outstanding agility and reflexes to be able to prevent the ball from finding the net.

This often means they are the biggest players on the field. Goalkeepers feature heavily in the list of the tallest soccer players ever for a reason: big reach means a better chance of saving shots.

In recent years, particularly since they stopped being allowed to pick up back-passes from teammates, goalkeepers’ roles have evolved. It’s a great advantage to be good with their feet, and able to pass the ball accurately to team-mates.

That’s why modern keepers such as Alisson and Ederson, two top Brazilians who ply their trade in the English Premier League, are so highly regarded.

Fans still treasure the memories of the great stoppers of the past like Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon and the great Russian, Lev Yashin.

Center-back (CB)

At the heart of a team’s defense, you’ll find one of the most important soccer positions. A center-back’s main role is to nullify the opposing forwards and prevent them scoring goals.

As a result, center-backs tend to be the most physically imposing players out of all positions on the field. The best exponents of this role are usually tall, powerful, and strong in the air and on the ground.

Exceptional center-backs in this traditional mold, whom some older fans might refer to as center-halves, have included former England captain John Terry and, in modern times, Liverpool skipper and one of the 10 players to watch at Euro 2024, Virgil van Dijk.

Soccer positions
Image: Ailura/Wikimedia Commons

Some center-backs have an extra dimension to their game, with the skill and vision to bring the ball forward and launch attacks. England’s Bobby Moore was an early exponent of this art, while John Stones is a modern equivalent.

Full-back (FB)

As the cornerstones of the defense, the first job of the two full-backs is to snuff out the threat of the opposing team’s wide forwards as they strive to make their way into the penalty area or the by-line.

The right-back and left-back in any team tend to be the least heralded of all soccer positions, like the bass player in a band. But they perform an absolutely vital role in providing their side with a solid back line and a launchpad to go forward.

Indeed, some of the most respected defenders of all time have been full-backs. Paolo Maldini of Italy, and Germany’s Philipp Lamm earned enormous recognition through their careers.

Some full-backs have had the speed and audacity to add an offensive dimension to their defensive capabilities. Brazil’s Cafu and Roberto Carlos carried a goal threat, while England’s Ashley Cole and, in the modern era, Trent Alexander-Arnold, are also examples of top attacking full-backs.

Sweeper (SW)

Traditionally, there are four defensive players in a back line, two center backs and two full backs. However, some teams over the years lined up with five – and the extra man was often a sweeper.

The sweeper – also known as the libero – patrolled the area behind and between the center-backs, adding extra fortification to the defense.

While it was important to be able to defend and stop the other team progressing, many sweepers brought vision and passing skill to the role, which enabled them to bring the ball out of defense and set up attacks.

Sweepers have largely vanished from the game, but older fans still remember the great German player Franz Beckenbauer making this role his own, while midfielders including Glenn Hoddle and Ruud Gullit became defensive players in this position later in their careers.

Wing-back (WB)

One of the most popular variations of the traditional four at the back has been to play with three center-backs.

The extra man in the back line gives the two full-backs license to be more adventurous, which gave rise to the wing-back position. Such players can spend more time adding their efforts to the attack, while also having to keep one eye on some defensive duties.

Many players can adapt to different positions, so plenty of top full-backs have also been able to shine at wing-back.

However, there are some exceptional soccer players in this role in the modern game. They include Canada’s Alphonso Davies and Italy’s Federico Dimarco. Dutch pair Denzel Dumfries and Jeremie Frimpong also catch the eye.

Defensive Midfielder (DM)

There are several types of midfielder in soccer. One of the most important positions in a modern soccer team team is the defensive midfielder.

This is a player who patrols the area in front of the defensive line, breaking up the opposing team’s attacks before they get too close to the goal. These midfielders read the game, tackle strongly, and can play a part in launching counter-attacks.

The role was perfected by France’s Claude Makelele and his compatriot N’Golo Kante, and there are several soccer players who excel in it in the modern game.

Players like Rodri of Spain, England’s Declan Rice and Joshua Kimmich of Germany exert a considerable influence on any game with their vision, strength and skill.

Attacking Midfielder (AM)

Further up the pitch than the defensive midfielder, another key position in soccer is the attacking midfielder.

As the name suggests, we’re talking about players who are able to find a precious extra half-second to launch attacks, support their striker, and contribute to their team’s goal tally as well.

You may see these players referred to as a “number eight”, who run tirelessly from box to box and make a massive difference to their team’s performance, or a “number ten” who stays closer to the attack and is always looking to play a key pass or get a shot on goal.

A lot of the best soccer players of all time have been attacking midfielders. Lionel Messi of Argentina, one of the greatest players of all time, is the epitome of a number ten.

Soccer positions
Image: Hossein Zohrevand/Wikimedia Commons

Kevin De Bruyne of Belgium also exemplifies the all-round excellence of a top attacking midfielder, while England’s Jude Bellingham looks set to be one of the best in the world in this position for the next decade.

Right/Left Attacking Midfielder (RAM/LAM)

These positions are filled by players with a responsibility to support their main forwards and to get on the scoresheet as well.

They focus on one particular side of the pitch, and have a duty to use their wide range of skills to cause problems to the opposition’s full-backs, as well as their center-backs.

England has a wealth of exceptional wide attacking midfielders right now, including Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, and Cole Palmer.

Kingsley Coman of France, Portugal’s Bernardo Silva, and Christian Pulisic of the USA are also prominent examples of wide attacking midfielders in the modern game.

Winger (W)

The role of a winger differs slightly from that of a wide attacking midfielder in soccer, though the roles are in many cases interchangeable.

Wingers are players with the duty to attack their opposing full-back and either get deep into the opposition’s territory to cross or cut inside and shoot.

They tend to stick to the wide area of the pitch, and specialize in being able to dribble past an opponent.

Traditional wingers such as England’s Stanley Matthews and the great George Best of Northern Ireland have been succeeded by specialists like Ryan Giggs of Wales and Dutch star Arjen Robben.

Current players who operate more as wingers than attacking midfielders include Mo Salah of Egypt, so prolific from the right wing, and two men who shine on the left, Vinicius Jr of Brazil and England’s Jack Grealish

Striker (ST)

All positions in soccer are important, and contribute to the team effort. But some are more vital than others; and the job of a striker is to score the goals that win games and trophies.

A striker in soccer needs to be strong, nimble, tactically aware, and cool in front of goal when a chance is there to be taken.

You may see a striker referred to as a target man, if he is good at receiving long passes and holding them under pressure. Other strikers hover on the shoulder of the last defender and use a burst of pace to get in the clear and create an opening.

So many exceptional players over the years have been strikers in soccer that a list of leading exponents in this most crucial of football positions could be endless.

Soccer positions
Image: Jacek Stanislawek/Wikimedia Commons

Erling Haaland is arguably the world’s best striker, but two players who can also claim to be best in the world are England’s Harry Kane and Kylian Mbappe of France. Hardly surprising they are the two favorites in Euro 2024 golden boot betting markets this summer.

“Tactico” Positions

In recent years, certain refinements to soccer positions have been suggested by “tacticos”, self-styled experts who are particularly busy on social media. These positions tend to have Italian titles, and they include:

Regista: Translates as “director”, and describes a playmaker who sits deep, just in front of the defense, to set the tempo and start attacks. Andrea Pirlo was an early exponent.

Trequartista: This means “three-quarters” and is applied to a player who roams the area between midfield and the striker and is more the latter than the former – hence the name. One classic example was Roberto Baggio.

Mezzala: Also called a “half-winger”, and is a player who operates on the right or left of a midfield three. Players like Andres Iniesta could go wide or central as part of an attack.

Soccer Positions in Classic Formations

If you are new to watching the sport, or looking to learn how to bet on soccer, it may take some time to work out what all the soccer positions are, and how they merge to create a cohesive team effort.

It can be useful to know how positions fit into the most common formations in which teams line up.

4-4-2

soccer positions explained

This was for many years the go-to formation for soccer teams. Four defenders, four midfielders, and two attackers (we take it for granted the goalkeeper is always in the same place).

Many coaches still prefer this solid, straightforward option. But as the sport has evolved, there have been variations on this theme. Some teams, for instance, played with a midfield diamond – with one of its midfielders more advanced and the other sitting deep.

An early example was the England side that won the FIFA World Cup back in 1966.

4-3-3

soccer positions explained

In recent years, it has become much more orthodox for teams in the major leagues and tournaments to line up with three midfielders and three forwards.

Indeed, most sides now have a single striker who expects close support from the wide attacking midfielders.

There are numerous other variations, including 3-4-3, 3-5-2, and 4-1-3-2 – and many coaches are comfortable with changing their formation between games and even during a match if the need arises.

Conclusion

With all the soccer positions explained, you will be in a stronger position to assess and enjoy the action when you next watch a game.

Use this knowledge to try and find an edge when betting on games, certain soccer betting sites can make this a significant edge.

Soccer is a fast-moving, intensely entertaining sport, and it helps to know which player has been deployed in each particular role.

The fluidity of soccer ensures that players can pop up in different parts of the pitch. Many center-backs are regular goal scorers from corners and free kicks while some strikers are particularly adept at heading away corner kicks in defense.

But now you know your striker from your full-back, you will have a deeper appreciation of the formations being used and the many ways the different positions in soccer contribute towards the collective team effort.

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Martin Booth
Sports & Casino Expert
Martin Booth
Sports & Casino Expert

Martin brings extensive experience from the gambling industry to the task of writing about global online sports betting and casino operations. He spent more than two decades in senior roles on the sports desks of UK national newspapers, then moved on to work in a B2C and B2B capacity for major gambling firms. He now runs an award-winning copywriting consultancy and has written extensively for sites such as Gambling.com, Bookies.com, Casino.org and Horseracing.co.uk. Martin has been interested in gambling for more than 50 years, ever since he had two shillings each way on Red Rum in the 1973 Grand National.