In the sport of association football, each of the eleven players on a team is assigned to a particular position on the field of play. A team is made up of one goalkeeper and ten outfield players who fill various defensive, midfield and attacking positions depending on the formation deployed. These positions describe both the player's main role and their area of operation on the pitch. As the game has evolved, tactics and team formations have changed, and the names of the positions and the duties involved have evolved as well.
The fluid nature of the modern game means that positions in football are not as formally defined as in sports such as rugby or American football. Even so, most players will play in a limited range of positions throughout their career, as each position requires a particular set of skills. Footballers who are able to play comfortably in numerous positions are referred to as "utility players".
However, in Total Football tactics, the players are only loosely defined into a position. This tactic required players who were extremely versatile, such as Johan Cruijff, who could play every position on the pitch apart from goalkeeper.
1 Goalkeeper (GK)
2.1 Centre-back (CB)
2.2 Sweeper/Libero (SW)
2.3 Full-back (FB/RB/LB)
2.4 Wingback (WB/RWB/LWB)
3.1 Centre midfielder (CM)
3.2 Defensive midfielder (DM)
3.3 Attacking midfielder (AM)
3.4 Winger (RW/LW) or wide midfielder (LM/RM)
4.1 Centre forward (CF)
4.2 Striker (S)
4.3 Deep-lying forward (SS)
5 Tactical evolution
6 See also
Main article: Goalkeeper (association football)
A football goalkeeper leaves the ground to parry a shot on goalThe goalkeeper is the most specialised position in football. A goalkeeper's job is mainly defensive: to guard the team's goal from being breached (to not let the other team score). Goalkeeper is the only position defined in the FIFA Laws of the Game. Goalkeepers are the only players allowed to touch the ball with their hands and arms, however they are restricted to doing so only within their penalty area; for this reason, they must wear jerseys that distinguish them from other outfield players and the referee. If a goalkeeper is sent off or injured, and there is no substitute goalkeeper available, an outfield player must take the goalkeeper's place and don the appropriate identifying uniform.
The discipline of goalkeeping is so specialised that it is very rare in the professional game for a goalkeeper to play in any other position. One notable exception is Jorge Campos of Mexico, who played effectively as a striker when called upon. A goalkeeper with good technical skill may opt to take his team's penalties and free kicks, though this is rare as the goalkeeper would be caught out of position if possession is conceded immediately after the kick. José Luis Chilavert (now retired) of Vélez Sársfield and Paraguay, and Rogério Ceni of São Paulo FC and Brazil are well-known free-kick and penalty specialists with over 60 goals to their names.
Physical strength, height, jumping ability and judgement are valued qualities for goalkeepers to have in order to deal with aerial balls and agility, quick reactions and a good positional sense are all needed for shot stopping. The standard football skills of ball control, tackling, passing and dribbling are not usually required in a goalkeeper, although the introduction of the back-pass rule in the early 1990s has necessitated improvement on such skills.
For a list of association football goalkeepers, see Category:Football (soccer) goalkeepers.
Main article: Defender (association football)
A defender (in the foreground, wearing a white shirt) challenging for possessionDefenders or backs play behind the midfielders and their primary responsibility is to provide support to the goalkeeper, and to prevent the opposition from scoring a goal. They usually remain in the half of the field that contains the goal they are defending. Taller defenders will move forward to the opposing team's penalty box when their team takes corner kicks or free kicks, where scoring with one's head is a possibility.
For a list of association football defenders, see Category:Football (soccer) defenders.
The job of the centre-back also called centre-halves or central defenders is to stop opposing players, particularly the strikers, from scoring, and to bring the ball out from their penalty area. As their name suggests, they play in a central position. Most teams employ two centre backs, stationed in front of the goalkeeper. There are two main defensive strategies used by centre backs: the zonal defence, where each centre back covers a specific area of the pitch, and man-to-man marking, where each centre back has the job of covering a particular opposition player.
Centre-backs are often tall, strong and have a good heading and tackling ability. An ability to read the game well is also a distinct advantage. Sometimes, particularly in lower leagues, centre-backs concentrate less on ball control and passing, preferring simply to clear the ball in a "safety-first" fashion. However, there is a long tradition of centre-backs having more than just rudimentary footballing skill, enabling a more possession-oriented playing style.
The position was formerly referred to as "centre-half". In the early part of the 20th century, when most teams employed the 2-3-5 formation, the row of three players were called halfbacks. As formations evolved, the central player in this trio (the centre-half), moved into a more defensive position on the field, taking the name of the position with them.
For a list of association football centre-backs, see Category:Football (soccer) central defenders.
The Sweeper or libero (Italian: free) is a more versatile type of centre back that, as the name suggests, "sweeps up" the ball if the opponent manages to breach the defensive line. Their position is rather more fluid than other defenders who mark their designated opponents. The sweeper's ability to read the game is even more vital than for a centre-back. The catenaccio system of play, used in Italian football in the 1960s, notably employed a defensive libero.
Many centre-backs have the ability to bring the ball out of defence and begin counter-attacks for their own teams, thanks to tactical (game reading, anticipation, positioning, tackling) and technical (passing, vision on the pitch) capabilities.
Former German captain Franz Beckenbauer is widely accepted as the inventor and one of the best players of the role, together with Franco Baresi,, Daniel Passarella, Armando Picchi, Ronald Koeman, Matthias Sammer, Miodrag Belodedici, Lothar Matthäus and Gaetano Scirea.
While their duties are primarily defensive, fullbacks and other similar players have a long tradition of attacking. Brazil's final 1970 World Cup goal by fullback Carlos Alberto, illustrates the potential of defensive players when they move up to attack.Full-backs take up the wide defensive positions, one on each side of the field. Their main task is to prevent opposition players crossing or cutting the ball back into the penalty area. In some defensive systems, full-backs mark opponents. Most full backs are also expected to provide an attacking dimension by getting upfield along the wings and providing crosses.
Traditionally, full-backs played a role today occupied by the central defenders. As the game evolved, with the old centre half taking over the central defensive role, full-backs have migrated out to the flanks and the position now requires a slightly different set of skills. The modern full back is usually pacey, strong in the tackle and with good stamina to get up and down the field. Because of the experience gleaned from the use of their chosen foot, full backs often make good free kick or penalty takers, Denis Irwin and Stuart Pearce being among many examples. The role of the modern full-back was essentially created by Giacinto Facchetti under the guidance of Helenio Herrera. Originally an attacker, Facchetti had the skills and pace of a typical winger, but due to his build, Herrera switched him to a left-back. This move proved to a be master-stroke, as Facchetti quickly mastered the art of defending, but at the same time retained his attacking instincts. He was subsequently nicknamed 'the spider', due to his long legs and ability to cover the flank with lightning speed.
For a list of association football full-backs, see Category:Football (soccer) fullbacks.
The wingback is a modern variation on the fullback with heavier emphasis on attack. The name is a portmanteau of "winger" (see below) and "full-back". They are usually employed in a 3-5-2 formation, and could therefore be considered part of the midfield. As the role combines that of the winger and the fullback, wingbacks need to be blessed with good stamina. As they have the support of three centre-backs, they are expected to concentrate more on providing support for strikers and less on their defensive duties.
Brazil has a long tradition of using wingbacks.
Main article: Midfielder
A midfielder (such as Steven Gerrard from Liverpool F.C., pictured here) plays between the defence and attackMidfielders are players whose position of play is midway between the attacking strikers and the defenders. Their main duties are to maintain possession of the ball, taking the ball from defenders and feeding it to the strikers, as well as dispossessing opposing players. Most managers field at least one central midfielder with a marked task of breaking up opposition's attacks while the rest are more adept to creating goals or have equal responsibilities between attack and defence. Midfielders can be expected to cover many areas of a pitch, as at times they can be called back into defence or required to attack with the strikers.
For a list of association football midfielders, see Category:Football (soccer) midfielders.
Centre midfielder (CM)
Central midfielders play several roles on the field of play, depending on their particular strengths and the tactics of the team. They are the link between defence and attack, and must also defend when the opposition are in possession. Their central position enables them to have an all-round view of the match, and as most of the action takes place in and around their area of the pitch, midfielders often exert the greatest degree of control over how a match is played.
Most centre midfielders are capable of playing from "box to box" and, as the norm rather than the exception, use their strength, their passing ability, and their work rate to affect their team's game play.
Defensive midfielder (DM)
A defensive midfielder or holding midfielder is a central midfielder who is stationed in front of the back defenders for defensive reasons, thus "holding back" the freedom of the opponents to attack. This specialist midfielder's responsibilities are to tackle the ball away from the opposing team's attackers and midfielders and to safely distribute it to more attacking-minded players. Not only do the players protect their team's defence, they also give their fellow midfielders a license to play with more attacking flair without the worry of defensive work.
Some defensive midfielders are called deep-lying playmakers, due to their ability to dictate tempo from a deep position with their passing. Most often, due to their lack of defensive abilities, they have to be supported by a more defensive holding midfielder.
Claude Makélélé is perhaps one of the most notable defensive midfielders, with his deep-lying defensive style labelled the "Makélélé Role".
Attacking midfielder (AM)
Strong, flexible midfield play is essential to all successful teams. Here, English midfielder Alan Mullery scores on a spectacular 'one-two' pass against Germany in the 1970 World Cup. Mullery also defended against Pelé with some effectiveness during the Brazil - England encounter. The high-scoring Brazilian side was held to one goal.An attacking midfielder is a central midfielder who is stationed in an advanced midfield position, usually behind the strikers. These players typically serve as the offensive pivot of the team, and are sometimes said to be "playing in the hole", although this term can also be used to describe the positioning of deep-lying centre-forwards. This specialist midfielder's main role is to create goal-scoring opportunities using superior vision and skill. The attacking midfielder is an important position that requires the player to possess superior technical abilities in terms of passing and, perhaps more importantly, the ability to read the opposing defence in order to deliver defence-splitting passes to the strikers.
Attacking midfielders are playmakers, known for their deft touch, ability to shoot from range, and passing prowess. Where an attacking midfielder is regularly utilised, he or she is commonly the team's star player. As such, a team is often constructed so as to allow their attacking midfielder to roam free and create as the situation demands. One such popular formation is the 4-4-2 "diamond", in which defined attacking and defensive midfielders replace the more traditional pair of central midfielders.
Winger (RW/LW) or wide midfielder (LM/RM)
A winger or wide midfielder is an attacking midfielder who is stationed in a wide position effectively hugging the touchline. Wingers used to be classified as forwards in traditional W-shaped formations, but as tactics evolved over the last 30 years, wingers have dropped to deeper field positions. Modern wingers are now usually classified as part of the midfield, usually in 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 formations (although a more attacking version of the 4-5-1 formation - 4-3-3 - gives the wingers a more traditional 'wide striker' role). Wingers often aim to beat opposing fullbacks by dribbling around them and to deliver cut-backs and crosses from wide positions. They are usually some of the most technically gifted players in the team and usually have very good dribbling skills as well as good pace.
Years ago, wingers were more highly prized, but their importance has dwindled throughout the years. In the 1966 World Cup for example, England manager Alf Ramsey led a team without natural wingers to the championship. This was unusual enough at the time for the team to be nicknamed "The Wingless Wonders".
The striker (wearing the red shirt) is past the defence (in the white shirts) and is about to take a shot at the goal. The goalkeeper will attempt to stop the ball from entering the goal.Strikers or forwards are the players on a team in the row nearest to the opposing team's goal (note: the term attacker is also sometimes used to describe strikers/forwards but is now more commonly used to describe any player on the team currently in possession of the ball). The primary responsibility of strikers/forwards is to score goals. Good examples of strikers are noted for their fantastic goal scoring ability. Other duties can include setting up goals for other players (usually another forward, but sometimes midfielders as well) and holding the ball up so that other players may join the attack. Modern player formations include between one and three strikers; two is most common, as in the 4-4-2 formation. Because they score more goals than other players, forwards are often among the best-known and most expensive players on their teams.
 Centre forward (CF)
The centre forward, has one main task: to score goals. Coaches will often field one striker who plays on the shoulder of the last opposing defender and another attacking forward who plays somewhat deeper and assists in creating goals as well as scoring. The former is usually a large striker, typically known as a "target man", who is used either to distract opposing defenders to help team mates score, or to score himself; the latter is usually of quicker pace, and is required to have some abilities like finding holes in the opposing defence and, sometimes, dribbling. In other cases, strikers will operate on the wings of the field and work their way goalwards. Yet another variation is the replacement of the target man with a striker who can thread through-balls.
Players who specialise in playing as a target are usually of above-average height - notably Jan Koller and Nikola Žigić (both 6 ft 8 in (2.03 m)) - with good heading ability and an accurate shot. They tend to be the "outlet" player for both midfielders and defenders, able to hold the ball up and allow other players time to enter the game. They tend to score goals from crosses, often with the head, and can use their body strength to shield the ball while turning to score.
Other forwards may rely on their pace to run onto long balls passed over or through the opposition defence, rather than collecting the ball with their back to goal like a target man. Some forwards can play both of these roles equally well.
It should be noted that there is a difference between a centre forward and a striker and these two roles are easily confused, although they do share similarities. A striker is better known for making runs to beat defenders, trying to beat the offside trap and playing close to the goal area. They are typically recognised as quick, with good reaction speed and given few defensive responsibilities. This contrasts with the centre forward's different style of holding up play and leading the front line.
Deep-lying forward (SS)
Deep-lying forwards have a long history in the game, but the terminology to describe them has varied over the years. Originally such players were termed inside forwards, or deep-lying centre forwards. More recently, the preferred terms have been "withdrawn striker", "second striker" or playing "in the hole" (i.e. the space between the midfield and defence of the opposing team).
The position was initially developed by the famous Hungary national football team of the late 1940s and mid-1950s led by Ferenc Puskás. Later, it was popularised in Italian football as the trequartista ("three-quarters"), the playmaker who plays neither in midfield nor as a forward, but effectively pulls the strings for his team's attack. Many players in this position can play as an attacking midfielder or sometimes on the wing. These players usually hang off the last man so they can beat him for pace.
Whatever the terminology, the position itself is a loosely-defined one somewhere between the out-and-out striker and the midfield. Such a player is either a skilful, attack-minded midfielder or a striker who can both score and create opportunities for centre forwards. Widely-known former deep-lying forwards include Pelé, Diego Maradona, Zico, Roberto Baggio, Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola.
Many attacking midfielders have also been employed in this area by club and country, including Zinedine Zidane for France, and Francesco Totti for Italy.
In the early days of Association Football, the game was very much focused on attack and, as such, many teams (e.g. Royal Engineers, 1872) played with a 1-2-7 formation (one defender, two mid-fielders and seven attackers). The single defender was known as the ¾-back, and he was supported in part by two half-backs from mid-field who would be in charge of orchestrating the game with short passing. Up front, the seven forwards were split into four wing forwards and three centre forwards. The wingers' main task was to use their pace to pick up on the long balls forward by the half- and ¾-backs, whereas the centre forwards would have been charged with taking the short passes from the half-backs.
In order to combat the short-passing threat, the championship-winning Preston North End side of 1888 devised a more defensive 2-3-5 formation (two defenders, three mid-fielders and five attackers), which would become the standard formation for many teams for the best part of the next 40 years. One of the half-backs was brought back into defence, which sat deeper than before, making the two defenders full-backs as opposed to ¾-backs. Their main job was to mark the opposition's inside forwards and cut out the short passes in mid-field. Furthermore, two forwards were brought back into mid-field as half-backs to mark the opposition wingers and negate the pace threat. The remaining half-back became a centre-back, who would patrol the field, drifting from defence to attack as he saw fit. This left two wingers up front (outside-right and outside-left), along with two inside-forwards (inside-right and inside-left) and a centre-forward.
Up until this point, for an attacking player to be onside, there had to be at least three opposing players closer to their goal-line than the attacker. In the 1920s, the offside rule was changed to mean that there only had to be two opposing players between the attacker and the goal-line for him to still be onside. This made it easier for attackers to score against the two-man defences of the day. To combat this, Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman devised a system that utilised three defenders as opposed to the usual two. This system was complemented by a strict man-marking regime, whereby the centre-back - who had now retreated to the centre of the three man defence - would stick as close to the opposing centre-forward as possible, while the full-backs - who had moved further wide to accommodate the centre-back - would mark the wingers. This left two mid-fielders in a slightly less advanced position than before to act as wing-halves who would have the dual responsibility of loosely marking the inside forwards and providing the forwards with the ball. This was helped by the slight withdrawal of the inside forwards from the front line. Chapman's formation was referred to as the M-W formation due to its appearance on the field with all the players in their described positions.
A variation of the M-W formation was the Hungarian M-U formation used to great effect against England in 1953, when they became the first non-British side to beat England at the old Wembley Stadium. This formation was so-called because of the deep-lying centre-forward Nándor Hidegkuti, used to draw the opposition centre-back out of position, leaving plenty of space between the full-backs for the inside-forwards Ferenc Puskás and Sándor Kocsis to exploit.
In 1958, the Brazilians won their first of five World Cups to date thanks to the flat back four system they had developed to counter the Hungarians' M-U. Two centre-backs would mark the inside-forwards' runs from deep, while the wider full-backs would not only cut out the threat of the opposing wingers but also provide width on the counter-attack. The relative lack of numbers in the middle of the park meant a creative presence was required, and for the Brazilians, that presence was provided in the form of their dazzling midfielder Didi.
The advent of the Italian "Catenaccio" (bolt) system came soon after, and was a more defensive variation on the Brazilians' 4-2-4 system. Two forwards were withdrawn to leave just two up front, and an extra midfielder was added to bolster the midfield. However, the major tactical innovation with this formation was the floating sweeper, often referred to in Italian as a "libero", or "free man". While the four main defenders would have the task of strict man-marking the opposition forwards, the libero would act as a sponge, mopping up any attacks that might happen to get through the tight defence. Franz Beckenbauer of Bayern Munich gave the position a more attacking role and played a major part as captain of the West Germany side that won the World Cup in 1974 and came third in 1970.
Meanwhile, the English had also developed a tactical formation that lay somewhere between a 4-2-4, a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3. The flat back four that had become so popular remained intact, but the midfield was a free-flowing unit with players given license to attack as the scenario saw fit. In defence, using the 1966 World Cup side as an example, Martin Peters, Bobby Charlton and Alan Ball would all stay back to counter the opposition attack. However, in attack they had two options: Peters and Ball could charge forward, creating problems for the opposition out wide with their pace and crossing ability, creating a 4-2-4 formation; or Charlton could burst through the middle of the strike partnership of Roger Hunt and Geoff Hurst and overload the centre of the opposition defence, providing either an extra man in the box or an effective long-shot alternative. The unsung hero of Alf Ramsey's England side was Nobby Stiles, who was the midfield linchpin, whom the team relied on in defence when Charlton surged forward in support of the strikers.
The mid- to late-1970s saw the coming of the Dutch "Total Football" scheme. While not burdened with a specific, rigid formation, the system relied on extremely versatile players who were able to fill in at any position the circumstances of the game required them to. One such player was the legendary Johan Cruijff, who epitomised the Total Football ideology by being able to play in almost every outfield position going. A major criticism of this style of play was that, for the Dutch national side, it never yielded a major trophy, but it did help them to reach two consecutive World Cup finals (1974 and 1978), which is no mean feat. The argument is somewhat negated by the fact that the Ajax side that Cruijff played in won three consecutive European Cup titles in the 1970s.
The last major tactical evolution occurred in the late 1980s/early 1990s, when the A.C. Milan side played with a variation on the 4-4-2 formation. This formation relied extensively on the four defenders' ability to work as a unit in order to spring the offside trap on slower attackers, as well as the stamina of the midfielders who would be expected to pressurise the opposition as soon as they gained possession of the ball. In attack, the team would play short-passes within the midfield, using their crisp passing and dynamic movement to open up holes in the defence and create attacking opportunities.
These days, the 4-4-2 formation is very much the predominant tactic in world football. However, this does vary from country to country, such as in the Netherlands, where the 4-3-3 formation is favoured, and even division to division within some countries. Some teams prefer a more defensive option, packing the defence in a 5-3-2 formation, while others will exploit the opposition's defensive incapability by deploying their speedy wing-backs in a 3-5-2 formation. Other formations, such as 4-5-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1, etc., do exist, but the 4-4-2 formation remains the dominant tactic.
New tactics are being pioneered all the time, most recently by Barcelona, whose plethora of attacking midfielders and forwards (Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto'o, Thierry Henry, et al.) leads to very attacking and fluid formations, which can change from 4-5-1 to 3-2-5 in an instant. This fluidity in attack has also been emulated by Manchester United, whose attacking quartet of Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo are able to interchange their positions quickly, stifling opposition defences, with defenders not knowing whether to stick to their man or to their specific zone on the pitch. It requires adaptable, fast, intelligent players, and resembles Total Football in many ways, but with a more defined defensive structure; teams like these are usually devastating on the counter attack, making them highly dangerous both at home and away. Unsurprisingly, these tactics helped Manchester United to the Premier League and Champions League titles in 2007-08 and Barcelona to the La Liga and Champions League titles in 2005-06.