Soccer positions explained

Soccer positions explained

Soccer positions explained

Whether you like to call it soccer or football, it is the most widely played sport on the planet. With 11 players on the field at one time, there are countless ways to organize a soccer team. Depending on where in the world you live, there are different position names and ways to number a squad. This article uses an Anglicized historical context concerning football positioning. Throughout history, teams have organized around four types of players, defenders, midfielders, forwards and goalkeepers. This article examines the four soccer player types and describes the styles of play, formations, and positions within those player types. Over the years, certain formations and tactics have gained popularity, while others have fallen into the history books. I’ll explain how this history shaped the positions we have in soccer today, and how it also influenced the shirt numbers.

Why numbers are related to positions in soccer

The English Football Association started using consistent shirt numbers for each player in 1993. Before that, there was a mandatory use of shirt numbers one through 11 for the starting lineup. The number the player wore designated them to a specific role on the pitch. Despite the change, you’ll still hear football commentaries alluding to numbers when describing a player’s position on the pitch. That’s why I’ll explain the historical context around the terminology related to historical shirt numbers.


There’s only one player designated as a goalkeeper in soccer which limits the way keepers are utilized. However, there are styles of play that differentiate the types of goalkeepers. Oftentimes people will define a keeper as a shot-blocker or a sweeper-keeper. Regardless of their style of play, starting goalkeepers historically wear shirt number one. Backup keepers will wear other numbers, typically outside numbers one through 11, depending on the rules of the competition.


A shot-blocker is a conservative goalkeeper that doesn’t venture far from the goal. It’s rare for this type of keeper to leave the penalty area. They have exceptional reflexes and rely on their height and athleticism to keep the ball out of the net. The average height of a Premier League goalkeeper is about six foot three.


Before 1992 goalkeepers could pick up back passes from their teammates. In 1992 the IFAB changed that law, no longer allowing goalkeepers to handle the ball from a pass. This resulted in goalkeepers needing to play the ball more with their feet. Leading to an influx of goalkeepers playing the role of sweeper-keeper. They aggressively close down open space behind the defensive line like a sweeper. A sweeper-keeper isn’t afraid to tackle the ball far outside the penalty area. When the defence pushes over their half of the field, the sweeper-keeper ventures outside the box to follow. The sweeper-keeper helps its team outnumber their opponents by providing an extra passing option. Although it’s an exciting football tactic, this style of play can be risky, and it’s prone to backfire. Some sweeper-keepers will cover distances of over five kilometres in a match.

Defensive soccer positions explained

The history of soccer has shown us many defending positions. The formations utilized helped to shape these positions. In the 1800s when organized football was first popularized, many teams commonly used only two defenders. A change in the offside law in 1925 led to a gradual change in popular formations utilizing more defenders. In the modern game, every team utilizes between three and five defenders. Shirt numbers in English professional football were first used in 1928. Teams back then used a 2-3-5 formation. Full-backs were given the number-two and number-three shirt numbers. The half-backs were then given shirts numbered four through six, and continued using them when deployed as central defenders. Even today it’s still common to find most defensive players wearing low-numbered shirts.

The evolution of defenders

Offensive-minded strategies dominated soccer in its early years. Teams utilizing 2-3-5 formations with only two defensive players were common. Fullbacks were the players in the last line of defence. While players known as half-backs played in front of the fullbacks. The centre-half played in the middle of the row of half-backs. Gradually, teams brought back more players from midfield into a defensive line. This pushed fullbacks out wide. Players moving into the central defending role took their position names and numbers with them. Despite this new role on the pitch, central half-backs continued to be called centre-halves. People now refer to centre-halves as centre-backs.


The responsibility of defending the area directly in front of the goal falls on the centre-backs or central defenders. Typically, teams will play with at least one or two centre-backs. Some soccer teams will organize with a three-man defensive line formation. This could include a left centre-back, centre-back, and right centre-back. However, most teams play two centre backs beside each other in the middle of the defensive side of the field. Throughout history, there have been other ways to organize the players in the central defensive role.


The sweeper is a centre-back defensive position that has fallen out of favour in recent years in professional soccer. A sweeper will play as the last man back in the defensive unit. They will ‘sweep’ up the ball if the opposition sends it into their defensive end. Often paired with a stopper, the sweeper is known as a ball-moving central defender. In Italian, this position is known as a ‘libero’, which translates as ‘free’ in English. The sweeper is typically free to play all over the field and helps the team transition into attack. Unlike other central defenders, they’re not given a specific man to mark, allowing them the freedom to join the attack. Sweepers were traditionally designated with the number-four or number-five shirt.


A stopper in soccer is a term for a centre-back playing in front of the sweeper or defensive line. They must be excellent at man-marking, tackling, and winning balls in the air. A true stopper partners with a ball moving centre back. The stopper takes more responsibility for the defensive aspects of the game when their partner moves upfield.


Typically utilized in a four-man defensive line, fullbacks play out wide on the defensive unit’s flanks. Known as a left-back or right-back, the fullbacks are situated on opposite ends of the defensive line. When teams only use three defenders they will typically call them all centre-backs instead of full-backs. This is because full-backs take on a more attacking role, often making overlapping runs in the opposition half. That type of play can be somewhat risky for a centre-back when utilizing only three defenders in a soccer team. Full-backs maintain the shape of the defensive line to ensure they aren’t playing the opposition onside.


Wing-backs are typically utilized when soccer teams employ a five-person defensive unit. They will play out on the flanks of the defence and push forward with the attack. When utilized, wing-backs play in a more offensively advanced position than any other players on the defensive unit. They’re mostly used in formations deploying three centre-backs. However, they can be used in a back four like a full-back. They could be considered a wing-back instead of a full-back if their play is more offensive-minded. Or if their team is playing without wingers in the midfield.

Midfielder soccer positions explained

Midfielders cover more distance on the pitch than any other soccer position. The most versatile and physically fit footballers are usually found in the midfield. Playing in between the defence and the forwards, the midfielders are the heart of the team. Midfielders require a high level of skill on the offensive and defensive ends of the field. Depending on the formation there can be an emphasis on either defensive or offensive play. The top midfielders in professional football will cover a distance of over eleven kilometres in a single match.

The evolution of midfielders

In the modern era of football, teams almost always utilize between three and five midfielders. In footballs’ early years, midfielders were called half-backs. A position no longer in widespread use. Attacking-oriented formations with five forwards have not been typical since around 1925. When outside forwards were gradually repositioned. Serving as outside midfielders in a more defensive role. Depending on the formation used there are many ways to deploy midfielders on a soccer team. As styles of play evolve, so do the terms used to describe the types of midfield players. I’ll discuss common terminology within each main category of midfielders, and disclose the historical shirt numbers associated with these positions.

Defensive midfielders

Defensive midfielders must have good judgement. Knowing when and where they are needed is key. Transitioning the play from defence to supporting the attack is important in this role. More responsibilities on the defensive side of the football pitch are typically given to one or two midfielders. A half-back is now what most people refer to as a Defensive Midfielder.

Holding midfielder or deep-lying midfielder

Sometimes known as a “destroyer” or ball-winning midfielder, this is a type of player most utilized in 4-2-3-1 formations. When a team lines up with four midfielders, typically one of the central midfielders will take on the holding role, sometimes called an anchorman. A player in this role is dominant at regaining possession through tackling and winning headers. They destroy the opposition attacks before they can penetrate the defence. Distributing the ball quickly with short passes to the more creatively gifted players is key in this role. A traditional shirt number used in this position would be a number four or six.

Deep-lying playmaker

A defensive midfielder known as a deep-lying playmaker must have excellent passing, ball control, and distribution skills. Known as a “creator” this type of player has the ability to control the pace of the game. Maintaining possession of the ball with accurate passing and creative abilities is key in this role. This type of player also attempts long and accurate passes out wide or sends deep through balls to the forwards. In a 4-2-3-1 formation, the deep-lying playmaker pairs with a more defensive-minded holding midfielder. A traditional shirt number worn in this position would be a number eight.

Central midfielders

The players on the football pitch covering the most ground are typically the central midfielders. They are sometimes referred to as box-to-box midfielders, as they play deep across both ends of the pitch. Therefore they must have excellent stamina and be highly skilled to play soccer in these positions. Often referred to as a “playmaker,” the central midfielders must have good vision to react quickly in the match. Usually, the most talented and versatile footballers compete in the midfield to control the direction of the match. Central midfielders are typically utilized in a 4-4-2 formation, with a left central-midfielder and right central-midfielder. The traditional shirt numbers used in these positions would be number six or eight.

Outside midfielders or wide midfielders

These players are positioned out wide, on the left or right flank of the midfield. Wide midfielders or outside midfielders have equal responsibilities in attacking and defending, therefore they must have stamina. Outside mids play close to the touchline in a 4-4-2 formation. Wide mids must have excellent crossing abilities, sending balls into the opposition box for attacking teammates to score. The traditional shirt numbers used in these soccer positions would be a number seven on the right or number 11 on the left.

Attacking midfielders

Attacking midfielders position themselves behind the forwards and ahead of the rest of the midfielders on the pitch. Depending on the formation, attacking midfielders can play on the left, right, or centre of the pitch. Players in the attacking midfield must be playmakers with excellent shooting abilities. What some people call attacking midfielders, others will refer to as forwards. Therefore blurring the line between what is a midfielder and what is a forward. Especially in formations with only one forward.

Advanced playmaker or number 10

Some refer to the attacking midfielder who plays in the centre of the pitch as a number 10. A number typically associated with forwards. Harking back to when shirt numbers indicated a player’s position on the pitch. This advanced playmaker fills the space behind the forwards. They’re called a deep-lying forward, or even an advanced midfielder. They must have an excellent ability to read defences to set up goal-scoring opportunities. When lining up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, the central attacking midfielder is called a number 10.

Forward soccer positions explained

Players chosen to play soccer in the forward positions are there for scoring goals. Most football teams will typically choose between one to three forward players in the formation. Forwards have the least defensive responsibilities on the team and must put themselves in a position to score goals. Therefore forwards must have excellent shooting abilities, and be fast enough to navigate around defenders.

The evolution of forwards

In the early years of football formations, many clubs played with five forwards. Formations such as a 2-3-5 utilizing two inside forwards beside the centre forward were popular. On the outside flanks, you would see outside forwards on either side of the attacking five. In modern times we call outside forwards attacking wingers. The five traditional forward positions wore shirt numbers seven through 11, from right to left. As formations developed, the inside forwards started playing in behind either side of the centre forward. The number-eight inside forward dropped back to central midfielder while the number 10 stayed as a supporting forward. The old-fashioned centre forward who used the number nine shirt then transitioned into what we now call a striker.


Teams utilizing a centre-forward usually do so in combination with a striker to form a strike team. The centre-forward role is to play in front of the attacking midfielders and support the striker. Players good at controlling long ball passes and winning balls in the air make for great centre-forwards. They must also have excellent shooting ability and be able to score goals using their head. Depending on the formation, the centre-forward is somewhat indistinguishable from a central attacking midfielder. It’s typical to see players in this role traditionally wearing the number 10 shirt.

Target forward

This is a type of centre-forward that is the target for long ball passes and crosses. Therefore this is often a taller more imposing type of player rather than a smaller and faster type striker. The target forward’s role is to set up the striker with a key pass in a goal-scoring opportunity. They must also be great shooters and capable of scoring goals. However, they’re often utilized more in a setup role, when playing with a really dominant striker.

Second striker

Sometimes referred to as a deep-lying forward or inside forward, the second striker plays in behind the main striker. Having the capabilities to win balls like a target forward is important. However, a second striker will have more lethal goal-scoring abilities, as well as be able to set up the main striker.

Wingers (attacking wingers)

Wingers play on the flanks, typically in a less defensive role. Traditionally the outside forward position in an attacking five became known as an attacking winger. Teams used shirt numbers seven through 11 from right to left for their five forward players.  That’s how the right-winger position became associated with shirt number seven while the left-winger became known as the number 11. Wingers are typically the fastest players on the team and must be great dribblers. Having the ability to send in crosses is vital for a winger. And being able to navigate around the defence for a shot on goal is important. Especially for a winger in an attacking 4-3-3 formation or even a 4-2-3-1.

Inverted wingers

Typically when playing on the outside of the pitch; right-footed players prefer the right side, while left-footed players prefer the left. Controlling the ball near the touchline is easier when done with a dominant foot. However, inverted-wingers play on the field opposite of their dominant foot. When an inverted winger cuts inside to shoot on goal with their stronger foot, they are in an advantageous position. This is more common with an attacking winger or a goal-scoring winger. This style of player is often described as a false winger, as they drift centrally throughout the match.  


The striker positions themself further upfield than any other player on the soccer pitch. They must be excellent at shooting with both feet and their head to fulfill their role as goal scorers. The best strikers are quick and agile with excellent technical and goal-scoring abilities. Strikers must be fast enough to get around defenders and open up space for their teammates. They can operate as a lone striker, or in formations with two strikers they can line up beside each other. The shirt number most often associated with the striker position is number nine.

False nine

This is a role that a striker will play to leave space behind opposing centre-backs. A false nine is more a central attacking midfielder in this role than a true striker. A false nine lines up as a striker, however, they continually drop back deep into midfield. This entices the opposing centre-backs to follow them, opening up space for their teammates to make a run through. Lionel Messi is the most famous example of a false nine in soccer history, playing this role to perfection.


While countless formations have been used in soccer matches, I’ve listed the most common positions utilized in contemporary football. The named positions given to players reflect soccer’s long and storied history. While watching televised soccer matches in English you will likely come across all the terminology in this article. The roles I’ve defined are fairly universal in world football. However, the terminology differs between languages and cultures in various parts of the world. And shirt numbering differs between football competitions around the world. In the coupe de France all teams must number their starting players between one and eleven. In the FIFA World Cup teams designate all players between shirt numbers one and 23. FIFA also requires goalkeepers to wear the number one shirt in that competition. Often there is not an official on-field position related to shirt numbers in most football leagues around the world today.

For more information on the evolution of soccer shirt numbers and positions, check out this video from Tifo Football. ‘Why Football Shirt Numbers are Different by Country‘.

About the Author /

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Nathan Holowaty is a writer and blogger, with a passion for everything soccer-related. He is a lifelong soccer player and fan, helping to grow the sport in a positive manner. Nathan began working on Top World Football in early 2021.

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