- Association football positions
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 a number of 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 Cruyff, who could play every position on the pitch apart from goalkeeper.
- 1 Goalkeeper (GK)
- 2 Defender (DF)
- 3 Midfielder (MF)
- 4 Forward (FW)
- 5 Player Styles
- 6 Tactical evolution
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
The 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 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 put on 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 and Brazil are well-known free-kick and penalty specialists with over 60 goals to their names. Hans-Jörg Butt is the goalkeeper to have scored in the most different competitions, having scored in all of Germany's top four divisions, the German cup and the UEFA Champions League.
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.
Defenders 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.
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.
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 jumping, heading and tackling ability. Successful centre-backs also need to be able to concentrate, read the game well, and be brave and decisive in making last-ditch tackles on attacking players who might otherwise be through on goal. 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.
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.
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 usually has pace, a strong in the tackle and 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. 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.
The wingbacks are a modern variation on the full back with heavier emphasis on attack. The name is a portmanteau of "winger" and "full back". They are usually employed in a 3–5–2 formation, and could therefore be considered part of the midfield. But they may also be used in a 5–3–2 formation and therefore have a more defensive role.
In the evolution of the modern game, wingbacks are the combination of wingers and full backs. As such it is one of the most physically demanding positions in modern football. Wingbacks are often more adventurous than full backs and are expected to provide width, especially in teams without wingers. A wingback needs to be of exceptional stamina, be able to provide crosses upfield and defend effectively against opponents' attacks down the flanks. A defensive midfielder is usually fielded to cover the advances of wingbacks.
Midfielders 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.
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.
Defensive midfielder (DM)
A defensive midfielder, holding midfielder or midfield anchor is a central midfielder who is stationed in front of the defenders to provide a more secure defence, thus "holding back" the freedom of the opponents to attack. The defensive midfielder screens the defence by harrying and tackling the opposition teams' attackers and defenders. They also help tactically, for instance, by directing central attacking players out to the wing where they have more limited influence, and by covering the positions of full-backs, midfielders and even the centre-backs as they charge up into attack.
Although the duties of defensive midfielders are primarily defensive, some midfielders are deployed as deep-lying playmakers, due to their ability to dictate tempo from a deep position with their passing. As they are not defensive specialists, they are typically supported by a more defensive holding midfielder.
Defensive midfielders require good positional sense, work rate, tackling ability, and anticipation (of player and ball movement) to excel. They also need to possess good passing skills and close control to hold the ball in midfield under sustained pressure. Most importantly, defensive midfielders require great stamina as they are the onfield players who cover the greatest distance during a professional football match. In a typical Premier League football match, a midfielder may cover up to 12 kilometres for a full 90-minute game. Deep-lying playmakers typically require a good first touch under opposition pressure and the ability to play long crossfield passes to attacking players further upfield.
Some 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.
Attacking midfielder (AM)
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.
Some attacking midfielders are three-quarters playmakers (trequartista), known for their deft touch, ability to shoot from range, and passing prowess. Where a creative attacking midfielder is regularly utilized, 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" (or 4–1–2–1–2), in which defined attacking and defensive midfielders replace the more traditional pair of central midfielders. Not all attacking midfielders are three-quarters playmakers; some AMs are very vertical and are essentially auxiliary attackers.
Side Midfielders or Wide Midfielders (LM/RM)
A Side Midfielder or Wide Midfielder is a midfielder who is stationed in a wide position effectively hugging the touchline.
Like all attacking players, wide midfielders need to have 'off-the-ball' intelligence, by being able to read passes from the midfield that give them a clear crossing or scoring opportunity. Traditionally, right-footed players are played on the right flank and left-footed players on the left as a matter of familiarity and comfort. However, in the modern game, coaches usually demand wingers to be able to play on both flanks and to switch flanks during play regularly as a quick change of tactics. For instance, a right-footed wide midfielder who plays on the left flank is more comfortable cutting into the middle, which suits the styles of playmaker forwards who can cause a threat both by shooting from distance, dribbling towards goal, or sliding through passes to other forwards. Another advantage is that the wide midfielder can cut inside, towards the weaker foot of the full-back. Clubs such as Barcelona and Real Madrid often choose to play their wingers on the 'wrong' flank for this reason.
Forwards or Strikers 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.
Center forward (CF) or Striker (ST)
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 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.
Secondary Striker (SS)
Deep-lying forwards or Secondary striker 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", "supporting 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.
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 skillful, attack-minded midfielder or a striker who can both score and create opportunities for centre forwards. Attacking midfielders can also perform this role effectively.
Wide Forward (RF/LF) or Winger (RW/LW)
A winger is an attacking player who is stationed in a wide position near the touchlines. They can be classified as forwards, considering their origin as the old "outside-forward" position, and continue to be termed as such in most parts of the world, especially in Latin and Dutch footballing cultures. However, in the Anglo-Saxon world, they are usually counted as part of the midfield.
A wide forward is a forward that also plays along the wing. This position is similar to a winger but a wide forward plays in the 4–3–3 or 3–4–3 on the front line and emphasizes more on beating defenders than crossing the ball. Wingers and Wide Forwards share many similarities such as needing crossing, dribbling and pace. This is why most Wingers can play as Wide Forwards. It is very common for teams using the 4–4–2 formation to use wingers as wide midfielders.
Although wingers are a familiar part of football, the use of wingers is by no means universal. There are many successful football teams who operate without wingers. A famous example is Milan, who typically play in a narrow midfield diamond formation or in a Christmas tree formation (4–3–2–1), relying on full-backs to provide the necessary width down the wings. Also, in the 1966 World Cup, 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".
Libero. The Sweeper or libero (Italian: free) is a more versatile type of defender that "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. Sweepers are usually faster than that of the other players on the team, and are built slightly smaller than the others. 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.
Stopper Stoppers are physically skilled defenders who rely on their strength, stamina and man marking abilities to be able to stop (hence the name) the opposition's attacking play by making strong tackles. Stoppers usually play as centre backs or as defensive full back.
Wingbacks The wingback is a defender stationed on the flank with heavy emphasis on attack and defense. The name is a portmanteau of "winger" (see below) and "full back". As the role combines that of the winger and the full back, wing backs 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 while concentrating on their defensive duties.
Ball Winners A ball winner is a technically skilled player at making strong tackles, ball winners have to be good at tackling and they can also be good at heading as it can stop the opposing team's attacking play. Ball winners are usually Defensive Midfielders or Central Midfielders but can also play as defenders.
Defensive Midfielders Defensive Midfielders are Midfielders that focus mainly on defense. They need strength to make strong tackles and they also need stamina and some degree of passing skill as they need to support other midfielders.
Box to Box Box to Box Midfielders are midfielders that help with almost every aspect of the game. They need immense stamina as they need to cover most areas of the pitch, as well as some degree of passing skills. They normally play as Central midfielders but some play as defensive or attacking, and others can also play on the flanks as wing-backs or wide midfielders.
Pulls wide right/left These are wide midfielders that have pace and/or dribbling ability to be able to beat defenders along the flank. Their most important skill is to be able to cross the ball in to the penalty box to create opportunities for strikers.
Playmaker Playmakers are midfielders with good on-the-ball control and good passing ability but also good off-the-ball ability to be able to read the game and to seek goal-scoring opportunities. Playmakers usually play as attacking midfielders, but some play as defensive or central midfielders (deep-lying playmakers). Some also play on the flank usually on their weaker side as that gives them the opportunity to cut infield.
Dribblers Dribblers use either their pace and/or dribbling ability to beat defenders. Their main task is to create opportunities for other attackers to score using dribbling skills, pace and ball control to beat defenders. They usually play as wingers or secondary Strikers, but in some cases, they play as centre forwards.
Counter Attackers Counter Attackers use their pace to beat defenders and cause unexpected scoring opportunities at any time. They also need some degree of shooting skill. They can play in any forward position but rarely as wingers.
Clinical Strikers Clinical Strikers are attackers that specialize in shooting ability, hence scoring goals. They also need some degree of pace to beat defenders. Clinical strikers usually play as centre forwards.
Target men Target men are attackers that generally have a high degree of physical strength. They are able to make space and score goals, no matter how much pressure defenders are putting on them. They specialize in ball control, strength to hold off defenders, and volleying when receiving long passes. They should only play as centre forwards.
Goal poachers Goal poachers are attackers who wait in the six-yard box or the penalty area for a cross or a pass. When they receive one, they pounce and try to score. Goal poachers usually play as centre forwards.
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 sent forward by the half- and ¾-backs, whereas the centre forwards were 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 so that only two opposing players were required between the attacker and the goal-line for the attacker 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. 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 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 pressure 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.
The 2010 World Cup confirmed a general shift toward a broadly counter-attacking, reactive 4–2–3–1 by the world's more successful teams. Indeed, of the four semi-finalists in that tournament, all but Uruguay employed some variation on this tactic. This shape tends to utilize fluid movement between the four wing players, with full-backs expected to provide plenty of support to the wingers in front of them. Following the World Cup, most of the world's major leagues have seen this tactic being used by an increasing number of teams.
- Football tactics and skills
- Formation (association football)
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