Soccer Positions: The Role of Each Player on the Field

Soccer field showing each position and where they play.

After playing soccer for nearly 20 years, I still have trouble putting the ball in the back of the net. It’s safe to say that playing up top was never my strong suit. I find myself fulfilling the role of a defender much better than the other positions on the field.

So what role does each soccer position play in games?

Each soccer position on the field falls under one of these three categories: defense, midfield or forward. There are many sub-sets of each position, however, some don’t see as much use as others due to the evolution of the game, weekly match-ups and various other factors.

This is due to the different approaches and philosophies that soccer clubs have tested out over the years. The game will continue to evolve and introduce new concepts. The goal of this article is to give you an in-depth look into the positions that make up a soccer team.

Defense in Soccer

Goalkeeper (G, GK)

Female soccer player prepares to shoot the ball, as the goalie looks on.

The goalkeeper (goalie) is the last line of defense in soccer. Pure and simple, his job is to keep the ball out of the net. He can do this by any means necessary, such as kicking, punching or catching the ball. 

Due to the unique nature of the goalkeeper position, they wear specialized gear including a different color jersey and specialized gloves to protect their hands from opposing players and their shots.

The gloves make it easier for the goalkeeper to catch the ball, as well as palm or punch the ball. Additionally, some goalkeepers choose to wear protective pants to reduce the impact of sliding.

Once the goalkeeper leaves the 18-yard box (A.K.A the penalty area) he loses the ability to touch the ball with his hands. This rule is important when you consider the fact that goalkeepers are the first players in any counter-attack.

Goalkeepers are responsible for getting the ball rolling (pun intended) by throwing or kicking it to their teammates who continue to move the ball upfield. The keepers have a unique view of the entire field and are many times master strategists.

The best goalkeepers are fearless in their pursuit of making the save. A good keeper knows how to come out of his own net to put pressure on potential shooters and cut down the angle on incoming shots.

Goalkeepers are also responsible for directing traffic when it comes to defending set-pieces (corner-kicks, direct-kicks, etc.). Among other things, this includes directing teammates which players to mark.

Defenders/Backs (D, B)

Defenders are tasked with protecting their own goal while providing support for attacks. They usually play on their side of the field, though this isn’t a requirement.

Positive attributes of the best defenders include strong heading and passing ability, strength, speed and a strong leg. While these attributes are important for each back, there are some key differences within the position.

Center-Back (CB)

The center-back (centre-back) is typically the defender who plays in the middle of the defensive formation; more than one on the field at a time isn’t unusual.

Much like any defender, they block shots and head away balls from dangerous set-pieces and crosses.

Center-backs should be in good shape because they are responsible for keeping up with some of the fastest players on the pitch.

They should also possess a high soccer IQ and have the skill to anticipate the opposition’s movements. Any miscalculation could result in a 1-on-1 opportunity with their goalkeeper.

To help prevent this situation from happening, center-backs need to have the presence of mind to boot the ball downfield in chaotic situations, have pinpoint passing and the knowledge to know when each is called for.

Misplaced balls create turnovers that become opportunities for the opponent. It is important to keep turnovers to a minimum because you never want to give your opponent extra opportunities.

Height isn’t a necessity, but the ability to head dangerous balls out of the penalty box is invaluable. When it comes to defenders (especially center-backs) possession is the name of the game.

Full-Back (LB, RB, LWB, RWB)

Soccer player prepares to pass the ball.

Full-backs are known as left-backs and right-backs. They play on the edges of the defense and have the job of shutting down the other team’s wingers. A good full-back doesn’t dive at the ball and is also good at slowing down the game while capitalizing on the errors of the opposing wingers.

Like any defender, their goal is to prevent the opposition from getting behind them, but they also need to minimize the number of crosses to the box from wingers. In some formations, full-backs are referred to as wing-backs.

Wing-backs are some of the fittest players on the field, running up and down the pitch to support the attack and bolster the defense. They usually play in a 3-5-2 formation.

When the other team is on the attack, wing-backs slot into the defense to keep the backline strong and even. That being said, they aren’t strangers to making runs and sneaking into the opponent’s defense.

A full-back out of the backfield is a valuable offensive asset that can make trailing runs and provide easy passing options for the offense to ensure they maintain possession.

In laymen terms, wing-backs are defenders who don’t shy away from pushing past half field if the opportunity or space presents itself. This keeps the other team on their toes and forces them to cover the width of the field.

Sweeper (SW)

Excluding the goalkeeper, the sweeper is the last man in the back. The sweeper plays behind the center-backs and is responsible for defending the goal at any cost. The position requires strong leadership and decision-making abilities.

Communication is key as the sweeper will let his teammates know of any unmarked attackers and keep the rest of the defense in line.  Sweepers must close the gaps left by their teammates and pick up unmarked players entering the penalty box.

This is a high-pressure position as anything that gets by the sweeper is a prime scoring opportunity. In this day and age, the position isn’t utilized in formations as much because teams like to create defensive lines with their backs, to draw the opposition offside.

Most teams attempt to draw the other team offside by using the “offside trap”. The offside trap is the movement of the defenders in unison, creating a line parallel to the half-field line to draw the other team offside.

This tactic is great at shutting down opposing forwards but can also leave the defense more susceptible to breakaways.

Midfield in Soccer

Youth soccer player dribbling the ball.

The midfield is the link between the defense and offense. Midfielders possess the ability to serve up long-balls to the forwards while making key stops in the middle of the field. They help defend when the opposition is pressing.

The best midfielders are all-around great players who cover the most ground in a match. Sometimes they are referred to as “box-to-box” players who go from one end of the pitch to the other to attack or defend the goal.

Players in the midfield are sometimes said to “be in the engine room”, organizing play in the center of the field and creating scoring opportunities.

Central Midfielder (CM)

Stationed in the middle of the field, the central midfielder is perhaps the most important player on the pitch. He covers the full length of the field, earning the “box-to-box” slogan.

Central midfielders stretch the field with long crosses and are masters at dispossessing other players. They usually are the leader of the team and great at initiating attacks and keeping possession.

Height is a positive attribute to have as a center midfielder, heading set-piece services to and away from goal. Depending on the team, the center midfielder may have a more offensive or defensive mindset.

Defensive Midfielder (DM)

Female soccer play dribbles the ball.

Stationed in front of the defensive line, defensive midfielders intercept passes, make precise tackles and anticipate the movement(s) of the opposing team. They typically hold back when the rest of the team is attacking but may take an offensive approach on set-pieces.

Good defensive midfielders dictate the tempo of the game and serve as potential play-makers. If a fullback pursues the ball, a defensive midfielder typically drops back and covers any unmarked players.

Attacking Midfielder (AM)

Attacking midfielders are play-makers and like to play “in the hole”, exploiting the area between the midfield and defense, opening lanes for the team’s forwards. Unlike the central and defensive midfielders, the attacking midfielder focuses on the offensive side of the game.

A player who plays this position must have excellent dribbling and tactical awareness. Attacking midfielders serve as the link between the midfielders and forwards. They are quick and agile, as well as experts at reading the defense and creating through balls.

Wide Midfielders (WM, LW, RW)

Wide midfielders are also classified as left and right-wingers. These wingers are sometimes referred to as forwards due to the formations they play in and their stylistic approach to the game.

Wide midfielders mostly serve the same roles as defensive and attacking midfielders, with the exception that they play on the outside of the pitch. This allows the player to stretch the width of the field.

One of the most important skills that a winger must possess is the ability to serve crosses into the penalty box. These are high percentage plays that can change the tide of the game if properly executed.  These players are great dribblers that double as excellent passers.

Forwards in Soccer

Male soccer player stops with the ball.

Forward (F)

There are multiples types of forwards but they all have the same objective: score goals. Since forwards usually score the goals, they receive most of the credit as well as the criticism.

They utilize their heading and dribbling ability, as well as their strength to score goals. Some of the best forwards play “off the shoulder”, lining up with the last defender and making well-timed runs to counteract the offside trap.

Others are considered “goal poachers” who make their livings off capitalizing on rebounds and defensive mistakes.

Center-Forward/Striker (CF/ST)

The center-forward (centre-forward) is the player positioned closest to the opposing goal. This position is also known as the “striker”. The player in this position is typically on the taller side and possesses superior strength.

This strength allows the player to hold the ball away from the defense while waiting for the rest of the team to join the attack.

Along with scoring goals, a good striker distracts the defense and open lanes for the attacking midfielder, wingers and second forward. A striker must have a great first touch and the ability to win a ball in the air.

The best strikers have the mental fortitude and know-how to position themselves on the pitch when they don’t have the ball. Your typical center-forward is fast, aggressive and has a killer instinct. This killer instinct is instrumental in making runs and getting in position to head a ball at the goal.

Withdrawn Striker/Withdrawn Forward/Second Forward/Deep-Lying Forward (WF)

The withdrawn forward goes by many names and plays behind the center-forward. This position is a master at exploiting space and dribbling in-and-out of the defense in quest of scoring.

Withdrawn forwards usually are not as tall as the central-forward but possess superior technical abilities. They like to play in the hole and to create scoring opportunities with the striker.

In the past, this position has held many names: inside-left, inside-right and inside-forward. Pelé played at this position.

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Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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