As in all team sports, soccer players must ultimately specialize at various positions and then understand how to interact with players in other positions in order to effectively compete in the game. This is certainly true for soccer where players need the structure and understanding of a formation (and system of play) to be able to properly perform. This understanding begins by first introducing players to the generally-recognized names for the soccer positions and then by progressing to more specific terms as time goes on. As this occurs, the positions tend to be linked to an increasingly more specialized skill set. Coaches need to identify their formation, specify the names of the positions used in the formation, and then use the names consistently.
Although specialization occurs over time, it is critical that all players learn all skills and that young players, in particular, are given the opportunity to play at all of the positions. Not only does this provide them with an awareness of the requirements of the other positions, but it also exposes them to activities for which they may be better suited in the future. No young player should be type-cast by position. The best defender of today may be the best goal-scorer of tomorrow.
It is common around the world to discuss soccer positions starting from the goal that the team is defending, and then proceeding outward into the field. The following treatment represents a full eleven-player side (11 v 11). All of the players on the team other than the goalkeeper are often described as “field players.” Many of the position names in soccer have synonyms. The general terms used for positions in soccer are: Goalkeeper, Defenders, Midfielders, and Forwards. When demonstrating a formation, describing player movement, or for any other written coaching purposes, a form of shorthand using acronyms is often used, corresponding to the positions identified below. This shorthand is included in parentheses after the position names.
Goalkeeper (G, GK, K) – The goalkeeper is the only soccer position identified by name within the IFAB Laws of the Game. The single player acting as the goalkeeper for a team must be specifically acknowledged by the Referee and must be recognizable by wearing a jersey which contrasts with all of the other field players, on both teams, and the Referee. This is due to the fact that the goalkeeper has the “handling privilege,” or the ability to play the ball with his hands or arms, but only within the defined space of his own “Penalty Area.” The goalkeeper may go anywhere on the field; however, if the goalkeeper is outside of his own Penalty Area, he is subject to all of the regular rules that are applicable to field players. The goalkeeper is also referred to as the “goalie” or the “keeper.”
Defenders (D, B) – The defenders, or back defenders, are the field players directly in front of the goalkeeper. Their primary responsibility is to stop the forward-most attacks of the opponent by first ensuring that all opposition players are covered, then by trying to take the ball away, and finally by attempting to block or deflect any shots at their goal. Whereas they mostly play in their own half of the field, they can move forward to support their midfielders or an individual can even go deep into the attack. When the goalkeeper makes a save, a back defender is often called upon to receive the ball and initiate the team’s counter-attack. The back defenders are also referred to as “backs” and “fullbacks.”
Midfielders (M, MF) – The midfielders are the players generally in front of the back defenders and behind the forwards, otherwise playing in the middle of the field. They generally are the first players to defend, when the ball changes possession from their team to the opponent, and then establish the link between their backs and their forwards, when they regain control of the ball. Further, they support the forwards in order to maintain possession of the ball. As a requirement of playing in this central position, midfielders must have excellent all-around skills for both defense and attack. In addition, they need to be especially fit because they cover a lot of ground during the course of a game. Midfielders are also referred to as “mids,” “middies,” and “halfbacks.”
Forwards (F) – The forwards are the main attacking force of soccer, in front of the midfielders and closest to the opponent’s goal. They are expected to create opportunities, by their runs and passes, to shoot and score. When they first receive the ball, they must be able to immediately determine if they can proceed directly to the goal, move into open space to create better opportunities for their teammates, or maintain possession of the ball until help arrives. Their main attributes include accuracy in passing and shooting and the ability to perform ball skills under great pressure from the opponent’s defenders. Forwards are also referred to as “strikers.”
Specific soccer position names, other than the goalkeeper (G, GK, K), tend to be associated with the number of players involved in the general positions:
For the back defenders, older three-back formations had a center fullback (CFB), a right fullback (RFB), and a left fullback (LFB). As four-back formations evolved, the two players in the middle of the field have together been called center fullbacks, central backs or center backs (CB). The central defenders may also be called the right center back (RCB) and the left center back (LCB), or the lead center back (LCB) and the trail center back (TCB). Depending upon their duties, a leading center back, often assigned to mark the opponent’s best center striker, may be called a stopper (ST)*. This player has also been called the central defender (CD). A center back playing behind the stopper, who is often the last field player before the goalkeeper and may not have a marking assignment, can be given the ability to roam in order to support his other backs. As such, this type of defender is known as a sweeper (SW). With possible other responsibilities, the sweeper has also been known as the libero (L) (Pronunciation: LEE-beh-ro; Italian for “free” or “unattached”). The back defenders playing closest to the sidelines are also known as outside fullbacks (OFB), outside backs (OB), right back (RB), and left back (LB). (At higher levels, there is a system of play that moves two back defenders ahead of the back line into interior attacking slots when the ball changes hands, called “inverted fullbacks.”)
For the midfielders, older three-midfielder formations had a center halfback (CHB), a right halfback (RHB), and a left halfback (LHB). As four- and even five-midfielder formations evolved, two players in the center, otherwise known as center midfielders or central midfielders (CM), became an attacking midfielder (AM) (central or center attacking midfielder – CAM) and a holding midfielder (HM) or a defensive midfielder (DM) (central or center defensive midfielder – CDM). Holding midfielders may also be known as passing midfielders (PM). The midfielders playing closest to the sidelines, or outside midfielders (OM), are also known as the right midfielder (RM) and the left midfielder (LM). In addition, there are a number of “hybrid” positions where outside fullbacks often move into the midfield, or outside midfielders move into back defense. These players are sometimes called wing backs (WB). Outside midfielders moving into the attack are sometimes called wide midfielders (WM).
For the forwards, older five-forward formations had a center forward (CF), inside forwards (IF), known as the right inside (RI) and the left inside (LI), and wing forwards (wings, wingers or wide forwards) (W), known as the right wing (RW), and the left wing (LW). As the traditional wings and inside forward positions evolved into midfield positions, a single striker (S) or a center striker or central striker (CS), a striker with a center forward, two strikers, two center forwards, as the right center forward (RCF) and the left center forward (LCF), or the lead center forward (LCF) and trail center forward (TCF), emerged. The trailing forward position has also been referred to as a withdrawn forward (WF). A striker may also be paired with a second striker, secondary striker, supporting striker, or set-back striker (SS) or wide strikers (WS), also identified as a right wing striker (RWS) or left wing striker (LWS).
Coaches must decide on a formation (and system of play) that best fits their comfort level and the talents of their players, decide what position names they wish to use within that formation, and then use those position names consistently in order not to confuse their team.
Soccer Coaching Tips:
See: “Position Numbers.”
*Unfortunately, ST can also be used as a shorthand for “striker.”
© Copyright, John C. Harves