Soccer Positions, Numbers, and Roles (Full Breakdown)
Soccer is a relatively simple sport with three core positional areas:
Traditionally, each position's role was straightforward:
Defenders would defend. Attackers would attack. Midfielders would mix in a bit of both.
But as the game has evolved, so too has each position in soccer.
Now individual roles are more fluid than ever.
Modern players need a wide range of skills and must be comfortable in a variety of positions.
Below we'll break down all soccer positions, including numbers and responsibilities.
Soccer Positions by Number
Let's start by discussing the numbers associated with each position.
There are 11 positions in soccer.
Ten outfield players and one goalkeeper.
Soccer position numbers can be incredibly confusing because the number on a player's back does not always match their position on the field.
Official soccer position numbers will always be 1 to 11.
But players can choose to wear any numbers between 1 and 99.
Here's how traditional numbers and soccer positions match up:
Center Back or Sweeper
Right Midfielder or Winger
Left Midfielder or Winger
Defensive Soccer Positions
We’ve all heard the phrase before:
“Attack wins you games but defense wins you titles”.
Regardless of the sport, great defenders are a key ingredient to success.
With a solid backline, all your team needs is a single chance to secure victory.
Let’s look at the individual defensive positions to see what's expected from each:
Jump to section:
Notable Goalkeepers: Alisson Becker, Thibaut Courtois, Gianluigi Buffon, and David De Gea.
On paper, the goalkeeper's role might seem simple:
Stop the ball from hitting the back of the net.
While that’s their core responsibility, the role is far more complicated. Especially in the modern game when many goalies are required to be skilled with the ball at their feet.
They’re not only the last line of defense, but also key contributors to build-up play and a passing outlet against a high press.
Goalkeepers must have cat-like reflexes, fast instincts, agility, and dexterity to stop shots from all distances and angles.
While there are exceptions, most goalies are tall with long limbs. The average professional keeper stands about 6’2”, which is several inches taller than the average outfielder.
As the game continues to develop, so too does the role of a goalkeeper.
Today, sweeper keepers are essential as teams play with higher defensive lines and play mainly possession-based soccer.
Notable Sweeper Keepers: Ederson, Manuel Neuer, Alisson Becker, and Hugo Lloris.
Once deemed an unconventional goalkeeping approach, the sweeper-keeper is now one of the staple soccer position in the modern game.
Firstly, a sweeper-keeper’s primary function is the same as any other’s:
Keep the ball out of the net.
The majority of their most important responsibilities take place in and around the penalty box -- stopping shots, catching crosses, and making clearances.
However, the sweeper-keeper is also tasked with two other key duties:
a. Participating in build-up play
b. Leaving the penalty area to intercept over-the-top passes or loose balls
They're used almost as an extra defender in both the defensive and attacking phases of play, which is hugely beneficial for any team.
Sweeper Keeper's Responsibilities:
- Shot stopping
- Catching crosses
- Breaking the high press
- Contributing to build-up play
- Intercepting through balls
- Being in the right position (often outside the box)
- Communication with the defense
The importance of having a technically gifted, well-rounded right back has grown more and more important in recent years.
Nowadays, coaches rely on them to make an impact both on offense and defense.
In addition to marshaling the wings as part of the backline, a right back must push forward and combine with the winger to create goalscoring opportunities.
Right backs are typically positionally sound, fast, and tenacious.
They must have the stamina to compete in 1v1 duels over 90 minutes, week in, week out.
They should also have well-rounded skills on the ball, enabling them to beat a defender, play a cross-field pass, and whip in a cross from the wing.
Right backs are usually heavily involved in build-up play. Especially in possession-based teams, where they can take advantage of the space away from congested areas.
Right Back Responsibilities:
In a four-player backline, the right back must be able to manage offensive and defensive responsibilities, which requires elite stamina and strong positional awareness.
Their key responsibilities are:
- Defending the right flank
- Marking opposition wingers
- Contesting 1v1 duels
- Defending the back past
- Holding the offside line
- Attacking in tandem with the right midfielder
- Making overlaps
- Crossing from wide areas
- Offering a passing outlet to teammates
Once a position that was largely overlooked, left backs are now celebrated for their influence in attack and defense.
We can no longer say that a left back’s primary role is to defend wide areas.
Today, a left back must control the entire flank going forward and backward.
Defensively, their main priority is to win the individual battle with their opposite winger.
Then they must defend the back past and track late runners into the penalty box, as they're often the backline’s final hope of preventing a team from scoring from a deep cross.
In modern soccer, their offensive duties can be just as important as their defensive role.
Since the wings are usually the most open areas on the field, left backs must be efficient and productive when given time and space.
Crossing, threading through passes, and even cutting inside for a more central attack are essential skills.
Left Back Responsibilities:
A left back’s responsibilities are straightforward but by no means easy.
Moreover, they have a lot of them, making the position even more difficult to play in.
- Defending wide areas
- 1v1 defending with opposition wingers
- Defensive cover
- Maintaining a balanced offside line
- Creating good relationships with winger teammates
- Overlapping runs
- Crossing from the wings
- Creating chances for more attacking players
Notable Center Backs: Virgil Van Dijk, Sergio Ramos, Marquinhos, and Fabio Cannavaro.
Center backs are positionally sound, ferocious tacklers, and dominant in aerial duels.
They're the base of a team’s spine and are responsible for their side keeping a clean sheet.
Brave and physically imposing, these players never make it easy for the opposition’s strikers. They're specialists in the dark arts of the game and will try anything to put their opponents at a disadvantage.
Center Backs work as a unit (usually a pair or trio) while constantly communicating with the goalkeeper and the other outfield players.
The modern-day center back also plays a key role in keeping possession and progressing the ball. Meaning they must have good baseline technical skills and show composure when pressured by opposition strikers.
Their aerial prowess comes in handy in the opposition’s box, making them a threat from set pieces.
Center Back Responsibilities
The best centerbacks are well-rounded and possess skills with and without the ball.
That said, they have the same core responsibilities.
- Making clearances
- Heading (in attack and defense)
- Maintaining a solid and balanced defensive line
- Defending 1v1s
- Winning individual battles with strikers
- Recycling possession
Notable Sweepers: Franz Beckenbauer, Ronald Koeman, Fernando Hierro, and David Luiz.
In a three-man defense, one center back often plays as a "sweeper."
These players sweep across the backline to intercept and clean up any loose balls that come through.
They also provide cover to the ball-winning center backs whose job it is to battle the opposition’s strikers.
Although we don’t see many sweepers in the modern game, many people credit the “libero” as the first ball-playing center back.
As the spare man in the center of defense, the sweeper has a lot of positional freedom and uses their in-game intelligence to snuff out attacks and spot potential threats.
They often use this freedom to make an impact going forward. Bursting from the backline on the break or playing a long-range pass to the strikers.
In many ways, the sweeper of old replicated the modern-day defensive midfielder.
However, with the evolution of the offside rule as well as the tendencies for teams to operate with a high defensive line, the position no longer makes much sense tactically.
Today, the sweeper-keeper fulfills the majority of the sweeping duties.
First and foremost, sweepers are defenders.
However, their responsibilities vary significantly from regular centerbacks and typically involve a lot more offense.
Their main duties include:
- Covering the space behind the defensive line
- Anticipating passes and runs from opposition strikers
- Last-ditch tackling
- Communication and instructions to the entire team
- Possession recycling
- Dribbling out from defense
- Playmaking from deep
Notable Wingbacks: João Cancelo, Achraf Hakimi, Reece James, and Marcos Alonso.
Unlike right and left fullbacks, wingbacks operate as part of a five-player backline.
The main difference between the two roles is wingbacks play in more advanced roles.
Wingbacks have fewer defensive responsibilities, and have more attacking influence.
With three central defenders at the helm, there is plenty of cover to allow wingbacks to venture forward more often.
While they are expected to track back and help out the defense, an attacking wingback can revolutionize a team’s attack.
Their movement on the flank can create havoc and by staying out wide they help to give the team passing options and angles.
Wingback is a physically demanding soccer position as they’re required to be in constant motion up and down the sideline.
In addition to great stamina, wingbacks must have elite positional sense and timing to know when to push up and when to drop back.
A wingback’s core responsibilities are similar to a fullback’s.
However, the emphasis of each role differs somewhat.
Here’s what a wingback is expected to do in each game:
- Provide width in attacking situations
- Create goalscoring opportunities for attackers
- Make late runs into the box to score
- Cut infield to sustain attacks
- Mark opposition wingers
- Defend 1v1 situations
- Track late runners into the box
- Defend the back posts
A stopper is a type of center back whose sole purpose is to defend.
Usually paired with a ball-playing center back or sweeper, the stopper does the "dog work" in the backline. Winning tackles, headers, and any challenges that come their way.
While their partner focuses on positioning and marshaling the defensive unit, the stopper is all-action and much more aggressive.
But despite having a hyper-physical game, a stopper can’t be careless.
Diving into challenges or leaping out of the line is likely to lead to chances for the other team and needless yellow and red cards.
Discipline and positioning are essential for every position, even a hatchetman stopper.
In reality, professional center backs aren’t regarded as stoppers. They’re required to have more well-rounded capabilities.
But it’s quite common to see this type of player at amateur or underage levels.
The responsibilities of a stopper are relatively straightforward:
- 1v1 defending
- Being physical and aggressive with opposition strikers
Midfield Soccer Positions
The midfielders are the heart and often the brains of the team.
Sitting between the backline and the forwards, they’re involved in every aspect of the game. Especially during transitions between attack and defense, and vice-versa.
The midfield is made up of central and wide players.
However, there are several ways to play in each slot.
With so many nuances to a midfielder’s role, let’s take a look at the differences.
Jump to section:
Notable Central Midfielders: Xavi Hernandez, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, and Michel Platini.
A center midfielder is an all-rounder who contributes to both attack and defense.
They're very strong technically, and are calm in possession with a good range of passing.
Further, they need to be disciplined and have good positional awareness, while also working well with their teammates to press the opposition and win the ball back.
Sometimes known as box-to-box midfielders, this type of player is known for their hard work and stamina.
Traditional center midfielders usually play in a pair or in a midfield three.
In the modern era, teams typically set up with more specialist midfielders, like holding midfielders, playmakers, or attacking mids.
However, many top midfielders are capable of operating in the traditional role as they possess high-level technical skills as well as solid defensive fundamentals.
Center Midfielder Responsibilities
A center midfielders’ responsibilities are many and varied.
However, their main focuses should be:
- Keeping possession
- Tracking back to help out the defense
- Joining attacks
- Tackling and marking
- Winning midfield duels
Notable Defensive Midfielders: N’Golo Kante, Claude Makékéké, and Sergio Busquets.
The defensive midfield position has become one of the most important soccer positions.
Center defensive midfielders (CDMs) usually play as part of a midfield three. Sitting between two more attacking CMs or box-to-box midfielders.
The CDM is a defensive anchor who protects the backline from central attacks, line-breaking passes, midfield overloads, and late forward runs.
They must have an exceptional ability to read the game and be in the right place when their team needs them most.
On the ball, a CDM usually keeps it simple, playing short quick passes to their more creative teammates.
To do otherwise would risk losing the ball, which would invite unnecessary pressure onto the team in a dangerous part of the pitch.
However, some of the best possess a more extensive skill set. Elite CDM's are capable of playing killer long passes, beating a player off the dribble, and shooting from distance.
Defensive Midfielder Responsibilities
In many cases, a defensive midfielder’s role is relatively straightforward.
That said, there is very little margin for error in these positions so CDMs must get it right the vast majority of the time.
Let’s take a look at what’s expected of a modern defensive midfielder:
- Anticipating opponents’ attacking strategies
- Possession recycling
Notable Deep-Lying Playmakers: Andrea Pirlo, Frenkie De Jong, and Rodri Hernández.
A deep-lying player (DLP) is a type of defensive midfielder who dictates the game through their playmaking abilities and passing range from within their own half.
Although they occupy similar positions to a CDM, a DLP is usually not as combative.
Instead, they use their freedom between the midfield and defensive line to get on the ball and pick out passes.
Deep-lying playmakers are technically gifted and possess the vision and skill to make passes that others can only dream of.
They’re mainly used in possession-based teams that adopt a slow, methodical build-up style.
Their subtle movements and passing range allow them to dictate the tempo of the game and shift the point of attack in a split second.
While a DLP must be adept defensively, they usually play alongside a more workmanlike player to put in the hard yards.
Deep-lying playmakers can fit a variety of formations but generally, work best as part of a three-player midfield.
Deep-Lying Playmaker Responsibilities
A deep-lying playmaker fulfills several crucial responsibilities, including:
- Receiving the ball under pressure
- Keeping possession
- Making line-breaking passes
- Playmaking from deep positions
- Dictating the tempo of the game
- Marking and tracking runs
Notable Attacking Midfielders: Kevin De Bruyne, Bruno Fernandes, and Zinedine Zidane.
Attacking midfielders are artists on the field. They paint moments of magic with creative flair, silky dribbling, crisp passing, and goals.
They play higher up the pitch than box-to-box midfielders and center defensive midfielders.
This position enables them to play between the lines, finding pockets of space to exploit.
Attacking midfielders must combine technical ability with soccer IQ to truly impact their team.
This means having skill, vision, and striking technique, as well as positional sense, timing, and confidence.
They need to be great on the ball and be able to work in the small spaces between the opposition’s defense and midfield.
Being the primary creative player on the team, an attacking midfielder is likely to give the ball away while trying to make chances. But they cannot let this waiver their mentality!
Most modern teams play with lone strikers so attacking midfielders must come up with their fair share of goals throughout the season.
Attacking Midfielder Responsibilities
Most attacking midfielders are judged on their productivity, be it through goals or assists.
However, their responsibilities go beyond these stat lines:
- Creating chances
- Linking the defense to the attack
- Receiving the ball in congested areas
- Making well-timed runs
- Retaining possession
Notable Wingers: Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi, and Mo Salah.
Wingers are essential for adding balance and structure to the team. They stretch the field and force gaps in the opposition's defense.
Known for their speed and crazy skills, wingers are important attackers.
With most current teams playing a variation of a 4-3-3 formation, wingers often stay high up the field and have very few defensive responsibilities.
In the past decade, we’ve seen wingers lead the scoring charts in virtually every league.
Players like Mo Salah, Messi, and Kylian Mbappe play predominantly on the wings, yet they score for fun on a weekly basis.
Traditional wingers played on their strong sides, ensuring they could whip in crosses to dual strikers from anywhere along the sideline.
However, today it’s more common to see inverted wingers who cut inside and join central attacks whenever they get the chance.
While they don’t always have a lot of defensive work to do, wingers may be tasked with helping out their fullbacks.
This is particularly important when the opposition fullback gets forward a lot.
Off the ball, wingers mix up their movements by coming short to receive the ball or making darting runs in behind.
They must have a high work rate and a determined mentality to win 1v1 battles throughout a game.
While the role of a winger has evolved in recent decades, their core responsibilities remain the same:
- Beating the opposition defender in 1v1s
- Creating chances
- Being positionally disciplined to create space
- Tracking back
They say that scoring is the most difficult aspect of soccer.
Strikers are responsible for scoring the bulk of their team’s goals, meaning the position is extremely important.
You can have the strongest defense and slickest midfielders...
But without someone to put the ball in the back of the net, your team will never have a chance to win games.
Similar to midfielders, the type of striker and their individual capabilities vary.
Let's take a look at a few of the variations.
Jump to section:
Notable Central Forwards: Ronaldo, Erling Haaland, Hary Kane, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The center forward is your typical striker, whose sole purpose is to score goals.
Center forwards have a reputation for being ruthless and sometimes selfish in their pursuit of finding the back of the net.
However, these traits are the main drivers for success and often make all the difference in critical moments of a game.
Former Manchester United and Real Madrid center forward, Ruud van Nistelrooy, was known for being bad-tempered in the locker room when he didn’t score, even if his team won a big game. If you listen to enough pro players speak about the great strikers, you’ll quickly learn that this is the mentality needed to score 20 or 30 more goals each season on a consistent basis.
It’s no wonder that this is the way strikers think given the scrutiny they come under in the media and online. At the end of the day, they're judged on their output.
There is no blueprint for a center forward.
Pace is an advantage but not essential.
It’s more important that the CF has clever movement and a quick turn to find pockets of space and evade the defender.
Ultimately, the asset that makes any CF stand out is having an eye for goal.
Positioning and finishing are a lethal combination that all top strikers possess.
While some of this is instinctual, these are skills earned from spending countless hours on the training field and in the video analysis room.
Center Forward Responsibilities
Depending on the physical stature of the individual and the team style of play, the role of a center forward can vary somewhat.
However, most have the same core duties:
- Score goals
- Provide assists
- Hold up play
- Link up with other attackers
- Make runs behind the defense
- Get into dangerous positions in the penalty box
- High press
Notable False 9s: Francesco Totti, Roberto Firmino, and Lionel Messi.
A false 9 is a specialist striker that usually plays instead of a center forward.
On the team sheet, it appears as if the striker will play in the center forward role. But in reality, they drop deeper and play in more of an attacking midfield position.
The idea is that the false 9 takes up a playmaking role, leaving space for the wide attackers to exploit.
This position in soccer is reserved for intelligent and technically skilled players who trust their intuition to find space, receive the ball, and seize opportunities in real time.
A great false 9 must have a triple threat of offensive options:
Passing, dribbling, and shooting.
Their movement, intelligence, and vision are key to making this system work and it needs a special player to make it a success.
In many setups, the false 9 also has an important defensive role.
They usually lead the front press and drop into the midfield if needed.
When the opposition uses a deep-lying playmaker, the false 9 is often tasked with marking them and limiting their opportunities to create.
False 9 Responsibilities
If you’re thinking about deploying a false 9 in your team, here are the key responsibilities they must fulfill:
- Receiving the ball between the lines
- Finding gaps to exploit in the final third
- Assisting teammates
- Carrying the ball forward
- Recycling possession
- Leading the press
- Defensive cover
The beauty of the game is that there are many formations and soccer positions and they’re all constantly evolving.
The potential variations within each game are astounding. Coaches have nearly unlimited flexibility when it comes to their line up.
Still, no matter what soccer positions your team lines up in, players need to be disciplined and hardworking to have any chance of success.
With the modern game constantly seeing new positions and tactics, it's never been more important to have adaptable players.