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Football positions

From footballing full-backs to strikers

A full-scale game of football usually starts with 22 players on the pitch – 11 for each side. Barring injuries or a rash of sendings off, each side will end the game with the same number of players as they started. Each player, from the goalkeeper, the defenders, midfielders, to the strikers will have a set position and a specific role to perform in the course of a 90 minute game of football.

So, what are the positions and roles in football? Our guide gives you the lowdown on players’ positions while playing the ‘beautiful game’.

Goalkeeper

One of the positions with the most responsibility in a game. The goalkeeper’s main job is to prevent the ball going into the net, using whatever part of their body they wish. The goalkeeper is the only player who is allowed to handle the ball during open play. However, as the goalkeeper cannot handle a ball that has been passed back to them by a teammate, this puts greater emphasis on the kicking abilities of keepers.

Full-back

The full-back (usually referred to as either left-back or right-back depending on what side of the pitch they operate on) has the main job of preventing the opposition from scoring, usually by stopping them getting in crosses from the wide attacking areas on the pitch. The role of the modern full-back is also to support their attacking players when their side is going forward by advancing up the pitch and trying to get in a position to put in a good cross themselves.

Wing-back

Performs essentially the same role as the full-back, but with more emphasis on attacking. The wing-back’s role is to move up and down the side of the pitch, so that they can get in some telling crosses for the strikers to try and score from. Wing-backs need to be tremendously fit to cover the distances required, to be able to get up and support attacks, and to get back into their own half to defend.

Central defender/centre back

The defender’s role is obviously to defend and try to prevent the opposition strikers from getting any goalscoring opportunities. They need to be big and strong and, in the main, particularly good at heading the ball. Central defenders need to be able to anticipate the opposition’s moves, read the danger, intercept any good passes, and block any goalbound shots – literally putting themselves in the firing line at times! They are also known as a centre-half.

Sweeper

The sweeper generally plays behind the two central defenders and is there as extra security for the side. Their job is essentially to ‘read’ the play and ‘sweep up’ any loose balls, thereby doing a tidying-up job for the rest of the team. Employing a sweeper is considered a defensive move, although the player is also expected to be a good at bringing the ball out of defence to start attacking plays. Sweepers are often midfielders who revert to a defensive role to provide extra cover for their side.

Central midfield 

The real powerhouse and ‘engine’ of the side. The central midfielder is expected to work up and down the pitch, and so needs to be tremendously fit. Their role involves both attacking and defending. Midfielders are normally good tacklers or good passers (some of the best ones excel at both), and are supposed to dictate the play from the center of the field. Some midfielders may be employed by a manager in a more attacking role, while others may be given a more defensively-minded role.

Wide midfield/winger

Players in wide midfield positions mainly stay out near the left-hand or right-hand touchlines – i.e. the lines at each side of the pitch that delineate the playing area – to provide some attacking width for their side. They are normally quick and good at dribbling with the ball and beating the defenders, and should be able to provide good crosses for the strikers. When their team is not in possession of the ball, they are expected to come infield to give some support to the other midfielders. Wide midfield players are also referred to as wingers. 

Striker/Centre forward

The player who is expected to score the majority of the goals. Their job is to escape their marker and find good goalscoring opportunities or get in positions where they can set up chances for others. Some strikers play different roles to one another – for example, some are less selfish and try to set up an opportunity for their partner, while others tend to be rather more single-minded and shoot for goal themselves at the first opportunity.

Behind the striker

As the name suggests, this is a position where the player is just behind the front striker, while at the same time they are just in front of the midfield. The position is sometimes referred to as playing ‘in the hole’. A player’s job in this position is to create space and carve out chances for the main striker or even score a few goals themselves. They need to be very comfortable on the ball and be aware of the movement of other players around them.

Substitute

Substitutes are replacement players who can come on at any point during the game in place of another teammate. In most matches, teams are allowed to name five substitutes, but are only allowed to make three changes each during a match. Teams will usually have a mixture of substitutes on the bench – including a goalkeeper, defender, midfielder and striker – in case anyone in the team gets injured or if the manager wants to make a tactical substitution. Some players are considered to be better substitutes than others because they are versatile and able to fit into a number of different positions should the need arise.

A final word on football positions…

It is worth noting that players in a game of football do move all around the pitch and can get pulled out of position by the opposition. Other players are just so energetic that they seem to pop up all over the pitch, so that at times it appears as though they are playing in more than one role. For example, it is not that uncommon for some defenders to have a knack of getting in the right position and scoring some vital goals – proving that just because they are playing in defence does not mean they are not occasionally able to attack!

Positions in football are of course not rigid, and no player is realistically going to suddenly stop dead in their tracks with the ball at their feet if they feel they are too far out of position! Instead, it may just be a case that they get back into position once they have passed the ball to a teammate.

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