Football positions and numbers explained
by Pablo M27th May 2022
Like most team sports, players have different roles in the field. While most fans are familiar with some positions, others have changed, and new terms have been used over the years. This post describes the most common football positions and the jersey numbers usually associated with them.
A football pitch is divided into four main zones: the penalty box, the defensive half, the centre of the field and the attacking zone. Therefore, there are four basic football positions: goalkeeper, defender, midfielder and forward. Each position fulfils different duties in the game and, consequently, requires players of particular characteristics. For example, goalkeepers are usually the tallest player in the team.
The following paragraphs detail each position, as illustrated in the picture above, and its duties.
The only player allowed to touch the ball with their hands is the goalkeeper, but only in the penalty box. Outside the box, the same rules as for other players apply. Therefore, the goalkeeper is the last line of defence and a very specialised player. They don’t change position with other teammates during a game or from game to game.
Goalkeepers rarely move outside of the penalty box unless tactics like a high line pressure are used. Thus, it is said that the goalkeeper is the most defensive position. Their sole objective is to stop the opposition from scoring goals. So, while the goalkeeper can help start an attack, they are unlikely to be in a position to score or assist a goal.
Because the goalkeeper is the only player that can touch the ball with their hands, they must wear a different jersey from their teammates to help the referee identify them. They also wear gloves and often tracksuit bottoms, but this is not mandatory under FIFA rules.
You can find more about the goalkeeper role in 5 attributes a goalkeeper must have.
The defenders on a football team play in front of the goalkeeper, and their main objective is to frustrate the opposition attacking attempts. Therefore, the defensive line waits on their side of the field. However, occasionally some defenders may move further on the pitch depending on the tactics and the situation.
Because their primary objective is to stop the opposition, traditionally, the technical skills of defenders are not as good as those playing midfield and forward. So, usually, what characterises defenders are their strength and tackling, while skills such as dribbling are not a priority. However, there are exceptions, and modern defenders are often as good as their colleagues in other parts of the field.
All defenders sit in front of the goalkeeper and behind the midfielders. However, they fulfil different duties and require various skills depending on what part of the field they play. Furthermore, the roles employed by a team will vary with the formation and tactics chosen. For example, teams with a 3-5-2 formation usually don’t use fullbacks. So their backline consists of three centre-backs or two centre-backs and one sweeper. In a nutshell, these are the most common positions in defence:
As the name implies, centre-backs play at the back in the centre of the field. Usually, centre backs are the least gifted players in most teams, but they are strong and often tall players. Check 5 attributes every centre back must have for more details on what makes a good centre back.
These defenders move behind the defence from side to side to “sweep” any loose ball that passes the defence. Their technical skills and ability to read the game are superior to those of the centre back. This role was prevalent before the introduction of the offside rule, but since then and due to the introduction of other regulations, it is not common to see it. In fact, in modern football, goalkeepers somewhat fulfil the sweeper role.
Fullbacks – Left Back (LB) and Right Back (RB)
They play on either side of the centre-backs and close to the sideline. Their primary role is to protect against wide players, usually wingers. Traditional fullbacks focus only on defence and don’t adventure beyond the midfield often. Check “5 attributes every fullback must have” for more details on the key characteristics of great fullbacks.
Wingbacks – Lef Wingback (LWB) and Right Wingback (RWB)
The role is a combination of winger and fullback. While fullbacks don’t join the attack very often, wingbacks are defenders with a heavy emphasis on attack. They overlap the attack and send crosses to the box. Because these players run the full length of the field from defence to attack, the role requires exceptional fitness.
As the name implies, midfielders play in the middle of the field between the defence and the attack. They fulfil three key roles: keep possession of the ball, break up opposition attacks and create goal-scoring opportunities for the forwards.
Playing as a midfielder requires excellent stamina as they cover huge distances throughout a game and often at speed. Because these players constantly switch from attack into defence and fulfil various duties, the midfield is considered the heart of any team and dictates their speed of play.
Some midfielders are tasked with breaking up opposition attacks, some with creating goal opportunities, and others have an even mix of responsibilities. While central midfielders and attacking midfielders are found in most teams, some may not employ other types of midfield roles. For example, in a 4-3-3 formation, wingers (see forwards) often replace wide midfielders. Then the midfield consists of a defensive midfielder, a central midfielder and an attacking midfielder, or a defensive midfielder and two central midfielders. In summary, depending on their position in the field and their responsibilities, midfielders are often classified in:
Central Midfielder (CM)
As the name implies, these players sit in the middle of the field. Because statistically, most of the 90 minutes are spent in the middle of the pitch, the centre midfielder is the most critical player in the team and has an enormous influence in any game. They lead the team, recover the ball, keep possession of it, and create opportunities for the forwards. Over the years, the centre midfield role evolved into more specialised positions: defensive midfielders, wide midfielders and attacking midfielders.
Defensive Midfielder (DM)
Their name is self-explanatory and indicates the fact that they sit in front of the defence and hold back while the rest of the midfield moves into the attack. The best defensive midfielders dictate the pace of their team and often serve as playmakers. Therefore, the role requires extreme fitness and a balanced set of offensive and defensive skills. To learn more about the position, read “5 attributes every defensive midfielder must have“.
Wide Midfielders: Left Midfielder (LM) and Right Midfielder (RM)
These players stay on the left or right of the centre midfielders. The role of a wide midfielder is to provide additional protection on the flanks and stretch the team’s width. The latter is crucial because it gives the centre midfielder and the defence options to progress in the field or to keep possession of the ball. In addition, depending on the player’s characteristics, they may double as wingers (see forwards section) and join the attack. Usually, slow but strong wide midfielders will adopt a more defensive style, while fast and skilful players will emulate wingers.
Attacking Midfielder (AM)
The position has been historically associated with the number 10 jersey. Maradona and Zidane are legendary examples of this role. These players position themselves between the opposition defence and their midfield to conduct the attack. They often have few defensive responsibilities, and their primary duties include assisting forwards, taking free kicks, penalty kicks and scoring goals from play. They are the players with more positional freedom in the team because they have superior vision, pace and dribbling skills. To understand more about the role, read 5 attributes every attacking midfielder must have.
Forwards are the players nearest to the opposition goal and are expected to score. Because they score the most goals, attacking midfielders and forwards are the darlings of the game and their transfer fees astronomical. Most kids dream of being a forward or attacking midfielder.
While the forwards’ primary responsibility is to score goals, they also create chances for other players and are the first line of defence. So, depending on their characteristics and team tactics, some forwards contribute defensively by pressing opposition defenders and goalkeepers when they have the ball.
Physical attributes often dictate where exactly a forward plays. For example, tall and strong forwards usually play between the opposition centre back inside the penalty box and score many goals from headers or close distance shots. On the other hand, small but fast forwards tend to play outside the box and exploit their speed and dribbling abilities to break through the opposition’s defence.
The terms striker and forward are often interchanged, but strikers have different characteristics than other types of forwards. The forward line-up is where you often see the most differences between teams. For example, teams playing a 4-4-2 may use two centre forwards fed by long balls from the midfield, others a combination of a striker and a centre forward. Because of the different characteristics of forwards, they are often classified on:
Centre Forward (CF)
Because they are the closest players to the goal, the centre forward’s sole objective is to score goals. Consequently, their performance is measured exclusively on goals scored regardless of their other contributions to the game. In addition, they are usually strong and tall players because they must wrestle with the opposition’s centre backs. Although it sounds simple, scoring goals is not that easy. Playing centre forwards requires specific skills. Learn more about it in 5 attributes every centre forward must have.
The striker role is often subclassified in other functions such as second striker or support striker (SS), right striker (RS) and left striker (LS). These players differ from the centre forward in that they are not as physically imposing, thus compensating with speed and amazing footwork. While they score plenty of goals, their primary role is to create opportunities for the centre forwards. Because of their dribbling and passing skills, often, these players become midfielders.
Wingers: Left Winger (LW) and Right Winger (RW)
Wingers are forwards that play close to the sidelines, and they are the widest attacking players. The primary function is to beat the opposition fullback and cross the ball into the box, searching for the centre forward. Because they start from behind the line of other forwards and have to face the fullbacks, they are often the fastest players on the field. For more details on the wingers’ characteristics, read 5 attributes every football winger must have.
Football positions and their relation to jersey numbers
The numbers in a football jersey help quickly identify players and their position. For example, it is easier for a referee to identify an offender and take notes. It is also helpful for the spectators and helps clubs and sports gear companies with t-shirt sales. In summary, there are many benefits to having numbers in the jersey, a reason why it is also common in other team sports.
There is no official rule on what numbers football players should use for each position. However, there are unwritten conventions around it. The tradition is that starting players wear jerseys from 1 to 11, while subs jerseys from 12 onwards. However, that is not necessarily the case nowadays in professional football due to marketing reasons. For example, attacking midfielders or playmaker forwards almost always use the iconic number 10. Maradona, Messi, Platini and Zidane used the number 10. But when Messi moved to PSG, he chose to use the number 30 because Mbape was using the number 10.
Numbers 1 and 9 are also very standard. Goalkeepers use the number 1, while goal-scorer forwards use the number 9. However, other numbers vary between countries. Notably, Argentina and Brazil use a different convention than Europe. For example, to identify the defensive midfielder (DM), their teams use the number 5, while in Europe, this number usually identifies a centre back (CB).
This Wikipedia Post lists in detail the convention differences across regions. As a sample of the differences described in that article, the picture below shows the numbers used in a 4-3-3 formation in the Bundesliga versus Argentina’s convention.
Which football position is the hardest to play?
This topic is often a reason for debate among football lovers. The answer depends on what we understand as “hard”. In terms of mentally tough and ungrateful roles, nothing beats the goalkeeper position. A single mistake can cost dearly to their team. Then they need to be mentally strong to continue playing. In contrast, if a forward misses a goal, they will have another opportunity to redeem themselves.
But if we talk about the skills, the most challenging position to play in modern football is the defensive midfielder. This role focused purely on defensive skills and stamina in the old days. But nowadays, defensive midfielders are also expected to dribble through players, make precision passes, and perform duties that were often reserved for the attacking midfielder.
Which football position is the easiest to play?
Another question that is difficult to answer. The answer also varies depending on what aspects we use as a reference. But, most fans will agree that the centre Back is the easiest football position to play. The main focus of the centre Back is to keep the ball away, so in theory, they don’t need great control of the ball. They also move in a small area, so the level of stamina required is lower than in other positions. These limited requirements may have been the case in the old days or are still the case in some amateur leagues, but there are no easy positions in truly competitive football.
Now, if we look at it from the point of view of where a limited player will be less detrimental to the team, the answer is usually the wide midfielder. If an average player loses the ball by the midfield sideline, many other players are close and can recover it. Then wide midfielders are not expected to score very often. So it is not a big deal if they don’t score.