Soccer, often referred to as the "beautiful game," is a sport of intricate tactics and diverse player roles. Every position on the field plays a crucial part in the team's overall strategy, and understanding these roles can deepen your appreciation for the sport. Whether you're a player, a parent, or simply a soccer enthusiast, gaining insight into the intricacies of each position can enhance your enjoyment and understanding of the game.
To help us explain positions in the game of soccer we collaborated with Total Futbol Academy (TFA) out of Cincinnati and spoke with Director of Coaching Education, Coach Chris Stamper who answered all of our questions and gave us some great insight. TFA is a Premier OSMD Insider and sponsor of Ohio Soccer Moms and Dads.
Every player in every position must possess a baseline of qualities and skills that will help the player and team be successful. Coach Stamper shared these qualities with us, every successful soccer player must be:
Skillful - Reads and understands the game and has contextual understanding of when to apply their technique to solve problems in the game
Proactive - Takes initiative and applies themselves to affect the game
Committed - Executes with optimal physical and technical abilities
Focused - Remains calm and composed under pressure, deals with adversity, and plays to win
Accountable - Takes responsibility for their own development and performance
Defensive players, often found in the backline, have the primary responsibility of preventing the opponent from scoring. These players are the last line of defense and play a critical role in maintaining the team's shape and thwarting the opposing team's attacks.
Key attributes for successful defensive players include:
Composure: They must remain calm under pressure and make smart decisions.
Communication: Center backs, in particular, must communicate effectively to organize the defense.
Risk Assessment: They need to evaluate when to clear the ball, when to keep possession, or when to initiate attacks.
Strength: Being strong in physical challenges and aerial duels is crucial.
Reading the Game: Understanding the opponent's intentions and positioning is vital to intercept passes and make timely tackles.
Coach Stamper shared that although we often describe positions as “defensive” or “offensive”, no matter whether the team is in or out of possession of the ball (attacking or defending), every player on the field is either in that phase of the game or connected to it and has a role to play, no matter what their position is. “When we are talking about positions in a formation and we are putting together a lineup, we generally choose our players based on how their abilities match up with the roles and responsibilities of each position on the field within our system of play. We try to put them in a position to be successful and affect the game.”
“When we are identifying players for the back line (center backs, outside backs/fullbacks), we are looking for players who are composed on and off the ball, have good risk assessment abilities, and are good communicators and organizers, ”Coach Stamper explained that this is “especially true when talking about center backs.” These players must have a good understanding of when to clear the ball, when to keep it, and when to drive into midfield space and beyond to advance and/or join the attack. Coach continued by sharing that “They need to be good in the air, be able to pass over long and short distances, and be able to read the opponent attack to know when to step up, when to drop deeper, and how to fill space to prevent the opponent from creating scoring chances and scoring goals, which is their primary responsibility.” He added that “to accomplish this, they must be strong and proactive individual and small group defenders that are masters of pressure and cover.”
Midfielders act as the link between the defensive and offensive phases of the game. They are pivotal in controlling the flow of the match and influencing transitions.
Attributes essential for midfielders include:
Positional Awareness: Maintaining the right position in the midfield, connecting defensive and offensive lines.
Space Management: Midfielders must understand and manage space and time effectively.
Reading the Game: Predicting opponents' and teammates' actions is a fundamental skill.
Distribution: Accurate passing, both short and long, is critical.
Adaptability: Midfielders often switch between offensive and defensive roles based on the team's needs.
“Midfielders act as the link between offense and defense in two different ways,” shared Coach Stamper, “because we can look at defense and offense as positions on the field or as phases of the game. When we are referring to defense and offense as positions, we are referring to the back line of players whose responsibilities are more defensive in nature, and the front line of players whose responsibilities are more attacking in nature. Midfielders, specifically defensive center midfielders, traditional center midfielders, and attacking center midfielders, connect or link these two lines in different ways. Defensive center midfielders are expected to offer support in between opponent lines of players to allow the back line to advance the ball, and to connect the team from sideline to sideline. They are often called a “pivot” because of this. Traditional center midfielders generally play higher upfield than defensive center midfielders and offer support in between lines to both the backline and the front line. They are expected to connect the team more front-to-back than side-to-side.”
Coach explained that “Attacking center midfielders are the highest upfield of the three, and are expected to provide creative forward play to create opportunities in attack for the front line, often joining them in that effort. To perform their jobs effectively, they must maintain a good shape in the space between the back and front lines. This allows them to control the direction and the tempo of buildup play through the middle third and keeps them connected to the rest of the team. Midfielders are masters of understanding and managing space and time. They are very adept at reading the game and predicting both the opponents’ and their teammates’ actions.”
He continued by explaining that if we refer to defense and offense as phases of the game, we can say that the midfielders are a very important link between the two. “If they are well organized in the midfield space, they will be the most influential unit of the team when it comes to transition moments between defending and attacking. When they win the ball, they determine whether to keep and control it, or launch a counter attack. When they lose the ball, or one of the other lines of players do, they can be very effective in slowing down the opponent's attack and allowing the back line to organize to defend while the front line recovers.”
The primary goal of forwards is to score goals, but they also have a significant defensive role in pressing the opponent's defense. Forwards are often in high-risk situations and must be creative and technical in their play.
Successful forwards possess these attributes:
Technical Prowess: They must be skillful dribblers, passers, and finishers.
Bravery: Forwards often operate in tight spaces and must be willing to take risks.
Versatility: They should be adept at playing with their back to the goal or running into open spaces.
Movement and Positioning: Understanding how to create space and disorganize the opponent's defense is crucial.
Pressing: Forwards lead the defensive press, forcing opponents into errors.
When describing the role of Forwards Coach Stamper explained in simple terms that “the object of the game of soccer is to score more goals than the opponent. Everything we do on the field we do to accomplish that objective. The main responsibility of the forwards is to do just that: score goals.” But that’s not all they do, as Coach Stamper explains “when we are in possession of the ball, the forwards often position themselves to create large spaces that are difficult for the opponent to defend. They switch and interchange positions in all directions (often involving the midfield and outside backs) to disorganize the opponent back line and create advantages that allow them to penetrate and attack the space in front of the goal. They must be able to hold and protect the ball under pressure to allow the rest of the team to advance and join the attack.” The role of the forward doesn’t end when their team is out of possession, Coach went on to explain that “when we do not have the ball, forwards are the first line of defense. Together, and in coordination with the players behind them, they pressure the opponent back line to influence where the ball will be played. They attempt to make the space smaller and force the opponent into poor decisions and turnovers.”
“Forwards are often in a high-risk high reward situation high up the field near the opponent goal,” explained Coach Stamper. “They must be brave and willing to take risks. Successful forwards are highly technical and creative players that are deceptive and adept dribblers that can also run with the ball in open spaces. They are able to pass the ball over long and short distances and finish opportunities in a variety of ways with a variety of techniques. They understand how their runs affect the opponent, and they use their movement to put defenders to make tough choices in very dangerous spaces. The best forwards have the desire and instinct to be on the ball at the most important moments of the game.”
Goalkeepers have evolved into complete players in the modern game. They are not just shot-stoppers but also key figures in the team's build-up play.
Goalkeepers' roles encompass:
Shot-Stopping: Making saves, including the occasional miraculous ones.
Distribution: Actively participating in the team's possession game with accurate passing.
Organization: Organizing the defense and providing depth in possession.
Counter-Pressing: Initiating the press when the team loses possession.
Field General: Guiding the team's shape and strategies on the field.
We asked Coach Stamper to describe the role of the Goalkeeper in the modern game and he explained, “The 1992 rule change disallowing use of the hands by the goalkeeper on a back pass truly opened the door to an entirely new style of goalkeeper. In my opinion, this rule change had an incredibly positive effect on the game. The goalkeeper is more influential on the field now than ever before and expectations for them are very high. Not only are they expected to do their traditional job and make all the necessary saves (and a few miracle saves), they are expected to be a field general and a key field player. When a goalkeeper has the ball, they are the first attacker and are crucial in how a team builds out of the back and advances the ball up the field. In possession, when they are playing the role of a field player, goalkeepers provide a numerical advantage of +1 in the first third of the field (and in some cases the middle third), depth for recycling the ball to reshape and restart possession, central support to the players on the back line and defensive center midfielder, balance in possession, and relief to help maintain possession during positive transition after the ball has been recovered. For all these reasons, it has become crucial that goalkeepers are integrated into team training in a role similar to what they will experience during a game.”
For players, understanding the diversity of positions offers a more comprehensive view of the game. It enables them to make better decisions on the field and fosters cohesion with teammates. Parents can actively support their child's development by having a better grasp of the roles and responsibilities. “For players and parents alike, understanding the diversity of positions in soccer can greatly enhance their ability to engage, enjoy, and appreciate the game,” explained Coach Stamper.
Appreciating the different positions enhances the overall enjoyment of soccer as a spectator. You can analyze the strategies, applaud the individual skills required for each role, and engage in discussions with fellow fans more effectively. Soccer isn't just about the goals; it's a complex and beautiful dance of teamwork and individual brilliance across various positions.
Understanding and celebrating this diversity enriches the soccer experience, making it truly the beautiful game it's known to be. Coach Chris Stamper ended by sharing that “When you understand the roles and responsibilities of every position, you understand the player’s intentions and motivations in different situations, and are better able to evaluate and appreciate the actions in the game. Players who understand the roles and responsibilities associated with every position have a more advanced perspective of the game. They can better predict player behavior and actions during play. This helps lead to more cohesion within the team and more success on the field. They also understand how their personal choices or decisions will affect their teammates and the opponent based on what they expect from them. Understanding positions in soccer also allows parents to be an active part of their child’s development. They will be more suited to engage their son or daughter to support and even enhance what the coach is trying to accomplish.”