What do position numbers in soccer mean? We break down each soccer position in a typical 11-vs.-11 game and explain its responsibilities.
Think about each position as one part in a well-oiled machine — each part has a specific job to do in order for that machine to function properly. When everyone on the field does their job, the team can work together seamlessly and experience more fluid gameplay.
Soccer positions and formations can vary based on several factors, including age group, league, coaching strategy and number of players allowed on the field. Here, we look at a standard 11-vs.-11 game to show how defensive, midfield and offensive positions work based on the roles they play and the numbers assigned to them.
While watching professional soccer, you may hear a commentator declare that an athlete “plays like a number 10” even though they are “playing in the 6.” Don’t worry, there’s no crazy math formula involved — this simply refers to where a player is situated on the field.
Did you know that the numbering of each position started in the 1920s? While not every coach uses this system, knowing position numbers may help inform your understanding of the game. In fact, U.S. Soccer sometimes uses position numbers to help teach youth players about each role and create a universal language as they develop on the pitch.
A number is assigned to each position. When you apply numbers to specific formations, you can better identify where players line up on the field. Here’s how the positions are typically numbered:
2– Right Fullback
3– Left Fullback
4– Center Back
5– Center Back (or Sweeper, if used)
6– Defending/Holding Midfielder
7– Right Midfielder/Winger
8– Central/Box-to-Box Midfielder
10– Attacking Midfielder/Playmaker
11– Left Midfielder/Wingers
Every position has a different job to do in order to keep the team machine in tip-top shape. For younger players, knowing what’s expected of them is an especially essential component of building their soccer skills. That does not mean, however, that players may only stay in a specific zone or take on a completely limited set of responsibilities. As the individual player and team grows and becomes more skilled, they can get more creative and bring more fluidity to their style of play. Check out these general guidelines for defensive, midfield and offensive positions.
1 – Goalkeeper (GK): Usually the last line of defense to stop the opponent from scoring, this player protects the net. Also known as the keeper or goalie, this is the only player allowed to use their hands and arms to block shots and pick up the ball while the game’s in play. These special rules only apply in the designated penalty area. When a goalie steps outside their penalty box, they must function like a regular field player. Also, they cannot use their hands to play the ball if a teammate passes it directly to them during gameplay or off a throw-in.
Soccer goalies wear specialized soccer goalie gear, including gloves, and often opt for long sleeves for additional protection. They wear a different color jersey than the rest of the team, so everyone on the field can tell them apart from other positions (youth teams may use a pinnie to designate the goalie). They can also wear shorts and pants made specifically for the position.
Defenders/Backs: These are the field players closest to the net. They are responsible for protecting the goalie, blocking shots and stopping the other team’s offensive players from passing, receiving, shooting and scoring. More specifically, there can be center backs, fullbacks, wingbacks and one sweeper.
As you could probably guess, midfielders, or halfbacks, play mostly in the middle of the field. If the team’s working as a well-oiled machine, midfielders are the gears that connect the defensive and offensive lines, transitioning the ball and making sure everything is moving smoothly. Mids usually see the most action during a game.
Forwards, or strikers, are the primary attackers and play closest to the opponent’s goal. Their main objective is to score as often as possible. They are usually the quickest on the field and must have exceptional ball control. They should be able to take a shot from all angles, even directly off a pass. It’s also important that any offensive player avoids being offside at any time.
The variety of formations is only limited by the number of players allowed on the pitch, so don’t be surprised to see a range of setups and strategies employed. The overarching responsibilities for each position on the field stay the same, but it is the ability to flow as a unit and show creativity that truly makes soccer a beautiful game.
There are defensive and offensive formations, and any given formation may be more or less successful, depending on the other team’s setup. You’ll notice that the number of players in a formation only adds up to 10. That’s because the formations only relate to field players and exclude the goalie.
Typically, these field players are broken out into three key zones, with the formation being set up from back to front (defense to midfield to forward). That means a 4-4-2 formation has four defensive players, four midfielders and two forwards.
Sometimes coaches will divide the three main sections further, causing formations such as a 1-4-3-2, with one sweeper, four defensive players, three mids and two forwards; or a 4-4-1-1, which has four defenders, four mids, one second striker and one striker.
U.S. Soccer tends to favor a 4-3-3 formation. Two common variations of the 4-3-3 formation are a defensive setup and an attack-minded setup, based on where the 8 lines up. Generally, the 8 is a box-to-box player, so this can rotate continually through the game to react to the run of play.
Another popular formation in soccer is the 4-4-2. This is commonly run with a diamond shape in the midfield but can also feature a flat midfield.
Keep in mind that these are just some common formations and there are several you may see or use in the game. Every coach has a different style and there are multiple ways they could choose to set up formations.
A well-placed header isn’t the only way to get your head in the game. When you know the key responsibilities of each position and how numbers and formations factor in, you can start applying strategy to your gameplay. You’ll notice what works and what doesn’t, so you can adjust the way you play and make game-changing decisions that can help you and your team become more effective.
At the end of the day, don’t overthink it. Your understanding of the game will naturally improve over time. For now, get on the field, practice often and enjoy.