Soccer Positions By Number

Anyone coming into the game nowadays could be forgiven for thinking that the numbers on a players back don’t mean much in terms of positioning.

With such vast rosters of talent and the introduction of squad numbers, it is rare that you see a straight forward one-to-eleven anymore. Despite this, the numbers are important and have a lot of historical value. 

You will often hear commentators refer to positions on a field specifically by naming a number, for example, “Wayne Rooney has the vision to play as a number 10 but also the finishing ability to play as a number 9”.

Soccer Positions By Number

It would be too generic to describe Rooney as centre-forward as it would not reflect his multiple talents. Therefore the commentator can elaborate on the point and go onto explain why he is suited to both the number nine and the number ten positions. 

It is not just on the television or radio you will hear number positional changes discussed. On fans forums, in the terraces and on social media a players suitability to a number six role or a number eight can regularly be discussed amongst fans and critics.

So what do these numbers mean and why is the positioning significant on a soccer pitch? In this article, we aim to clarify the terms and expand on their meaning by taking you through soccer positions by number.

To avoid confusion, we will base the discussion on a traditional 4-4-2 system (unless otherwise stated) and talk about variations and changes to this later in the article; 

1. GK

2. RB                         4. CB                                               5. CB                       3. LB

7. RM                                6. CM                                               8. CM                       11. LM

 10. CF             

                          9. ST

Number One: The Goalkeeper

Your goalkeeper must have vital communication skills to be able to organize the defence in front of them. They have to be agile, alert and decisive.

Not just a shotstopper but a commanding presence in the box on counter-attacks and especially when defending set-pieces like corners and free-kicks. 

A goalkeeper traditionally takes the goalkicks but it has been known for other players (normally a defender) to take them if the keeper is carrying a knock or if the defender has a particularly big boot on them to go against the elements on occasion. Whilst they do not do as much running as their teammates, the goalkeeper needs to be physically fit and strong.

In recent years there has been more demand placed on goalkeepers to contribute with their feet to teamplay. Whereas previously they would probably be content to make short passes to their defensive line or just boot the ball up the pitch, modern-day managers have a different view.

They now task their keepers to pick out long passes, be comfortable on the ball and even act as sweeper-keepers so their heading skills need to be on point if a ball comes over the top and they find themselves out of their area.

It is common for a goalkeeper to go up for an attacking corner as time elapses during a match where their team is behind on the scoreboard. Even if they are not the main target, their mere presence alone can cause chaos for the opposition defence as they are not meant to be there.

The opposition would not have planned for this and may not know who to mark. Therefore the height of a goalkeeper in this instance can be a huge advantage and possibly create a chance for their teammates to equalize if they do not do so themselves. 

Number Two: The Right Back

The primary role of a right-back (otherwise known as a full-back) is to defend the opposition’s winger/left midfielder and to support the centrebacks in dealing with the threat from the strikers, center-forwards, and advancing midfielders.

Fullbacks generally take responsibility for throw-ins and are assigned to be the man on the post when defending corners if their managers like that option. 

In attack, the full-backs are expected to overlap their wingers either as a decoy runner to create space for the forwards or to offer themselves as an option on the flank to cross the ball into the box.

Fullbacks tend to get left on the halfway line on their teams’ corners so that the center-backs can go up and attack whilst the full-backs provide cover against an opposition counter-attack. 

Number Three: The Left Back

Will perform the same role as the right-back but on the opposite side of the pitch, supporting the left-sided midfielder.

Number Four: The Centre-Back

The two center-backs are pivotal to the side. They are the core of the defense and the spine of the team. They must decide when to press and when to back off their direct opponent and are usually heavily involved with the aerial battle in free play and set-piece.

Usually tall and strong, the center-half as they are commonly known, will go up for attacking corners and be a threat to the opposition’s defense. 

They are great communicators and organizers as they link the midfield and goalkeeper. They must play with authority and have a significant presence on the field to intimidate and put off the opposing strikers and forward attackers.

They play a crucial part in setting the offside trap when working together with fellow center halves and both full-backs when setting the trap. 

Number Five: The Centre-Back

See Above

Number Six: The Central Midfielder

Unlike the two center-backs, despite their overlapping skill-set and similar style of play, the two center-midfielders have slightly varying roles at times.

Your traditional number six tends to be there to break up play and can be viewed as a defensive midfielder who will more often than not, sit around the halfway line in front of the back four while the other center-midfielder bombs forward and joins in the attack.

If a center-half is stranded up the pitch or has been pulled wide, then the deep-lying midfielder will commonly drop right back into the defensive line and fill in at centreback until the team can reorganize. 

Learn more about the midfield position.

Number Seven: The Right-Sided Midfielder

Usually, fall into two categories; the flair player and the workhorse but sometimes can be a hybrid of both. They need a strong work ethic to be able to both get back and support the fullback in defense but must retain the creativity and vision to contribute at the other end of the pitch too.

Also known as a winger, the wide midfielder will work in tandem with the fullback to create space for crosses in the final third. They will be on the move constantly by making runs for the centrebacks and center midfielders to pick them out in forward positions to threaten the goal.

When on the ball, they need to be elusive and quick to get past defenders and also be able to accurately deliver passes, through-balls and crosses into the frontmen to score the all-important goals. 

Soccer Play

Number Eight: The Central Midfielder

As previously mentioned, the two midfielders will have similar attributes but have slightly contrasting roles and responsibilities in the middle of the park.

Where the 6 is more conservative, the number 8 is seen as more of a box-to-box midfielder who spends their time defending their own area but also penetrating the opposition box from deeper areas.

Approaching the area with delayed runs, the number 8 will often get on the end of crosses that surpass the forwards or retrieve second balls that have been cleared by the opposition defenders.

They share combative tackling skills with a range of passing and creativity that make them a complete player and usually possess a serious cardiovascular engine to get around the pitch. Otherwise known as the attacking central midfielder.

Number Nine: The Striker

Your main source of goals. Your number nine is the one most often on the ends of crosses into the box, rebounds, and deflections in front of the goal.

They make runs down the channel to open up space for others, hold the ball up when the team is under pressure, and can play with their back to goal as well as run in behind defenses.

It is their responsibility to chase long balls, seemingly in vain in an attempt to force mistakes and capitalize on errors in the opposition’s game when they come under pressure from the striker’s press.

Number Ten: The Centre-Forward

Whilst some number tens like to play directly upfront alongside their strike partner, most play slightly deeper than the striker and provide a link between the midfield and attack.

They play between the lines and are notoriously difficult to mark due to their increased awareness of space and subsequent manipulation of it.

Your number ten is often the most creative person in the side but also needs to be a lethal finisher and have a high work ethic to be able to bolster the midfield when defending and provide adequate support upfront in the attack. 

Number Eleven: The Left-Sided Midfielder

Will perform the same role as the right-sided midfielder but on the opposite side of the pitch, supporting the left-back.

Key Variations To Be Aware Of

Not everyone plays a 4-4-2 nowadays and with the fluidity and flexibility of both tactics and formations, positions amongst players are now often versatile and adaptable with many top stars being able to play more than one position. 

In terms of numbers, they do alter when the formation changes and you will need to be aware certain formations mean different things for traditionally numbered positions. For example; 

  • In a 4-3-3, a holding midfielder often wears the number 4 shirt and the second center-back adopts the number 6.
  • In a 3-5-2, the 3rd center-back will likely take the number 4 or 6 from one of the midfielders with the fullbacks keeping shirts 2 and 3 respectively despite their positional change into wingbacks from defenders.
  • Club Traditions can be factored into the positioning of shirt numbers. At Manchester United, for example, the famous number 7 shirt is often deployed to a striker with great success.
  • You should also bear in mind that in foreign countries, shirt positioning variations are common. Food example in South America and certain European countries the center-halves will wear numbers 2 and 3 whereas the fullbacks tend to wear 5 and 6 on their shirts.

Learn more about soccer positions: