Soccer has many different positions and many different names that come along with them. To simplify, we will categorize the football positions into four: the goalkeeper, defenders, mid-fielders, and forwards.
The goalkeeper is simply known as the guy with gloves who keeps the opponents from scoring. He has a special position because only him can play the ball with his hands (provided that he is inside his own penalty area and the ball was not deliberately passed to him by a team mate).
Aside from being the last line of defence, the goalkeeper is the first person in attack. That is why keepers who can make good goal kicks and strategic ball throws to team mates are valuable.
The goalie has four main roles: saving, clearing, directing the defence, and distributing the ball. Saving is the act of preventing the ball from entering the net while clearing means keeping the ball far from the goal area.
The goalkeeper has the role of directing the defence since he is the farthest player at the back and he can see where the defenders should position themselves.
Distributing the ball happens when a goalkeeper decides whether to kick the ball or throw it after making a save. Where the keeper throws or kicks the ball is the first instance of attack.
A defender's task is to keep the ball away from the keeper, prevent opposing attackers from passing or receiving, and block shots. Defending requires a player to be well-fit, hard-working, and quick at anticipating the movement of the opponents.
Defenders must protect the keeper: they should think of the goalie as an important person that opponents are not allowed to get near to. Typically, teams play with four defenders.
Centre-back/centre-half/central defender (CB)
In a four-player defence, the centre-backs are the two defenders in the middle. They are erroneously called centre-halves, because in an obsolete football formation called the 2-3-5, the "3" players are designated with that name. As tactics evolved, the "3" dropped to "centre-back" but still retained the name "centre-half."
A centre back must be strong, fearless, and good at timing tackles. Being tall is an advantage for a centre-back as it allows him to win the ball in the air, an essential skill in corner kick situations.
Full-back (LB, FB)
A full-back is a defender positioned on the side. They are either classified as left back (LB) or right back (RB). The defenders positioned between them are called centre-backs. .
The full-back is tasked to prevent opponents from attacking on the sides. He must be quick and must be able to prevent opponents from making a cross. He is often assigned to mark the opposing winger.
Wing-back (LWB, RWB)
A wing-back is a full-back that advances up to the opponent’s goal end. He runs the whole length of the football pitch: he defends the flanks like a dedicated full-back and attacks like a winger. This is the most physically demanding position on the field. Cafu and Roberto Carlos are two of the best wing-backs ever.
A sweeper is located at the back of the defensive line, just in front of the keeper. This position is no longer popularly used in the modern game but was popular in the past.
A sweeper’s task is to clear the ball in case it breaks through the defenders. He does not man-mark an opponent so he can collect loose balls or go up-field to bring the ball forward in attack.
Mid-fielders link the offence and the defence: they bring the ball up to the forwards in attack and prevent the ball from reaching the defenders when not in possession. You can think of them as the telephone line that connects two people.
Without a solid midfield, it is very difficult for the forwards to score and the defence is often put at risk of the opponents’ attacks. Below are the many types of mid-fielders and the roles they perform.
Defending/Holding midfielder (DM)
A defending or holding midfielder is stationed just in front of the defensive line. His responsibility is to prevent the ball from reaching the defensive line. He must be skilled at intercepting passes, tackling the ball, and positioning themselves strategically.
Central/Box-to-box midfielder (CM)
A central midfielder is stationed at the centre of the field. If he plays both offence and defence, he is called a box-to-box midfielder. The name implies that he runs from his own penalty box to the opponent’s to fulfil different roles.
A box-to-box midfielder does the following: create opportunities for the striker and stop the opponent’s attacks. Stamina, technical ability, and relentless hard-work are the attributes of this type of midfielder.
Attacking midfielder/play-maker (AM)
The attacking midfielder is an advanced midfield player who is primarily inclined to attack. He must have excellent ball control abilities and tactical awareness.
A play-maker occupies the same position as an attacking midfielder but performs a different role. This guy is considered the brain of the team, the most skilled player who orchestrates the attack and distributes the ball. A play-maker must be good in decision-making and as the football saying goes: when you don’t know what to do with the ball, you pass it to him. The play-maker often wears the number 10 jersey.
Wide mid-fielders/wingers (LW, RW)
The winger plays the same role as the attacking midfielder but he focuses his attacks from the side. This position is often utilized in “odd” formations like 4-3-3 and 4-5-1.
Since the winger often plays between the midfield and the offensive line, he is sometimes classified as a forward. A player who occupies this position must be fast, have excellent dribbling abilities, and accurate with passes.
A modern winger is typically flexible and can attack from the centre, which makes him take over the role of a forward.
Forwards are the most celebrated players in the team because they are often the ones who score goals. Since there are many ways to score a goal, there are also many types of forwards.
Accuracy, head ability, and ball control are the typical qualities of a forward. A forward does not have to as much work as the midfield or defence but he must be able to convert when his team-mates give him the ball.
Centre-forwards are positioned closest to the opponent’s goal. They have two roles: first, they score goals through passes from team-mates; second, they distract the defence to give room for the attacking midfielder, winger, or withdrawn striker to attack.
A striker must be brilliant at receiving and controlling the ball, must be strong, and capable of winning the ball in the air. Skills at playing with the back to the goal is a prerequisite.
Withdrawn striker/deep-lying forward/second forward (WS)
The withdrawn striker plays behind the forward. It is typical in attacking football strategies to put him as the main scorer while the person in front of him serves as decoy. The deep-lying forward is often utilized in the 4-4-2 formation.
A deep-lying forward must have excellent passing skills as he is expected to feed the striker and at the same time possess technical abilities with the ball as he often receives back passes from the striker. Pele played as second striker during his illustrious career.
Other types of forwards
Some strikers are further distinguished by their playing style, not just by where they stay on the field.
The "off-the-shoulder" striker is a centre-forward who is very skilled at breaking the offside trap and frees himself to face one-on-one with the goalkeeper. He is called such because he often positions himself parallel with the opposing defenders' shoulders (in line with the second-to-the-last defender).
The goal poacher is a type of striker who often scores goal from inside the opponent's penalty area. He does not create his own opportunities but relies on passes and second-chances to score goals. The poacher often capitalizes on the mistake of the defence.