Soccer positions explained: names, numbers and what they do

Football, soccer, the beautiful game… it’s estimated that more than 250 million people play the sport in some capacity worldwide, but who is doing what, and where, when the 22 players take to the field? From Manuel Neuer to Robert Lewandowski, the German top flight boasts some of the best players in the world in their positions. takes a closer look…

Position: Goalkeeper

  • The most defensive position in soccer
  • Main job to stop opposition goals
  • Also organises the defence and builds play from the back
  • Wears gloves, and a different coloured jersey from teammates
  • Only player who can use their hands in their 18-yard box (apart from throw-ins!)

Bundesliga archetype: Manuel Neuer

Arguably the best goalkeeper ever to play the game, Neuer has the shot-stopping ability of any who have gone before him, but if sweeper-keepers – players as good with their feet as with their hands – are now the most in-demand operators in the position, then soccer has Neuer to thank.

Colombian cult hero Rene Higuita used to try and beat opposition forwards in the 1990s, not always successfully. Today, Brazilian pair Alisson and Ederson win plaudits for – and trophies with – their distribution out from the back. Neuer found the golden mean years ago; racing off his line to clear the danger as Germany won the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The Bayern Munich captain will beat a forward with the ball at his feet if he has to, but he’d rather find a teammate with a laser-sighted pass.

As for good old-fashioned shot-stopping: The 33-year-old has repelled nearly 80 percent of attempts on his goal in more than a DECADE in the Bundesliga, picking up seven league titles, four DFB Cups, and a UEFA Champions League on the way.

Position: Full-back

  • Lines up either side of the defence
  • Marks opposition wingers
  • Provides support for the wide midfielder ahead of them
  • May overlap and send crosses into the opposition box
  • Often takes throw-ins

Bundesliga archetype: Benjamin Pavard

Honed primarily as a centre-back at first Lille and latterly VfB Stuttgart, Pavard has the requisite grit and reading of the game to play through the middle, but those same skills make him the perfect full-back for teams who prefer to leave the attacking onus on midfielders playing in front of the defence.

Stuttgart may have been relegated at the end of last season, but Pavard still won an average of eight challenges per game. Unlike more attacking wing-backs who might attempt to grab the headlines themselves, Pavard successfully sought out a better-placed teammate an average of 41 times per game last term.

That’s not to say the 23-year-old can’t join in the attack with some aplomb when called upon. A World Cup winner with France – from right-back – in the summer of 2018, Pavard scored the goal of the tournament as Les Bleus beat Lionel Messi’s Argentina 4-3 in the last 16, with an unstoppable curling volley from the edge of the opposition box.

Position: Wing-back

  • Modern variation of the full-back
  • Overlaps and sends crosses into the opposition box
  • Still marks opposition wingers when needed
  • Expected to stay on their touchline
  • One of the most physically demanding positions

Bundesliga archetype: Joshua Kimmich

Just as Bayern and Germany great Philipp Lahm called time on a glittering career, Joshua Kimmich emerged, almost like a regenerated player in Football Manager. A box-to-box midfielder in taking his early career steps with RB Leipzig, Kimmich was even used as a makeshift centre-back by Pep Guardiola amid a defensive injury crisis at Bayern in the 2015/16 season. He’s been shifted back into central midfield of late by Germany coach Joachim Löw, too…

Anyone who watched Kimmich for the champions last season would find inescapable the conclusion that he shines brightest at right-back, though. In fact, he might just be the best in the world at it. His 252 miles covered (7.4 per game) were a league best, and his lung-bursting runs didn’t negatively impact upon his control or accuracy. Kimmich enjoyed a league-high 3,369 touches and completed 91 percent of his passes – more than any other full-back – and his 13 assists were bettered only by Jadon Sancho, who lines up on the right wing of Borussia Dortmund’s attack.

Position: Centre-back (stopper)

  • Shuts down opposition attackers
  • May employ zonal or man-marking strategies
  • Brings the ball out from the back
  • Often tall and physically strong
  • Bravery and heading ability desirable, for use in either box

Bundesliga archetype: Niklas Süle

At 6’5”-tall but with a top speed of 21.6 miles per hour – the second fastest player at Bayern behind flying winger Kingsley Coman – Süle is the quintessential modern-day centre back: tall enough to both head danger clear and cause havoc in the opposition box; but fast enough to quash attempted passes to flying forwards should opponents elect to try through-balls instead of lofted crosses.

At 23, Süle’s numbers are already barely believable. Despite his physical stature the former Hoffenheim man averaged just half a foul per game in the Bundesliga last season, while Thiago Alcantara – Bayern’s string-pulling midfielder – was the only player who had more than Süle’s 2,799 touches of the ball for the champions last term.

National coach Löw has employed a back three in recent months. That Süle is in the middle of it, variously flanked by Jonathan Tah and Matthias Ginter among others, is of no surprise. Bayern’s prototype centre-back can break and make play better than almost anybody in the game.

Position: Centre-back (sweeper)

  • A safety net for the stopper(s) alongside them
  • Races to cover gaps when defence is breached
  • Less concerned with man-marking
  • Reads the game from deep
  • Joins midfield build-up when in possession

Bundesliga archetype: Makoto Hasebe

Hasebe won the Bundesliga as a midfielder with Wolfsburg in 2009, but now, 10 years on, he has used some of the skills honed in the position to become perhaps the best example of a sweeper the league has to offer.

The Japan captain may be 35, but if he has lost a yard of pace in his legs, he more than makes up for it with his speed of thought. Eintracht Frankfurt got to the UEFA Europa League semi-finals last term, and while Luka JovicSebastien Haller and Ante Rebic grabbed most of the headlines, their success was built on a Urawa Red Diamond-crafted bedrock.

If a ball over the top eludes one of Hasebe’s teammates – more physically imposing centre-backs like David Abraham or Evan N’Dicka – Hasebe is invariably there behind them, having read the danger before it’s had time to manifest.

Four yellow cards in 28 games are the tale of a player who prefers to intercept rather than tackle; 42 completed passes per game the story of a possession master who keeps the ball once he’s won it back.

Position: Centre-back (quarter-back)

  • Same, central defensive position as the stopper
  • Also more likely to be used in a back three
  • Keeping the ball as important as winning it back
  • Confident in possession
  • Greater onus on long, accurate passes

Bundesliga archetype: Mats Hummels

Equal parts stopper and sweeper, Hummels and long-time Bayern and Germany counterpart Jerome Boateng redefined the central defensive role on approaching their collective peaks around the 2010 mark. The pair – European U21 champions with Germany in 2009 – have been split ahead of the 2019/20 campaign, with Hummels returning to previous club Dortmund. At 30, Hummels could yet prove to be the scoop of the summer for Die Schwarzgelben, though.

Bayern overturned Dortmund in last season’s Rückrunde to pick up a record seventh consecutive Bundesliga title, and Hummels was, quite literally, central to their comeback. His average of five aerial duels won per game made him dangerous in both boxes, but it’s not for nothing that his moniker on Instagram is aussenrist15Aussenrist is German for the outside of your foot, and Hummels uses his to devastating effect.

Invariably playing left centre-back, the right-footer span the ball to a teammate with a heat-seeking 92 percent of his passes last season, even though he attempted some 118 long balls. He teed up 15 shots on the opposition goal, one of which was scored. Tom Brady eat your heart out.

Position: Defensive midfielder (ball-winner)

  • Sits in front of the defence
  • Wins the ball back with tackles and interceptions
  • Covers teammates when they go forward
  • Harries opposition attackers
  • Physically fit and tenacious

Bundesliga archetype: Thomas Delaney

The playing careers of Roy Keane, Edgar Davids and Gennaro Gattuso were beginning to fade from the collective footballing memory – the rise of deep lying playmakers largely responsible – but the battling, ball-winning midfielder is beginning to make a comeback, and in the Bundesliga, Dortmund’s Danish destroyer Thomas Delaney is leading the charge.

Delaney and Axel Witsel arrived at the Signal Iduna Park from Werder Bremen and Tianjin Quanjian respectively last summer, Die Schwarzgelben adding serious steel to their already admirable silk. Whilst double pivot dance partner Witsel is adept at winning the ball back, he also likes to build play. Delaney deals more exclusively in the darker arts, a dash more Schwarz than Gelb.

With his low centre of gravity and top speed of 21 miles per hour, Delaney is able to get in around the feet of opposition attackers, winning the ball back an average of 10 times per game. When he doesn’t get the ball, he might clip the man, as his 41 fouls attest, but only seven of those instances resulted in yellow cards last term, and he’s never been sent off. In short, Delaney can slow down opposition attacks without leaving his team a man down for the rest of the game.

Position: Defensive midfielder (deep-lying playmaker)

  • Sits in front of the defence
  • Creative playmaker from deep
  • Distributes to teammates, near and far
  • Sets the team’s tempo
  • Capable of tackling, though a secondary task

Bundesliga archetype: Thiago Alcantara

Father time may be an undefeated champion, but Bayern’s midfield metronome Thiago is able to bend it to his will with unerring regularity using his speed of control, technique, and 20/20 distributive vision from the base of the champions’ midfield.

No midfielder could boast more than Thiago’s 2,916 touches in 2018/19, and he completed 93 percent of his passes at an eye-watering rate of 75 per game. Dortmund’s Witsel completed 94 percent of his, but he wasn’t trying to thread the ball through the eye of a needle: Witsel had one assist last term; Thiago had six.

“It’s Thiago or nothing,” so said Guardiola on taking up the reins at Bayern in the summer of 2013. The current Manchester City coach got his man, and the Bavarians have been reaping the rewards ever since.

Position: Box-to-box midfielder

  • Lines up in the middle of the field
  • Equally adept at attacking and defending
  • Maintains possession
  • Tracks back to tackle and block shots
  • Breaks into the opponent’s box and tries to score

Bundesliga archetype: Weston McKennie

“I’d play goalie if Schalke told me to,” so said McKennie during a season in which he played once at right-back, once at right midfield, three times at centre-back and even once up front.

Eleven of his 24 appearances saw him start in his preferred central midfield role, though, and he can expect to stay there for the foreseeable. Box-to-box midfielders are often built like middleweight boxers, fit enough to dominate the game in attacking and defensive phases, sometimes seconds apart, and McKennie fits the bill.

No midfielder won more than McKennie’s 101 headers last season, despite the Texan standing at 6’ flat, and if evidence of his increasing goal-threat were required, look no further than the CONCACAF Gold Cup, where he has fired the USA into the final with two goals in his last two games.

Schalke are rebuilding after a disappointing season – Nabil Bentaleb and Hamza Mendyl are among those to have left – but McKennie has had his contract extended until 2024. For the Royal Blues, this box-to-box midfielder ticks all the boxes.

Position: Wide midfielder

  • Provides width in midfield
  • Gives full-backs defensive protection
  • Compresses play in opponents’ half
  • May cross from deeper positions than wingers
  • Combines speed and stamina

Bundesliga archetype: Filip Kostic

It barely seems fathomable that Kostic suffered two relegations just two years apart with first Stuttgart and then Hamburg. The Serbia wide man was crucial to Frankfurt’s impressive season, contributing a team-high 10 assists in the league and another two in Die Adler’s run to the Europa League semi-finals.

It is the manner of Kostic’s assists that make him so difficult to handle. His delivery is akin to a left-footed David Beckham, but he has a top speed of 21.4 miles per hour. If a defender sits off him, he can spin it in first time, as he did for Jovic’s Goal of the Season contender in the 7-1 destruction of Fortuna Düsseldorf. If the opposition full-back marks him tight, Kostic simply races past his man and squares it.

In Frankfurt’s 3-4-1-2 system, Kostic doesn’t normally have a left-back to help him out, but he doesn’t seem to need it. His 396 duels won last season were a league fifth-best mark, and came in at a rate of seven per game.

Position: Attacking midfielder

  • Dictates play from behind the strikers
  • Creates goalscoring chances for the attackers
  • Technique and creativity crucial
  • Ability to shoot from range an advantage
  • Historically associated with the No.10 jersey

Bundesliga archetype: Marco Reus 

The classical No.10 was a string-pulling midfielder, typically with technique dripping from every pore, playing in the hole behind his team’s central striker. They didn’t always have to be the fastest – who can run quicker than the ball can move anyway? – imagination and creativity were key.

Current Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane wore the number on his jersey in steering France to their maiden FIFA World Cup triumph in 1998, and the most recent Bundesliga player in that mould was perhaps James Rodriguez, who returned to play under the Frenchman in Madrid in June following his two-year loan spell at Bayern.

But just as full-backs have become wing-backs and defensive midfielders have evolved into ball-players, so too has the role of the attacking midfielder changed. Dortmund captain Reus may occupy a similar starting position to Zidane the player, or James, but he is just as likely to send himself flying forward to join the attack as he is the ball.

The results speak for themselves. Reus still plays slick through-balls – his eight assists last season were no accident – but his 17 league goals, a best Bundesliga return for him in seven years, told the story of a No.10 who is just as happy to take as he is to make.

Position: Winger

  • The widest attacking player
  • Takes on opposition defenders
  • Provides crosses into the box
  • Meets crosses from the opposite wing
  • Often the fastest player on the field

Bundesliga archetype: Jadon Sancho

Sancho may only be 19, but he is already the ultimate modern-day winger. Recent years have seen the rise of overlapping full-backs expected to put crosses in from wide areas. Wingers naturally became inverted – right-footers on the left and vice versa – with that particular task of old taken off their hands. Yet Sancho is right-footed, and 22 of his 26 Bundesliga starts last term came on Dortmund’s right wing.

Sancho’s speed of control, skill, trickery and decision-making are such that it doesn’t matter. He can outpace his opposition full-back and whip in a cross for a grateful centre-forward almost at will, but the fact he can also trick his way back inside leaves his defender guessing the whole time. Sancho’s 14 league assists last season were more than Messi managed for Barcelona, and he also helped himself to 12 goals with his willingness to break into the box without the ball as well as with it.

Position: False 9

  • Starts up front near the opposition goal
  • Replaces the traditional striker in most formations
  • Drops deep to pull opposition defenders out of position
  • Often a converted midfielder
  • Dribbles and creates chances

Bundesliga archetype: Mario Götze

Maracana Stadium, Rio de Janeiro, 13 July 2014, 5.43pm local time: “Show the world you are better than Messi and decide the World Cup” – Germany coach Joachim Löw to a 22-year-old Mario Götze…

Maracana, Rio, 13 July 2014, 6.08pm local time: Götze, having replaced Miroslav Klose, steers home Andre Schürrle’s cross with an exquisite volley to lift Die Mannschaft to a fourth World Cup at Argentina’s expense.

The way Götze ghosted in between Martin Demichelis and Ezequiel Garay made him impossible to pick up. The centre-backs knew who was marking Klose, a natural striker, and when, all game. When Götze came on, he drifted between the lines of Argentina’s defence and midfield. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. In a few short seconds, Argentina were floored.

Metabolic troubles had threatened to derail Götze’s career in recent seasons, but he was back to something approaching his best last term, with his seven goals and seven assists coming in at a rate of every 120 minutes he played. On his day, nobody is capable of a sucker punch quite like Götze.

Position: Forward

  • Plays between midfield and attack
  • Assists the striker in scoring goals
  • Elusive and difficult to mark
  • More versatile than the target-man
  • Vision, technical skill and creativity

Bundesliga archetype: Thomas Müller

To describe Müller as an archetype of any position might seem, on initial inspection, to be doing him down. The self-titled Raumdeuter, Müller’s style has been leaving pundits – and indeed defenders – perplexed for years.

However, his coaches and teammates know better. Of the above list, it is only technical skill that the Bayern icon allegedly lacks. And even then, Müller’s awkward gait belies an ability to control the ball that few can match. No ordinary player could bag 10 goals across two World Cups, while 110 Bundesliga strikes and 124 assists tell their own story.

Position: Striker

  • Closest player to the opponent’s goal
  • Responsible for scoring goals
  • Holds the ball up until teammates can join the attack
  • Harries opposition defenders
  • Physically strong

Bundesliga archetype: Robert Lewandowski

A reference in his position, Lewandowski was accountable for a barely fathomable 0.94 goals per game he played in all competitions for Bayern and Poland last season, the latter of which he also captains. Only Paris Saint-Germain and France forward Kylian Mbappe had a higher ranking in this regard across Europe’s five major leagues, and even that needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Germany outranked France by 13,429 points in the latest UEFA country coefficients, the result of the perceived strength of the Bundesliga versus Ligue 1. Mbappe’s France are also the world champions, rated second in the latest FIFA World Rankings, in which Poland were 19th. With harder opposition at home and weaker teammates internationally, Lewandowski’s 40 goals and 11 assists is an incredible haul.

Twelve of his goals were game-winners, 28 percent were headers, 15 percent left-footers, 57 percent right-footers, while and he hasn’t missed three consecutive games through injury in his entire nine seasons in Germany. As relentless as he is complete, Lewy remains one of the very best in the business.

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