As you watch more and more soccer or rise in age groups and divisions, you might often here positions being referred to as numbers rather than their names. You might also realize that there’s a pattern when most professional teams assign jersey numbers to various players.
That’s because often times jersey numbers are assigned to players based on their position. This is not set in stone, and has become a little less of the norm in more recent times.
When you hear a coach or commentator referring to a number in soccer, they are traditionally referring to the stereotypical position that that person is playing. It usually has no correlation to the number on the back of that player’s jersey.
Confused yet? If you’re new to watching or playing soccer, it is a bit backwards, but this concept dates back to the 1920’s when the player’s number corresponded to where they needed to be on the field.
When you hear a player being referred to as “the Number 10”, this means that they are acting in the position of the playmaker on the field, either as a second striker or attacking midfielder.
Likewise, if you hear a commentator referencing “a prototypical #9”, it is typically in reference to a goal scoring center forward.
Here is the breakdown of numbers often associated with soccer positions, along with some examples of players and teams and how they line up.
The goalkeeper is found at the back of every team, tending to the goal. It is the only position on the field where they can legally use her or his hands while on the field (as long as they are in the 18-yd box. This position is often granted the No. 1 at the back of their jersey since they are the first attacker on the field.
Quite often one of the leaders on the pitch, it is fitting that the Goalie is often the #1 on the team. Many goalkeepers end up as the Captain of their team, such as Hugo Lloris with both his club team Tottenham Hotspur and his country France.
Depending of course on the formation being played, the types of positions in the back will change — there can be a sweeper-stopper formation, a flat-back four or even a flat three. Every team is different because of their formation. However, normally, numbers 2, 3, 4, and 5 are often granted to the defenders.
The best defenders in the world have traditionally worn these numbers, although modern defenders have expanded the number range for what they wear.
Sweepers and Stoppers are a little less popular in today’s modern football game, but still employed frequently at a youth and collegiate level.
Depending on the formation being used, these positions normally are assigned these numbers. The sweeper is the last player on the defensive line before the goalkeeper. This position is generally assigned number 4. They have to be very reliable, loud, and a great defender.
The stopper is the position that sits in front of the sweeper—as a sort of crossing transition between defense and midfield. They hold the middle, organize the midfield, and still are highly responsible for their defensive duties. This position is generally assigned number 5.
When playing a flat-back four, all four defenders are in a line across the field. The two center backs that hold the middle of the four are generally assigned numbers 4 and 5.
A flat-back four is a very common formation today, with a slight modification for the two outside defenders to act as pseudo-wingers at times, joining in to support the attack. These defenders must be strong on their feet, stopping opposing attacks without error.
As an outside back, you have to be fast—both on offense and defense. In today’s soccer, fullbacks often have to sprint the whole length of the field at times, getting up into the attack.
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Just as before, the midfielders numbers also depend on the formation that the team is playing. Here we’ll talk about the traditional number assignments to the various midfield positions.
Normally, the six is the player that stays most defensive when playing with various center midfielders on the field. Often times referred to as a holding midfielder, their job consists of linking the defenders with the front line midfielders and strikers.
If you’re playing in a triangle formation, then the number 6 is at the back of the triangle, with two midfielders situated higher up the pitch.
If you’re playing with two in the back of the triangle, then the number 8 will also be with the number 6. This is more common when playing with 4 players in the midfield, or when a stronger defensive front is needed by a team.
Holding midfielders have to be strong defensive players with great ball control skills. They also have to be good ball distributors or good passers and receivers.
This position is held by a variety of different superstars out there. The legendary number 10 usually can be found as an attacking center mid (however, is often reserved for the superstar of the team). The list of famous number 10’s is lengthy, including greats such as Messi, Zidane, Maradona, and Ronaldinho.
The role of an attacking center mid is that they are more generally focused on shooting, assisting, and getting into goal-scoring opportunities. However, they still have to be defensive and contribute to their defensive partners.
A player playing as an attacking center mid has to have a great vision on the field, high amount of ball control, and has great technique.
In today’s modern soccer game, the #10 can act as an attacking midfielder or as a second striker. In essence, the #10 has come to embody the team’s most prolific and creative scorer. The #10 almost supersedes any position, and is more reserved nowadays for the biggest goal scoring threat a team has.
A winger will be the player who you normally see sprinting up and down the field, playing crosses across the field and working hard on both the offensive and defensive sides of things.
Physically speaking, players in this position are usually in peak fitness and are able to make runs forward while almost immediately getting back to help on defense. The modern winger will stay little higher up on the pitch than a more traditional outside midfielder.
Normally, the forward is often reserved the number 9 on a team. Traditionally speaking, the number 9 on a team is the goal scorer, the striker, the one that attacks the goal by any means.
However, as we’ve alluded to several times in this article, you shouldn’t be surprised if you’ve also seen a forward as a number 10 or 11 as well. Breaking the trend even further is Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the best forwards to play, who wears the number 7.
When playing in most formations, you’ll come to find that teams play with a sole forward up top. This center forward is often characterized as a goal-hungry player, always willing to do whatever it takes to get the ball in the back of the net.
Center forwards have to be extremely comfortable and effective playing with their back to goal. They will often receive the ball all alone up front, and be required to create opportunities on their own.
This style of center forward also needs to be good in the air with their head, able to pick a cross out and head it into goal.
The center forward is considered as one of the “first defenders” on the team and are also responsible for putting the opposite team under pressure. This might consist of being the first player on their team that makes the opposition shift sides with the ball, disrupting the flow of play.
The entire team’s defensive strategy can rely solely on what the center forward does when the opposing team’s defense has the ball.
These are completely goal-centered players. While one may think that they have a bit of a defensive side (as all players should), they are normally way too concentrated on scoring that most other players on the team don’t mind, as long as they get it done.
The players in this position should be extremely fast, agile on the ball, willing to take defenders on 1v1, are unpredictable, and should be hungry for goals.
As opposed to a number 9, the number 10/11 might have more freedom and flexibility to move all over the pitch in search of space. It isn’t uncommon to see this style of forward playing in a 2-up formation, where 2 forwards are being utilized.
From the first player on offense to the first on defense, we hope that this guide for soccer players’ positions based on their numbers have helped you get familiar with the nicknames that come along with each player’s roles on the pitch.