To get a sense of the tactics involved in football, you’ll need to understand the various positions on the pitch and the specifics of certain areas. Having a playmaker or a holding midfielder can dramatically influence a particular team’s style of play, so clue yourself up:
Permitted to handle the ball in his/her team’s penalty area, but also uses skills like punching to prevent the other team scoring. Identifiable by a uniquely coloured jersey.
- Lev Yashin (Russia)
- Peter Schmeichel (Denmark)
- Gianluigi Buffon (Italy)
- Gordon Banks (England)
Starting out on the edge of his/her team’s penalty area, the central defender’s role is to protect the goalkeeper and, by implication, the goal. There are typically two central defenders in a team, but some formations utilise three.
Notable central defenders
The sweeper or libero (meaning ‘free’) is an exceptional position which is seen irregularly today. The role of the sweeper is basically to act as an all-purpose defender who responds to any breach of the defensive line. As the last line of defence, he also initiates counter-attacks by bringing the ball out of the penalty area, thus necessitating some of the skills of the midfielder like passing, close control and dribbling.
Special mention must be made of Franz Beckenbauer. ‘Der Kaiser’ was captain of the World Cup winning West German side in 1974 and is today widely credited as the inventor of the sweeper position.
- Franz Beckenbauer (Germany)
- Franco Baresi (Italy)
Although basically holding the same starting position, on the left and right of each central defenders respectively, the difference between the fullback and the wingback is the latter’s willingness to move forward and support attacks. This is achieved either by running with the ball or ‘overlapping’ the winger (running ahead) to add width to an attack. However, both positions necessitate strong defensive skills and the coaches Fabio Capello and Jose Mourinho have been proponents in the modern era of strictly defensive full-backs.
- Cafu (Brazil)
- Roberto Carlos (Brazil)
- Javier Zanetti (Argentina)
- Gianluca Zambrotta (Italy)
Situated in arguably the most important area of the field, the central midfielder’s task is to provide support to both defenders and attacks. Such is the complexity of the position, it can be split into sub-categories which indicate unique defensive or offensive responsibilities:
Defensive midfielder/Holding midfielder
The defensive midfielder sits just behind the centre circle and is primarily required to break down opposition attacks and augment the defense. However, because he is often in possession of the ball when the opponent has committed players to an attack, the defensive midfielder also initiates his team’s own attacks.
Notable defensive midfielders
- Gilberto Silva (Brazil)
- Dunga (Brazil)
- Claude Makélélé (France)
The playmaker can be found in the same area as the defensive midfielder but this is to enable better protection for the player himself, whose role is to influence his side’s attacking game. Comparable to a sweeper in midfield, the playmaker takes advantage of the extra support to spray passes up to the attackers and instigate quick offense.
A typical benchmark for the position is Spain’s Josep Guardiola, credited for developing the modern conception of a ‘playmaker’ as part of Johan Cruyff’s famous ‘Dream Team’ Barcelona side in the early-1990s.
- Josep Guardiola (Spain)
- Andrea Pirlo (Italy)
- Cesc Fabregas (Spain)
- Xabi Alonso (Spain)
Roy Keane & Patrick Vieira
’Box to box’ midfielder
A true all-rounder, the ‘box to box’ midfielder is so called because he plays his football at both ends of the field, literally filling in everywhere. Usually in possession of exceptional stamina with remarkable defensive and offensive skills, the position is typically associated with the Premiership, where most of the great modern players have flourished.
Notable ‘box to box’ midfielders
- Patrick Vieira (France)
- Roy Keane (Republic of Ireland)
- Steven Gerrard (England)
Attacking midfielder/‘Hole’ player
The attacking midfielder is situated in the space between the midfield and the strikers, directly influencing the attack high up in the field. Attacking midfielders are often called on to fill in as forwards due to their potency in front of goal.
Vital to the development of the ‘hole’ player was the impact of Pelé, considered by many to be the greatest player in the history of the game. From a forward position and as an attacking midfielder, he scored an incredible 1087 goals in 1120 games for the Brazilian side Santos and 77 goals in 92 games for the national side (in the process leading Brazil to two World Cup victories in 1962 and 1970 respectively).
Notable attacking midfielders
Like their defensive equivalents, there are two wingers in a side, starting on both touchlines alongside the central midfielders. Their tasks include pressurising the opposition fullbacks, attacking from wide positions and providing crosses into the box. However, as the position has developed, wingers have increasingly been called on to score goals, as they have the chance to run from deep positions and cause problems for defenders. The result has been the erosion of the old style of wingers like Stanley Matthews, who hugged the touchline, and an explosion of wingers who play much of their football closer to the centre of the pitch.
The goal of the striker is exactly that; goals. Forward players start out just behind the opponent’s penalty area, with the number varying from one to three. However, there are subtle differences in the style of striker:
The target man plays his football in the penalty area and acts as a focal point for attacks. They are typically good ‘poachers’ (meaning they are opportunistic) and headers of the ball, but rely on chances made by the midfield.
Notable target men
Withdrawn striker/Deep-lying forward
Much like the offside rule, the withdrawn striker is one of the hardest things to explain yet also one of the most important, being the position of some of the greatest players in football history. It is roughly defined as a forward player with both goalscoring and creative abilities, often tending towards the latter. Popularised by Ferenc Puskás, the creative hub of the great Hungary side in the 1940s and 1950s, it gained further repute due to Diego Maradona (indeed, the term ‘Number Ten’ to define this position refers to Maradona’s shirt number for Argentina). Such is the peculiarity of the position that the chosen tag differs from country to country, being known as the trequartista in Italy, the ‘Number Ten’ in South America and the ‘9 and a half’ in France. However, most of the greatest teams in the game have revolved around this type of player.
Notable withdrawn strikers
- Pelé (Brazil)
- Diego Maradona (Argentina)
- Ferenc Puskás (Hungary)
- Johan Cruyff (Netherlands)
- Dennis Bergkamp (Netherlands)
- Roberto Baggio (Italy)
N.B. Pelé also played as a striker for Brazil and Santos.