A head coach is responsible for deciding the tactics of their team in football, and it comes down to the philosophy of the individual – as well as the ethos of the club and the quality of its players – to determine whether they will play a cosmopolitan style or rather more conservatively. Within those tactics are the players’ starting positions, which can be fluid in nature but give the individual an idea of where they need to be both in the attacking and defensive phases of play.
When you see a teamsheet published or hear pundits on TV or radio describing how a team will set up, often you will hear them discuss the various positions available out on the pitch with abbreviations used to denote each in turn. Those can be confusing for newcomers to the sport, so to help keep you in the picture here’s a guide to the most common positions in football and the abbreviations used to describe them.
GK – Goalkeeper
We get underway with a nice easy one: the goalkeeper, or GK, who is the only player on a football pitch allowed to handle the ball. The keeper has the sole responsibility of keeping the ball out of his or her net, using feats of agility and hand-eye coordination to keep opposition shots at bay.
Increasingly these days, a goalkeeper is asked to perform more of a role in helping to build up play from the back, either by receiving the ball from defenders under pressure or, in the style of Manchester City GK Ederson, by launching outstanding long-range passes to attacking colleagues in the final third of the pitch.
FB – Full Back
Teams that field a four-defender formation such as 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 will typically line up with full backs. These defenders sit on the outside of their nearest centre back, and their basic function is to mark and tackle opposition wide players to prevent them from getting crosses into the penalty area or cutting inside and shooting.
Often, a full back will tuck in when the ball is on the opposite side of the pitch to them, providing addition support to the central defenders in commanding the all-important 18-yard box. Some full backs will have an attacking brief too – typically to provide width by hugging the touchline and making overlapping runs. But tactical innovators like Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp also use ‘inverted’ full backs; that is, players who will move into a more central role when their team is in possession.
RB – Right Back
A right back is simply the right-sided full back. Examples include Kyle Walker, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Dani Carvajal.
LB – Left Back
Likewise, LB stands for left back – the full back that sits the furthest left of his team’s defensive line. From swashbuckling left backs like Roberto Carlos to more defence-minded operators like Paolo Maldini, there are many different ways to perform the role with great success.
WB – Wing Back
In three and five defender formations like 3-4-3 and 5-3-2, a wing back will almost exclusively provide width for his team in both a defensive and attacking sense. With so many bodies in the centre of the pitch in these formations, the wing back will simply shuttle up and down the touchline to provide a passing outlet and to prevent opposition attacks from progressing in wide areas.
They need to be incredibly fit to get up and down the line and versatile too, switching from defence to attack and vice versa in the blink of an eye. You may see granular abbreviations used too – RWB would be the right wing back and LWB the same position on the left-hand side of the pitch.
CB – Centre Back
The centre back was, historically, a big old bruiser who would be willing to put his body on the line for the team. The role is, in modern football, rather more nuanced than that. The CB is still the last line of defence for his team, so he or she needs to have good positional sense and anticipation to sniff out opposition danger.
Historically, although not always, centre backs are tall and physically commanding too, as they are tasked with winning headers and from preventing the striker they are marking from dominating proceedings. There’s different types of centre backs, from the sweeper to the ball playing defender, but for the most part the CB is simply a defender that stays central and attempts to prevent the opposition from scoring.
DM – Defensive Midfielder
Depending on which country you were brought up in, defensive midfielders have either been around for decades or are a relatively new position on the football pitch. A key component of the ‘total football’ style used in the Netherlands in the 1970s, as well as the more defisneivly-resilient catenaccio strategy deployed in Italy, the defensive midfielder basically as a screen for the centre backs behind them. They are tasked with putting in tackles, making interceptions and ensuring a side is not left exposed to quick counter attacks.
Like many roles in modern football, the defensive midfielder often requires more technical ability these days, acting as a link between defence and midfield with quickness of thought, a reliable first touch and an ability to play speedy, accurate passes. When you hear phrases like ‘pivot’, ‘number six’ and ‘holding’ midfielder used in tactical discourse, these are each referring to the humble DM.
CM – Central Midfielder
There are a number of different central midfield roles – from the box-to-box merchant and the ‘number eight’ to the wider ‘mezzala’ instruction popular in Mediterranean countries like Italy and Spain, but the variations can all be categorised as central midfielders.
Some of the most technically proficient footballers in history, from Paul Scholes and Andres Iniesta to Zinedine Zidane and Ruud Gullit, have been deployed as a central midfielder – albeit with differing individual instructions for each.
AM – Attacking Midfielder
An attacking midfielder has less of a defensive responsibility to his team and is instead tasked with creating goalscoring chances for his colleagues instead. Typically referred to as a playmaker or number ten, the AM will receive the ball from deep and act as a link with his fellow forwards, while being required to get into the penalty area and chip in with his or her fair share of goals too.
WM – Wide Midfielder
In formations such as a 4-4-2, a wide midfielder – operating from the left or right – will provide most of the attacking width, with an order to run at their marker and deliver dangerous crosses into the opposition box. A right (RM) or left midfielder (LM) will generally have more of a defensive function than the next position on this list: the winger.
RW – Right Winger
A right winger, deployed in a formation such as 4-3-3, will be one of the main creative outlets in their team – albeit from wide areas. They generally don’t have to work too hard defensively, and will instead look to get the better of the opposition’s left back and create opportunities for his fellow attacking players. When the ball is on the left-hand side of the pitch, the right winger may be asked to make internal runs to attack the penalty area in anticipation of crosses being delivered.
LW – Left Winger
The left winger mirrors the function of the right winger, as explained above, on the other side of the pitch.
ST – Striker
English football has been blessed with some magnificent strikers over the years, from 1966 World Cup hat-trick hero, Geoff Hurst to the likes of Gary Lineker, Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane. Each is a different type of player, but their primary aim is the same: to provide the main goalscoring threat for their team. Some strikers are very rarely involved in their team’s build-up play and instead sit on the shoulder of the opposition defence, waiting to sniff out a chance to score.
Others, like former Liverpool striker, Roberto Firmino, dropped deeper into space to allow other players to flood forward into the space left behind. Although the unique roles of each striker are different, for the most part this is the player that stays highest up the pitch for their team and in central areas.