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Soccer Primer Pt 2: Positions and Formations

Inside we take a look at the different positions and the different formations, particularly the ones that Clemson will use and face in the 2014 season.

Photo by Rex Brown, IPTAY Media

In part two of this soccer primer series, we offer an explanation of the different positions and their roles, as well as an explanation of the formations that Clemson is likely to use and play against.

Goalkeeper (GK):

This one doesn’t need much explaining. Goalkeepers protect the goal and are the only players that can use their hands. Goalies need to have a big wingspan, catlike reflexes, and a willingness to risk their bodies and put themselves in harms way. For example, a goalie on a team I was playing for had to slide out into a 50/50 challenge with an opponent. He took a cleat to the head and ended up needing to go to the hospital to get staples.

Defender (LB, CB, RB):

The defender position is subdivided into the positions of center back and fullback. The center backs are generally some of the biggest and strongest players on the field. They need strength and size to win the ball when it is in the air on crosses, free kicks, and corner kicks. They also play a vital role offensively when their team has an attacking corner or free kick. John Brooks, a center back, scored the winning goal against Ghana from a corner kick. But don’t think that CBs are all brawn and no brain. They need to be constantly alert to any threats. They make sure that the back line keeps its shape and shifts as one unit.

The leftmost and rightmost defenders are the fullbacks aka the left fullback or left back (LB) and the right back (RB). Fullbacks are smaller but faster than center backs. They need the speed to get forward on overlapping runs and to track back and cover opposing wingers. They need to have good on ball skills to be competent attacking options. Often times, they will get the ball on an overlapping run, beat the defender to the end line, and cross the ball. This clip is a good example. You can see the Brazilian midfielder receive the ball and the red defender steps to him. At the same time the fullback, Maicon, makes an overlapping run. He receives the ball, gets to the end line, and actually scores. Attacking fullbacks are very important to modern soccer because they provide yet another problem for the defense to deal with. Fullbacks that make attacking runs force opposing wingers to track back and help out defensively. In fact, some of the better-known fullbacks are better going forward than they are defensively.

Midfielder (LM, CM, RM):

The midfielder position can be divided into center mids (CM) and wingers (LM, RM). Wingers are usually the fastest players on the field and have excellent on-ball skills. They use their speed and technique to beat defenders in one-on-one situations. Once they beat the defender, they can cross from a wide position, or cut inside to shoot or pass. Wingers are also required to help out fullbacks defensively.

Center midfield is one of the most diverse positions on the field. Some center midfielders are known as box-to-box midfielders, which means that they play from eighteen yard box to eighteen yard box. They are the hardest workers on the team because they are called on both offensively and defensively. Some center mids play in a deeper role offensively. These deep laying play makers can best be compared to quarterbacks. Their touch and accuracy are their best attributes. The center mid position can further be divided into two specializations: center defensive mids (CDM) and center attacking mids (CAM). Depending on the formation, they can either be just classifications or unique positions. These two roles are more specialized than the ones mentioned above. CDMs helped to shield the defenders through physicality and intercepting passes. CAMs are generally the best playmakers on a team. They wear the coveted #10 shirt and the offense runs through them. They have tremendous technical ability and flair.

Forward (CF, ST):

Score, score, and then score some more. The job of a forward is to score goals but different forwards do it in different ways. Forwards that are larger and more physical often times play with their back to goal in order to draw more offensive players into the play. These are targetmen. They also use their size to win balls in the air. Some forwards may not have the size or speed of other forwards but they use their nose for the goal to find anyway they can to score. It may not look pretty but they get results. These are poachers. Miroslav Klose, a poacher, is also the record holder for number of career World Cup goals. The average distance on his goals was only about 8 yards. Other forwards, mostly the ones that are more quick than strong, work best in tandem with another forward. These smaller forwards usually don’t play as high up the field as other forwards and are known as withdrawn forwards or false 9s. They are adept at finding pockets of space to exploit between defenders. False 9s are better with the ball at their feet than in the air because they are at a size disadvantage with most CBs. However, they have a speed and quickness advantage.

Now its time to look at some of the more popular formations, particularly ones that Tiger fans should expect to see this season.


4 Defenders, 4 Midfielders, and 2 forwards. This is one of the most common formations in soccer, even if it is not quite as popular at the professional level. It’s a solid formation, particularly defensively, but it can be lacking when it comes to scoring goals. The back four defenders, the back line, could get just stuck watching the forwards and midfielders attack. It is important that the fullbacks get forward to help provide offensive support or the team’s goal output could suffer. The CMs need to be able to work well together and communicate who is helping in attack and who is holding. It is the job of the wingers to provide crosses into the box, as well as help out in defense. The forwards in this system work best in tandem with one another as a cohesive pair, preferably a targetman combined with a more withdrawn type of striker.



4-4-2 Diamond:

The difference between this formation and the regular 4-4-2 is the midfield. Rather than a flat line, which lacks a playmaker position, the midfield is in a diamond shape, with a CDM and a CAM. This formation is very narrow so it relies heavily on the fullbacks to provide width going forward in attack. It is also susceptible to opponents attacking on the wings since the midfielders are concentrated on the center. This formation is designed to go through the middle, specifically through the CAM, with the CMs and forwards linking up with each other in passing triangles.




4 defenders, 3 midfielders, 3 forwards. This formation is about attacking, possession, and putting the opponent in awkward situations. Barcelona used this formation brilliantly to terrorize Europe for the past few years. They would pass their opponents to death with simple, short passes, ordinary passes that they make look spectacular. This is comparable to the offense of the San Antonio Spurs with the precision and off-ball movement. And if you do somehow manage to win the ball back, the 3 forwards are perfectly positioned to turn you over in your own defensive third. When in attack, the 3 forwards are constantly switching with one another. They spread out as wide as possible to stretch the opponent’s backline, which creates room for simple through balls. While the 3 forwards can win the ball back in dangerous positions, the 3 midfielders are almost always going to be outnumbered in the midfield and can be in danger of being overrun by the opponent.




4 defenders, 2 CDM, 3 AM, 1 forward. This formation has become the default formation over the past few years, especially at the highest levels, and it is the formation that Clemson uses. This formation is very flexible, allowing for 8 in attack and 8 in defense. Clemson was very solid defensively with this system last year, allowing less than one goal per game.

Like in most formations in modern soccer, the fullbacks push forward. The CDMs provide a shield in front of the backline. One CDM is usually a destroyer-type, someone who intercepts the ball and destroys the enemy’s attack. The other is more of a passer, setting up the attack from a deep position. The CAM is the real playmaker in this formation, a classic #10. The wingers can provide width for crosses, or cut in to pass or shoot. These 5 midfielders can provide the team with the opportunity to crowd out an opponent and dominate the midfield, especially if the opponent is using a 4-3-3. The forward should be a strong target man, because he will be tasked with often playing with his back to goal and holding up the ball so he can bring the other players into the attack. One result of this formation is that often times the forward is more of a provider than a goal scorer. For example, Clemson's leading goal scorers this past season, Thomas McNamara (7), Ara Amirkhanian (6), Manolo Sanchez (5), all played in the midfield.



Many teams, especially at the professional level, can change formations on the fly when switching from offense to defense. Each team and coach can put their own unique spin on a formation so for example the 4-2-3-1 that Borussia Dortmund (German club) uses looks very different than the 4-2-3-1 that the Spanish National team uses.

These are also just some of the more basic formations. I don't really expect to face any lineups that use 3 or 5 defenders. In the next couple of articles, I'll get more Clemson specific with a season preview. I'll take a look at possible lineups, some of our opponents, and expectations for what should be a very talented Clemson squad. Feel free to share any constructive that you have.