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On Roles within Formations

A few weeks ago Graham wrote the excellent primer On Formations, but that was really just a primer to establish notation, the "bands" in which many teams play, and as well cover the simple states of the game. It was an introduction that in soccer formations are nuetral, but how they are used changes things.

Even a 5-4-1 can be an offensive formation if everyone pushes up, with a highline and wingbacks and three attacking midfielders. On this site I speak of the roles of players in a specific manner, but often it only makes sense to me.

Well, no longer.

Some of this is adapted from watching the game, from my thoughts on the game, my understanding of other games of posession, a little bit of FIFA'10 and just trying to discover how to write so that the readers will understand me. Most readers here are by now familiar with what I call Sigi's Arrow, or the 4-1-Diamond-1, or a 4-5-1 of types. But the roles available are quite fluid, even without discussing Total Football.

See the chart below for the most common roles.

Left Forward Center Forward Right Forward
Left Wing Withdrawn Forward Right Wing
Left Attacking Mid Center Attacking Mid Right Attacking Mid
Left Mid Center Mid Right Mid
Left Defensive Mid Center Defensive Mid Right Defensive Mid
Left Wingback UpBack/Libero Right Wingback
Left Back CenterBack CenterBack CenterBack Right Back

Now, it should be obvious that not all of those roles could be occupied at once. Several are almost never occupied. You will also note that I say Center Forward here, but that one could also be called a Target Forward (if they are typically a target of long balls and lofty crosses) or a Striker. Positionally these three are basically the same.

When I speak of the role of a player I am talking about the space they typically occupy in a given match as relates to the rest of their own team. The game is very fluid in nature, and so labeling this role does not mean that said player is always in said space, just that they typically are.

Withdrawn Forward (WF) v Center Attacking Midfielder (CAM)
It could be said that these two roles are quite similar and that's why I will try and clarify with them first. Also, Freddie Ljungberg has been used in both roles during his stay with Seattle, and if we were to chart his position on the field it would likely average the same general placement despite playing two types of games. As a Withdrawn Forward (also noted by some as a Second Striker and Offset Striker) the player plays with the ball at their feet in an effort to shoot. They use the Target Forward (CF, Striker) to help create space for their own runs. They tend not to be the target of the air game. Jaime Moreno and Omar Cummings are two good examples of the WF. Goals scorers that also put up good assist numbers.

The Center Attacking Mid has a very similar position relative to the rest of their teammates, but what they do with the ball changes. When the ball is at their feet they primarily look to pass. This leads many commentators to refer to someone in this role as a "pivot" or "advanced pivot" as in a majority of build-up situations a team will look for this player to change the flow of the game from left to right or forward. If soccer has a point guard it would be this player. Back in the 90s this wasCarlos Valderama, but now is Guillermo Barros Scheletto and Blanco. Except when those last two aren't doing that.

In many situations a team's most expensive talent has been a floater, a player who can do either role effectively and the coach let's that player stick one foot in either role in a given match. This is why you can sometimes see the same team listed as a 4-5-1, a 4-4-1-1 and a 4-4-2. DeRo, GBS, Blanco and Ljungberg all do this at times, and while it seems to take away from the clarity of the situation, it is also part of why they are great players.

The Wide Midfielders
Several different roles can be seen as wide midfielders. I will even go so far as to throw the Wingers of a 4-3-3 into this element as they are in some ways a variant of the midfield as well, though with less defensive responsibilities. From the chart above listed from most attacking to most defensive and only on the Left side - Left Wing, Left Attacking Midfielder, Left Mid, Left Defensive Mid.

Wing(er) - Whether Thierry Henry or Steve Zakuani, this player is both a goal scorer and an assist threat. They come in at the elbows with the ball at their feet attacking the goal or threading a pass to a teammate making a central or far post run. Often these passes are low, aimed at the feet of the player for a one touch goal scoring opportunity. Whether the role is occupied by a nominal Forward or Midfielder neither has great defensive responsibilities, mainly focusing on forward defense and stealing the ball in the attacking third.

Left/Right Attacking Mid - This role isn't seen too often, as a team needs two players capable of being Attacking Midfielders that both belong on the pitch at the same time. It will appear in certain variants of the 4-5-1, particularly the "Christmas Tree" or 4-3-2-1. Each player is like a CAM in nature. They don't provide width typically, but instead control lanes on either side of an imaginary centerline. A team using the LAM and RAM would need its fullbacks to get forward quite a bit in order to keep opposition fullbacks honest in defense.

Left/Right Mid - This is a box-to-box player who plays both ways. It is the difference in ways between a Steve Zakuani on the Left and those times when we saw Seb Le Toux or Roger Levesque on the Left. More defensive in orientation than the previous two wide roles, you often see this player as providing a lot of width in play, and they are well known for the booming cross. Dave ven den Bergh and David Beckham are probably the two clearest examples of this role. You don't necessarily need a fast player here, but as always speed helps.

Left/Right Defensive Mid - These paired roles show up in both 3-5-2 and 4-5-1 formations, so Seattle will almost never use them. But if you think back to the matches against DC United (particularly the Open Cup Final) you will note Rodney Wallace in this role. There are also times where a 4-4-2 can have two defensive mids when both wide players are nearly wingers, and the Sounders toyed a bit with having Alonso and Evans paired in defense like this. In any formation but the 3-5-2 that has two Defensive Mids you will find that the team using that style is playing to hold the current score as they lose offensive punch by having 7 of their 11 players behind the ball in almost all cases.

Fullbacks - WingBacks at Flat Backs
Graham kind of dissected this one already when talking about James Riley early in this site's history on SBN. He then adressed it again a bit in his discussion on the Offside Trap. So I don't need to say much except that the WingBack is more of an offensive threat (think Leo Gonzalez) where the plain Back (Zach Scott) is just a defender, likely better at executing the trap.

Central Defense
There are several roles that appear in the middle of the defense and they appear in both the midfield and along the backline. Some of these have grown more popular over time, and other take someone truly special to make it work.

Center Defensive Mid (CDM) - Any team playing a Diamond in the midfield likely does so in order to have a 5th defensive outfielder. This player provides an extra layer of defensive, counteracts the CAM, and sometimes makes second runs into the offensive third to provide depth in attack. Whether Osvaldo Alonso, or Kyle Beckerman, this is a player that stops the run of play by the opposition, or at the least slows down a break so that other midfielders can get back as well.

Libero (or UpBack) - I don't like to use non-English when talking soccer, because I have enough trouble with my own language. So I invented the word UpBack to represent a central defender that gets forward on occaission like the WingBacks. It is rare to see in the modern game and takes a truly special centerback that can get this done. If the CDM gets into the attack 20% of the time the Libero/UB does so only 10% of the time. Patrick Ianni did this a bit last year, and Jeff Parke seems to have done so last night against the Timbers.

Sweeper - I see this as a nearly dead role. One that is like adding a final backline behind the other CenterBacks. I guess if there were 3 or 5 defenders one may drop closer to the keeper, but this would lose the ability to execute the Trap. Sometimes the Sounders will use Hurtado in a kind of sweeping fashion during a long ball battle as Marshall goes up, Hurtado will then try to capture the second ball if Marshall doesn't get the first.

Central Midfielder/Box to Box Midfielder - While in the top leagues this "non-specialist" is disappearing, I think it is alive and well in Major League Soccer. Whether it is Brad Evans who does go from 18 to 18, Sharlie Joseph who goes from 18 to 6 or even Peter Vagenas who goes from 30 to 30 MLS needs and uses these players to control the pace of a match, to provide a presence within the middle layer and to give just a bit more scoring punch. The CM has to have strong tactical knowledge, good technical skills and a great understanding of the coach's system. It shouldn't be a surprise that the two players with the most experience on Sigi Schmid led teams are the ones that he uses in this role.


Hopefully that new table helps. As always ask questions if you have any. Also the tag "primer" has other introduction to soccer concepts, as well as intro to MLS concepts.

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