Soccer Numbering Systems: A Guide To The Positions & Their Responsibilities

The number on the back of a shirt of a soccer player’s shirt is more than just a squad number.

Certain numbers hold prestige while others are defined by an organizational position. Learning what the numbers mean for a player’s position and responsibilities is important for coaches, fans, and players.

Soccer Numbering Systems: A Guide To The Positions & Their Responsibilities

In this guide, we will look at the positions related to soccer numbering, the prestige of certain numbers, the history of squad numbering, and how they are applied.

The Positions Related To Soccer Numbering

There are eleven positions to be filled in a soccer team so a team should run from 1 to 11 from back to up-front. The most obvious number should be the goalkeeper which will be number 1.

The next four numbers are traditionally for a back four defense and include the right full-back at number 2 and number 3 being the left full-back.

The two center-backs are then numbered any two from 4, 5 and 6 which seems simple enough.

Into midfield, the right midfielder can be one of the most creative players on the field and the number 7 is one of the most iconic numbers on the back of a shirt.

On the opposite side of the pitch, the number 11 is given to the left-midfielder. 

Filling in from the center midfield are usually numbers 4, 6 and 8. Then there are the two players furthest upfield who are your striker, the number 9, and the other center-forward, the number 10. 

This numbering system is for one of the most traditional formations, the 4-4-2 system. Based on four defenders, four midfielders, and two players up-front, it is quite a rigid tactical system and each player should know where they are supposed to be found on the field. 

The Prestige Of Certain Squad Numbers 

There are squad numbers that certainly mean more than just a simple position. The number on the back of a shirt can hold prestige and signify creative freedom for players that wear it.

This is largely based on the previous wearers of that squad number and many franchises have a special association with certain numbers.

For instance, the wearers of Manchester United’s number 7 shirt have been some of the most iconic players to ever play the beautiful game.

Arguably their greatest ever footballer wore the number 7 shirt throughout the Sixties and that was George Best.

In 1968, he wore the number 7 as Manchester United won their first European Cup at Wembley then won the prestigious Ballon d’Or that year for being judged as the best soccer player in Europe. 

Eric Cantona wore the number 7 as he became the team’s creative lynchpin as the team dominated the early years of the Premier League.

Once he retired, the shirt number was passed on to David Beckham who became a global superstar into the Noughties. 

The next wearer of the number 7 shirt for Manchester United was another player who could go down as one of the all-time GOAT’s, Cristiano Ronaldo.

For six years, Ronaldo spearheaded the franchise’s success in the Premier League and the Champions League.

Upon leaving for Real Madrid, he had gone from being a virtual unknown to being one of the most recognized footballers on the planet.

When he returned to Manchester United, he again took on the number 7 shirt. 

Certain squad numbers are recognized in world football for the players that have worn the shirt throughout the years.

Whoever wears Argentina’s number 10 shirt has a legacy to behold that has been passed down from Diego Maradona, through to Lionel Messi. 

The shirt can also weigh down on a footballer due to the expectations that come with those who wore it before.

In between Maradona and Messi are the likes of Juan Román Riquelme, Pablo Aimar, Ariel Ortega, and Carlos Tevez who struggled to live up to those comparative heights when playing for Argentina as their number 10.    

The History Of Squad Numbers

There was a time when the back of a soccer player’s shirt was laid bare. The actual numbering of a soccer player’s shirt was devised to help with the structure of a tactical formation.

Players were given squad numbers so they knew their responsibilities and where they were supposed to play on the pitch.

This began in 1928 when the Arsenal manager, Herbert Chapman, gave out the numbers to help structure his team’s tactical formation. 

There were still eleven players on the pitch but the tactical formation was dramatically different back then.

If you imagine the formation of a soccer team to be a pyramid with more defenders at the bottom leading to a focal point up-front, you can invert that pyramid for teams in the early 1900s.

Back then, many defenses only had two players and it took until the Fifties for a defense to feature three or more defenders. 

Chapman’s legacy of squad numbering still lives on when you think of the pyramid with more up-front than at the back.

While full-backs do play an advanced role these days, back then they were the original center backs, hence the numbers 2 and 3.

The numbers 4, 5, and 6 were still towards the back of the team yet these were known as half-backs as they were in the lower half of the pitch.

Number 4 would be the right half-back, 5 would be the center half-back and number 6 would be the left half-back.

As tactics developed, the players with squad numbers 4, 5, and 6 would drop further back and join numbers 2 and 3 in defense.

The left and right full-backs were then pushed into wider positions which are how we imagine them in current teams. 

For a traditional back-four defense, you could guarantee that the numbers 2 and 3 would feature on the right and left sides of defense respectively.

However, the two numbers in between could shift and you can imagine a number 4 or 6 is more of a holding midfielder than a defender.

The number 5 is traditionally the center-half who has dropped back from their once more-advanced center half-back position to slot into defense.

You can easily find a number 4 or 6 being a defender or a midfield though it does depend on the responsibilities of that player and how defensively-minded they are.  

Different Tactical Formations And How The Squad Numbers Apply

Different Tactical Formations And How The Squad Numbers Apply

The 4-4-2

The 4-4-2 is one of the most traditional tactical formations which is still used to this day.

While players’ responsibilities may have changed, the formation still seems relatively rigid when it comes to the squad numbering.

The defense will run from 3, 5, 4, or 6, and 2 from left to right. In midfield, you can expect 11, 6, or 4, 8, and 7 from left to right. Up-front will be your numbers 9 and 10. 

The 5-3-2

In a 5-3-2 formation, you can either have a defensively-minded team or one keen to attack.

That versatility depends on the full-backs and whether they are further up the pitch to provide the width from midfield or drop back with their three center-backs.

The two up-front will still be your numbers 9 and 10 while the midfield will be occupied by 7 and 11 through the extra midfielder could have a number ranging from 4, 5, 6, all the way to number 8. 

The 4-3-3

This modern formation calls for a central striker to be accompanied by a narrow attack which usually means that they are joined by any two from numbers 7, 8, 10, and 11.

The midfield can then be comprised of a three from numbers such as 4, 5, 6, 8, 7, and 11. The defense is usually made up of a four from numbers 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6. 

The Positions Associated With Soccer Numbers

Some squad numbers need no introduction while others need a bit more explanation. 

1 – The Goalkeeper

The first number is likely one of the most important positions in the field. Your goalkeeper simply has to wear number 1 as it is a mandatory requirement in FIFA tournaments.

With that number comes some special responsibilities as it is only the goalkeeper that can hold or touch the ball with their hands or arm while the ball is in play. 

This is only in their eighteen-yard box during play as outside that area those guarantees are gone and they would be penalized for handling the ball, just as any other player would. 

The goalkeeper also has to wear a different colored kit than the outfield players and referee to define their responsibilities.

This is important for the officiating as it helps the referee and assistant referees to see the goalkeeper and appreciate that they are the only player allowed to handle the ball inside the eighteen-yard box. 

The goalkeeper can also wear additional padding to offer some more protection when they are flying across their goal making crucial saves.

For that ball-handling purpose, goalkeepers are also allowed to wear special gloves for gripping the ball. 

Responsibilities 

A goalkeeper’s job is to ensure that the opposition team does not score a goal. By being able to use their hands and arms too, they can use their entire body to prevent the ball from entering the goal.

When the opposition plays the ball over the end-line, the goalkeeper is responsible for taking the goal-kicks to restart the play. 

With a largely unobstructed view of the whole field and as the final line of defense, the goalkeeper is also responsible for organizing the team and the positioning of outfield players, primarily the defense by shouting out instructions from their eighteen-yard box.   

In modern teams, you could also see a ‘sweeper keeper’ at work. This is an updated responsibility that allows the goalkeeper to play a more advanced role to patrol the eighteen-year area and beyond.

Instead of the center-backs dealing with through-passes from the opposition, the goalkeeper can sweep it up instead. One such example is Manuel Neuer who is not only a great shot-stopper but is also adept with the ball at his feet.

2 – Right Full-Back And 3 – Left Full-Back

You should expect the right and left full-backs to occupy both sides of the defensive line.

They are usually set up against the opposing wide midfielder with the right full-back coming up against the left wide-midfielder and the left full-back will come up against the right wide-midfielder.

The full-backs will also be responsible for marking a wide forward depending on the formation of the opposing team. 

The position of a right and left full-back may change depending on the formation that the team plays. In a 4-4-2 system, you can expect them to remain in line with the two other center-backs. 

However, in a 3-5-2 system, the full-backs should be higher up the pitch ahead of their three center-backs as they effectively play in midfield as wing-backs.

In this advanced position further up the pitch, you can expect the numbers 2 and 3 to perform a more attacking role rather than have as many defensive duties. 

Two of the most renowned full-backs in world football at the moment are Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold at Liverpool.

On the right, Alexander-Arnold is so adept at striking the ball that he can deliver assists from a deep position or set pieces such as free kicks or corner kicks. 

On the left-hand side, Robertson is an energetic full-back who provides overlapping options to deliver dangerous crosses.

Both are typically recording over ten assists a season which is comparable to a lot of midfielders. 

Their Responsibilities 

The full-backs have a range of responsibilities due to their wide defensive positioning. As well as taking care of a wide forward and/or opposing wide midfielder, they also provide crucial cover for their midfielders and central defenders. 

While the full-backs may be required to stick to the edge of the defensive line, they can also drop in to cover when a teammate is out of position.

A full-back can also assist when the opposition is overloading on their side of the defensive line.

The responsibility of a full-back has also evolved to include offensive duties too. They could provide overlapping support to their wide midfielder to deliver crosses into the penalty box.

These offensive responsibilities largely depend on the athletic ability of the player and the tactical instructions they are given. 

The modern full-backs are often found occupying their entire flank of the field.

That means defending when their team is out of position and then running up the field to provide offensive support when their team is in position. 

You could also expect a modern full-back to be adept at recovery runs when tracking back and also tenacious, physical, and very quick.

When coming up against an opposing wide forward or wide midfielder, they have to be strong to ensure it proves difficult to get past them.  

The evolution of the modern full-back can be seen in Brazil. When the country won the World Cup in 1970, the fourth goal in the final against Italy came from Carlos Alberto who was the team’s attacking right full-back.

Into the Noughties, it was not strange to see the Brazilian left full-back, Roberto Carlos to be taking free kicks or Cafu to be providing crosses from the right. 

4 And 5 Or 5 And 6 Center-Backs/Or 4, 5, And 6 Center-Backs

The Center-Backs are typically in a pairing though they can also be three of them in a 3-5-2 formation.

At the center of defense, they play a vital role in protecting the goal from opposition attacks.

That could mean dealing with aerial bombardment and clearing the ball with their head from crosses.

For that, they should be able to jump high and also be physical to keep opposition attackers at bay to prevent them from shooting at goal. 

While their defensive duties are of prime importance, the center-backs were typically supposed to prevent the opposition from scoring. However, a modern center-back is expected to do more than just that. 

By building from the back, a center-back is usually the one to perform the first pass after receiving the ball from the goalkeeper.

That first pass can set the tone for the team and set off an attack so more emphasis is on a ball-playing center-back who is comfortable in possession.

What you may often see in a center-back partnership is one center-back to be the ballplayer and the other to be more defensively minded.

The ball-playing center-back is usually quicker and more agile to provide cover for his defensive partner while the second center-back is more dominant on the physical side of the game. 

One such modern partnership that could be seen between Barcelona and Spain was that Carlos Puyol would be the gritty, determined center-back that allowed Gerard Pique to perform more ball-playing duties and also recover the ball behind Puyol. 

Their Responsibilities 

By defending their goal, the center-backs may be able to stop an opposition attacker by blocking shots and heading the ball away.

They should be able to mark an opposition attacker to nullify their threat and intercept passes.

Should they be faced by an opposition attacker, they should be able to tackle cleanly to remove the ball and recover possession.

Modern center-backs were seen to be more ball-playing and skillful in possession of the ball.

This is where the build from the back philosophy has come to the fore so having center-backs with the abilities to break the lines and find a midfielder with the ball is vital.

Their attacking threat is also from set-pieces as they are so strong in the air and have a formidable heading ability.   

Before the offside rule was adapted, the central center-back could also be expected to play a ‘sweeper’ role, also known as ‘libero’ who was a free man in defense.

This is where a center-back drops further behind the defensive line to effectively sweep up any opposition attacks as a final line of defense. That means performing crucial tackles, vital interceptions, and heading the ball away.

4 And 6 Or 6 And 8 – Central Midfielders

In the middle of the pitch, you should find the central midfielders. As they occupy such a vital area, you can expect them to fulfill defensive and offensive duties.

They have to be quick on their feet to receive the ball and then distribute it effectively.

Central midfielders are also key to gaining back possession of the ball by heading it to a teammate or cleanly tackling an opposition player.

One such effective pairing was Xavi and Andres Iniesta for Barcelona and Spain who could control and dictate play from the middle of the pitch.

Both had almost a telepathic understanding of when to press the opposition and how to pass through them. 

It could be said that Xavi was the more defensive partner who was able to conduct the game via a holding role.

Iniesta would perform a more attacking role by dribbling pass opposition players and offloading the ball further up the pitch. 

Their Responsibilities

In a pairing, you could expect one central midfielder to be the creative one in tandem with a more aggressive, defensive partner.

The central midfielders should be great at winning back possession but also effective at keeping the ball by displaying technical skill and passing ability. 

Defensive Central Midfielder

It is usually a more defensive midfielder who takes on the number 4 or 8. This is the player that sits in front of the defensive line to make crucial tackles on opposition players before they reach the defensive line. 

They are occasionally known as ‘hatchet men’ for their tendency to bring an opposition player down higher up the pitch before they get the chance to advance to a more dangerous position. 

Good examples of this type of defensively-minded central midfielder include Claude Makelele for France and Real Madrid, Graeme Souness for Liverpool and Scotland, as well as Roy Keane for Manchester United and the Republic of Ireland. 

The defensive central midfielder tends to be more aggressive to cover the ground and patrol the middle of the pitch. They can be vital for organizing the rest of the team and typically cover more ground through their hard work. 

The likes of Makelele, Souness, and Keane are rarely found out of position and perform a disciplined role to break up play through hard tackling and great reading of the game.

Box To Box Central Midfielder

A central midfielder that can get your team goals and boost an attack is well sought after.

By overloading an opposition defense, a box-to-box central midfielder can make a late run and bamboozle a defense. 

These players are adept at most sides of the game making them incredibly versatile.

They can pass the ball in tight spaces, provide assists, tackle, and score goals while remaining capable of covering the length of the pitch when required.

These ‘all rounders’ must be able to perform in various areas of the field, mainly through the middle where they can do the most damage.

These players became hot property from the Eighties into the Noughties and were required to have great stamina for lung-busting runs to drag opposition players out of position. 

This ability to carry the ball also creates additional space for other players to exploit and helps unsettle a defense.

Some examples of these players include Paul Scholes for Manchester United and England, Frank Lampard of Chelsea and England, as well as N’golo Kante for Chelsea and France.

7 – Right-Sided Midfielder And 11 – Left-Sided Midfielder

In a football match, a lot of a team’s creativity can come from wide areas. That can be delivered by the full-backs yet those wearing numbers 7 and 11 play a hugely significant role. 

By occupying the touchline, the wingers can stretch a defensive line and create dangerous situations for the opposition.

By dribbling the ball with their feet, they can provoke the opposition to provide another player to deal with the threat which opens up more space to exploit. 

A winger typically relies on their ability to beat their opponent either by directly dribbling past them or crossing the ball beyond them.

Wingers tend to be excellent crossers and passes of the ball so they can find their fellow players in dangerous, goal-scoring positions. 

This may be by delivering a through pass or by crossing the ball into the area as an assist. Those wearing numbers 7 and 11 tend to be highly creative and have a tremendous vision to create chances. 

You can expect your left-sided winger to be left-footed and wear number 11, that leaves your right-sided winger to be right-footed and wear number 7.

Being comfortable on their strong foot means being able to whip the ball around defenders for a cross or dribbling past a defender on the outside.

This creativity usually means that a winger can provide tens of goals and assists from their ability to create chances and score them themselves.

When a team is on the attack, it is typical to find a winger in the box as they attempt to get on the end of a cross from the opposite winger.

In the modern game, you can also find ‘inverted wingers’ who play on the opposite side to where you would expect them to play.

For instance, a right-footed winger could play on the left side of midfield and vice versa.

Good examples of this type of footballer are Marcus Rashford for Manchester United and England who can cut in from the left to shoot on his right foot then Riyad Mahrez for Manchester City and Algeria who can use his left foot from the right-wing.

As more play is conducted through the middle of the pitch, you can expect these wingers to drift in to link up play rather than play wide.   

You can expect to find ‘inverted wingers’ playing for clubs that employ a 4-3-3 formation.

The width still comes from these wide players yet they are increasingly more attack-minded.

They can supplement attacks by arriving in the box or shooting from a distance while their ability to dribble past players in the middle of the field makes them highly dangerous.

Their Responsibilities 

As well as supplying the ammunition for strikers to score goals, a winger must also perform some defensive duties too.

This should include tracking back and ensuring that an opposition full-back cannot deliver crosses or passes past them which could lead to a goal.

You may expect your winger to work with your full-back to ensure that the team can defend from wide areas too. 

9 – The Striker

The number 9 has a certain prestige in football, largely due to scoring the most goals.

Certain luminaries to wear the shirt include prolific goalscorers such as the English striker, Alan Shearer, the Argentinian striker, Gabriel Batistuta, and the Polish striker, Robert Lewandowski.

All of them were adept at putting the ball in the back of the net which is one of the hardest things to do in football. 

Those who wear number 9 tend to be physically dominant as they will be required to hold the ball upfront and keep possession in a dangerous area of the pitch.

With their back to goal, the striker can link up with a teammate or turn a defender to take a shot at goal.

Another number 9’s can be clever and make runs in behind defenders to get a clear run on goal.

Strikers typically target men so a winger must be able to find them when putting in a cross. 

Responsibilities 

As with many different positions in the modern game, you can expect your striker to perform various roles for the team.

They can also be increasingly creative and set up goals, as well as score them themselves.

The likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sir Bobby Charlton were able to strike the ball from distance but also set up a teammate for a goal too. 

10 – The Center-Forward Or Second Striker

The number 10 has a vital role to link play between midfield and upfront.

They are expected to score goals themselves and also assist the striker who may be better placed to score.

By playing between the lines of the opposition’s midfield and defense, they can create space for attacking midfielders and the striker thus performing a creative role for the team.

In formations such as 4-4-2 or 4-1-2-1-2, you could find your number 10 dropping back closer to midfield to allow an attacking midfielder to run past them.

This could make them increasingly effective and able to dominate the game with their passing and dribbling ability.

Certain players that fit that description were found in the Nineties and include the Frenchman, Zinedine Zidane, and the Italian, Roberto Baggio. 

Responsibilities 

If you can imagine that the striker remains upfront for any chance that might fall their way, the number 10 typically provides the penetrating play.

That could be dribbling past a player before offloading the ball or providing a through ball to the striker.

With that creativity in mind, you could find your number 10 in midfield or even as an attacking midfielder.

An excellent first touch and a creative brain to play with vision mean that they can drop down the field and still prove influential. 

Final Thoughts

While the modern game has meant that certain positions on the field are fluid and interchangeable, the squad numbering still helps to define those positions.

A goalkeeper will be number 1, your striker will be the number 9 and you can expect your full-backs to wear numbers 2 and 3.

It is in midfield where you may see some more versatility as number 7’s can be devastating from the middle of the pitch while it is not uncommon to see a number 4, 5, or 6 in midfield or defense. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Who Can I Expect To See Wearing Number 4 In Soccer?

As a low number, you can expect a number 4 to be more defensively-minded. This typically means that they are a center-back though they can also be a central defensive midfielder. 

What Position Does A Number 6 Typically Play In Soccer?

Similar to a number 4, a number 6 should be more defensively-minded. This should mean that they either play in the defensive line or just in front of it.

If in midfield, they are typically a holding midfielder to perform tackles and interceptions in front of the defense.