Soccer positions explained

While goalkeepers traditionally wear the No.1 jersey, strikers the No.9, modern soccer players may line up with almost any number on their back, as well as interpreting the various positions in a plethora of ways.
While goalkeepers traditionally wear the No.1 jersey, strikers the No.9, modern soccer players may line up with almost any number on their back, as well as interpreting the various positions in a plethora of ways.

Football, soccer, the beautiful game… it’s estimated that more than 250 million people play the sport in some capacity worldwide, but who is doing what, and where, when the 22 players take to the field? From Manuel Neuer to Robert Lewandowski, via the likes of Jude Bellingham and Christopher Nkunku, the German top flight has boasted some of the best players in the world in their positions. bundesliga.com takes a closer look…

Position: Goalkeeper

Bundesliga archetype: Manuel Neuer

Arguably the best goalkeeper ever to play the game, Neuer has the shot-stopping ability of any who have gone before him, but if sweeper-keepers – players as good with their feet as with their hands – are now the most in-demand operators in the position, then soccer has Neuer to thank.

Colombian cult hero Rene Higuita used to try and beat opposition forwards in the 1990s, not always successfully. Today, Brazilian pair Alisson and Ederson win plaudits for – and trophies with – their distribution out from the back. Neuer found the golden mean years ago; racing off his line to clear the danger as Germany won the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The Bayern Munich captain will beat a forward with the ball at his feet if he has to, but he’d rather find a teammate with a laser-sighted pass.

As for good old-fashioned shot-stopping: The 36-year-old has more clean sheets than any other keeper in German top-flight history after surpassing the 204-shutout best of club and country predecessor, Oliver Kahn. In more than a DECADE in the Bundesliga, Neuer has picked up 10 league titles, six DFB Cups, and two UEFA Champions Leagues on the way.

Watch: The Bundesliga, home of the world's best goalkeeper(s)

Position: Full-back

Bundesliga archetype: Benjamin Pavard

Honed primarily as a centre-back at first Lille and latterly VfB Stuttgart, Pavard has the requisite grit and reading of the game to play through the middle, but those same skills make him the perfect full-back for teams who prefer to leave the attacking onus on midfielders playing in front of the defence.

Pavard won 209 challenges across 25 Bundesliga appearances in 2021/22, at an average of more than eight successful challenges per game. While Pavard's game is founded on a rock-solid defence, that’s not to say the Frenchman can’t join in the attack with some aplomb when called upon.

A World Cup winner with France – from right-back – in the summer of 2018, Pavard scored the goal of the tournament as Les Bleus beat Lionel Messi’s Argentina 4-3 in the last 16, with an unstoppable curling volley from the edge of the opposition box. He began 2022/23 in fine fashion, too, as the scoreboard read "Pavard" in both Bayern's German Supercup victory over RB Leipzig and their Matchday 1 league win against Eintracht Frankfurt. Once football's most unfashionable position, full-backs are now some of the most skilled players in the game.

Benjamin Pavard scored the goal of the tournament for France against Argentina at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, but he normally prefers keeping chances out.

Position: Wing-back

Bundesliga archetype: Alphonso Davies

If there's anyone that puts the "wing" in "wing-back", it's Canada superstar Davies. Bayern's Road Runner started life as an out-and-out winger when he burst onto the scene with the Vancouver Whitecaps in Major League Soccer, before finding his feet further back at Bayern.

Davies first moved into a left wing-back position during the 2019/20 season as Bayern dealt with an injury-crisis that saw Lucas Hernandez ruled out for large parts and David Alaba repurposed in a central defensive position. It proved the making of Davies and he has flourished in the role ever since, collecting four Bundesliga trophies, two DFB Cup glories, a well as UEFA Champions League and Super Cup winners' medals.

One of the fastest players ever seen in the Bundesliga, topping out at 22.69 mph, Davies' pace means he moves from touchline to touchline at a rapid rate. It allows him to cover defensive space and track oppositions wingers quicker than most players on the planet, as well as rapidly join Bayern attacks when they overturn possession.

Watch: Star Attraction - Alphonso Davies

Position: Centre-back (stopper)

Bundesliga archetype: Niklas Süle

At 6’5”-tall but with a top speed of 21.6 miles per hour, Süle is the quintessential modern-day centre back: tall enough to both head danger clear and cause havoc in the opposition box; but fast enough to quash attempted passes to flying forwards should opponents elect to try through-balls instead of lofted crosses.

Still only 27, Süle’s numbers are already barely believable. He has five German league titles to his name and has won the DFB Cup twice, as well as become both European and world champion during his time at Bayern.

The Germany international moved to rivals Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2022, where he has been paired with fellow centre-back prototype, Nico Schlotterbeck. The defensive duo can break and make play better than almost anybody in the game and should partner each other for club and country for a long time to come.

In the air or on the ground, there's not much getting past Borussia Dortmund and Germany duo Niklas Süle (l.) and Nico Schlotterbeck (r.).

Position: Centre-back (sweeper)

Bundesliga archetype: Makoto Hasebe

Hasebe won the Bundesliga as a midfielder with Wolfsburg in 2009, but now, well over 10 years on, he has used some of the skills honed in the position to become perhaps the best example of a sweeper the league has had to offer in recent years. The former Japan captain may now be in his final season as a professional - at the ripe old age of 38 - but if he has lost a yard of pace in his legs, he more than makes up for it with his speed of thought.

Eintracht Frankfurt made history by lifting the 2021/22 UEFA Europa League trophy and their success was built on a Urawa Red Diamond-crafted bedrock. Hasebe captained five of Frankfurt's six group matches, marshalling his troops from the sweeper role at the base of a defensive back-three. He also saw them over the line in the final, coming on as a 58th-minute substitute before lasting over an hour in the side's dramatic penalty shootout glory.

While Hasebe highlights the ball-playing nature of the position, teammate Evan N'Dicka offers an example of a more mobile version in the role where his pace allows N'Dicka to cover space in behind his fellow defenders operating in more traditional starting positions.

Watch: Hasebe, Frankfurt's humble bedrock

Position: Centre-back (quarter-back)

Bundesliga archetype: Mats Hummels

Equal parts stopper and sweeper, Hummels and former long-time Bayern and Germany counterpart, Jerome Boateng, redefined the central defensive role on approaching their collective peaks around the 2010 mark. Having initially made the move from Bayern to Dortmund in 2008, and back again in 2016, Hummels returned to the Signal Iduna Park three years later having played a critical role in keeping BVB at bay during his final season in Bavaria.

Invariably operating from left centre-back, the right-footer span the ball to a teammate with a heat-seeking 92 percent of his passes during a remarkable 2018/19 campaign, even though he attempted some 118 long balls. The man who goes by Aussenrist - German for the outside of your foot - teed up 15 shots on the opposition goal that term, one of which was scored. Tom Brady eat your heart out.

Quarter-back Mats Hummels can be regularly found launching balls forward from Borussia Dortmund's defence.

Position: Defensive midfielder (ball-winner)

Bundesliga archetype: Wataru Endo

The playing careers of Roy Keane, Edgar Davids and Gennaro Gattuso were beginning to fade from the collective footballing memory – the rise of deep lying playmakers largely responsible – but the battling, ball-winning midfielder will always have a place on the pitch, and in the Bundesliga, Stuttgart skipper Endo leads the charge.

Most will actually remember Endo for his goal that kept VfB in the top-flight on a dramatic final day of the 2021/22 campaign, but it was his industry in midfield that kept them afloat that season. The Japan international won more duels (448) than any other player in the league that year, with his tenacity at the fore each and every time he stepped onto the pitch.

Once Endo won the ball back, he kept it the majority of the time - as highlighted in his 85 percent pass completion rate. That is something so essential for a ball-winner to be able to regain, retain and recycle possession for their team.

Watch: Wataru Endo's dramatic winner that kept Stuttgart up

Position: Defensive midfielder (deep-lying playmaker)

Bundesliga archetype: Joshua Kimmich

Kimmich was once the archetypal full-back, before then becoming the pin-up for wing-backs and he is now the central midfielder that represents the very top of the position's measuring sticks. In doing so, he has followed the legendary Philipp Lahm by making the incredibly successful transition from right-sided defender to midfield lynchpin.

Although he may not be as much of a string-puller as another former teammate, Thiago, the ex-Leipzig man is Bayern's midfield metronome and the man that the majority of their football passes through. And his creativity is there for all to see in the form of double figure assist returns in four of the past five seasons.

His head is on a constant swivel and his distribution is unerring - whether it be simple passes out of tight situations, defence-splitting long balls or pinpoint set-pieces. Kimmich's history in defence provides an added steel to his game, while the stamina that served him so well out wide means he can get up and down the pitch without breaking a sweat. When you throw all of that into the mix, you have on your hands one of the most complete midfielders on the planet.

Watch: Joshua Kimmich's Bundesliga Mixtape!

Position: Box-to-box midfielder

Bundesliga archetype: Jude Bellingham

Dortmund and England star, Bellingham, is another player that seemingly has it all and, like Kimmich, can play as a No.6 in a deep-lying role or as a No.8 in a more advanced position. It's in the latter, as a box-to-box midfielder, that Bellingham truly excels, with his seemingly endless engine taking him and his side from one end of the pitch to the other with breath-taking ease.

The 2021/22 campaign served as an excellent example of Bellingham's lung-busting efforts from the middle of the park. He ranked third in the league for most intensive runs (2,626) and fourth for most sprints (917), while covering more ground (207.4 miles) than any other Dortmund player that season. Bellingham's all-action, relentless brand of football also resulted in the teenager winning 433 challenges, which was the third-most of the entire division.

A box-to-box midfielder must combine that energy and love of the battle with contributions in attack, too, and Bellingham certainly does that. He registered eight assists in 2021/22 - behind only Marco Reus (12) for BVB - and also contributed three league goals from midfield. His 11 goal contributions made it Bellingham's most deadly professional campaign of the Englishman's career so far.

Watch: Jude Bellingham: the complete midfielder

Position: Wide midfielder

Bundesliga archetype: David Raum

Raum's career has rocketed the southpaw from Bundesliga 2 breakout with Greuther Fürth to full Germany international at Hoffenheim and now title-hopeful as RB Leipzig's flying left-sider. The 24-year-old first showcased his attacking prowess on the overlap by delivering a league-high 15 assists in Fürth's 2020/21 promotion, before contributing 11 provisions - and three league goals - in his top-flight debut with TSG the following year.

Just four players collected more assists league-wide in 2021/22 as Raum's marauding was rewarded with full Germany honours. His 188 crosses were more than any other Bundesliga player produced that term, while his 1,063 sprints also topped the charts and the 221.3 miles of turf he covered ranked fourth in the division. Going up and down that Hoffenheim flank to such great effect then tempted Leipzig to make their move for the player, with the similarly-minded wing-back-cum-left-midfielder, Angelino, heading in the opposite direction.

Position: Attacking midfielder

Bundesliga archetype: Marco Reus 

The classical No.10 was a string-pulling midfielder, typically with technique dripping from every pore, playing in the hole behind his team’s central striker. They didn’t always have to be the fastest – who can run quicker than the ball can move anyway? – imagination and creativity were key.

Former Real Madrid player and coach Zinedine Zidane wore the number on his jersey in steering France to their maiden World Cup triumph in 1998, while young German stars Jamal Musiala and Florian Wirtz are modern spins on what is a position for football's artists.

Somewhere amongst the old and new school interpretations of the No.10, is Dortmund captain Reus, who may occupy a similar starting position to Zidane the player, Musiala and Wirtz, but he is just as likely to send himself flying forward to join the attack as he is the ball.

The results speak for themselves. Reus still plays slick through-balls – his 12 assists last season were no accident – but his nine league goals also told the story of a No.10 who is just as happy to take as he is to make.

Watch: All of Reus' goals and assists in 2021/22

Position: Winger

Bundesliga archetype: Kingsley Coman

Bayern's tricky Frenchman is the poster boy for wingers in Germany's top flight, where he can be found hugging touchlines up and down the country. Coman can operate from both flanks and gets as high and wide as possible in order to either cut inside his full-back - think Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery for Bayern of old - or, more traditionally, beat him on the outside and deliver crosses from the white paint of the pitch.

Two assists and a goal from his first start of the 2022/23 campaign - in a 7-0 destruction of Bochum - was evidence of Coman's potency from out wide. And that is no flash in the pan; Coman has won 10 successive league titles since lifting the 2012/13 Ligue 1 trophy with Paris Saint-Germain and done so in three different countries having been crowned champion of Italy with Juventus in 2014/15 before clinching seven successive Bundesliga crowns since joining Bayern the following year.

Coman also scored the winner in the 2019/20 Champions League final - against old club PSG, no less - with another classic piece of wing play. From his starting position on the left-side of Bayern's attack, Coman drifted behind his marker to meet Kimmich's ball from the opposite flank and head home a famous goal.

Watch: A cut-inside and find the top-corner beauty from Coman

Position: False 9

Bundesliga archetype: Mario Götze

Maracana Stadium, Rio de Janeiro, 13 July 2014, 5.43pm local time: “Show the world you are better than Messi and decide the World Cup” – Germany coach Joachim Löw to a 22-year-old Mario Götze…

Maracana, Rio, 13 July 2014, 6.08pm local time: Götze, having replaced Miroslav Klose, steers home Andre Schürrle’s cross with an exquisite volley to lift Germany to a fourth World Cup at Argentina’s expense.

The way Götze ghosted in between Martin Demichelis and Ezequiel Garay made him impossible to pick up. The centre-backs knew who was marking Klose, a natural striker, and when, all game. When Götze came on, he drifted between the lines of Argentina’s defence and midfield. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. In a few short seconds, Argentina were floored.

Metabolic troubles had threatened to derail Götze’s career in recent seasons, but he's now back in the Bundesliga with Eintracht Frankfurt, looking a player reborn. On his day, nobody is capable of a sucker punch quite like Götze.

Germany World Cup winner Mario Götze (c.) might not have found so much space between Argentina's centre-backs had he started in a natural No.9 position.

Position: Raumdeuter

Bundesliga archetype: Thomas Müller

To previously describe Müller as an archetype of any position would do him down, but the Germany international has created one all for himself. Typically, the self-titled Raumdeuter - or space interpreter/ instigator/ invader - best describes his role on the pitch best himself.

“I don’t enjoy being classed as a striker, I don't see myself as one,” he said previously. "I like to be active in the space in behind the opposition’s midfield. That’s where I can hurt the opponent most of all. I’m a mix between a striker and a midfielder. I’m a Raumdeuter. It’s about instinct.”

Müller’s style has been leaving pundits – and indeed defenders – perplexed for years. Technical skill and flair may be the only things the Bayern icon allegedly lacks and, even then, Müller’s awkward gait belies an ability to control the ball that few can match. No ordinary player could bag 10 goals across his first two World Cups, while 100 Germany caps, two Champions League wins and a career Bundesliga goal involvement over 300 that has delivered a record 11 Bundesliga trophies tells its own story.

"Look at all this space!" - Bayern Munich forward Thomas Müller is perhaps the most elusive player in world football.

Position: Forward

Bundesliga archetype: Christopher Nkunku

Originally a central midfielder, then a winger and No.10, Nkunku has found a devastating formula as a forward for Leipzig. He is now a fully fledged France international and his 25 league goals across 2022 was the most of any player in the Bundesliga. He was behind just out-and-out centre-forwards Robert Lewandowski, Patrik Schick and Erling Haaland on the list for the 2021/22 campaign and, unlike his peers, Nkunku has retained all the creativity that served him well in midfield since moving further up the pitch.

The Leipzig man contributed 13 assists in 2021/22, a number only bettered by regular Assist King, Müller. Those incredible returns in front of goal saw Nkunku claim Player of the Season honours and he is now one of the most devastating front-men in football.

Another master of the position, with a bit more practice in the role, is Bayern superstar Sadio Mane who arrived in the Bundesliga in the summer of 2022. The Senegal international has made the position his own for a number of years and Bundesliga fans now get to see two of the best in the business in action each and every weekend.

Watch: Christopher Nkunku, RB Leipzig's superstar

Position: Striker

Bundesliga archetype: Robert Lewandowski

A reference in his position, Lewandowski made history in the Bundesliga with first Dortmund and then Bayern. After settling in with what would become a meagre eight goals in his first campaign, the Polish striker's numbers exploded with hauls of 22, 24 and 20 before his move to Bayern. Lewandowski then took his game to another level in Munich, with season tallies of 17, 30, 30, 29, 22, 34, 41 and 35 leaving him on 312 goals from 384 appearances.

It places him second on the Bundesliga's all-time scoring chart, 53 short of the record held by Gerd Müller - himself once the defining figure for centre-forwards around the world - but he departs with plenty of his own, including his 41-goal return in 2020/21 that set a stunning new single-season benchmark. Then there's the seven Torjägerkanone (a record held together with Müller), an unprecedented five consecutive top-scorer crowns, the most goals by a non-German in the league’s history, 10 Meisterschale (the most earned by a player at more than one club), and four Guinness World Records.

No-one quite does it like Lewy, who became a generational No.9 during his 12-year stay in Germany's top-flight. Like Müller before him, Lewandowski re-set the bar for strikers to follow. The problem is, he may well have left it out of anyone else's reach.

Watch: All 312 Lewandowski goals in the Bundesliga

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