This website assumes a basic understanding of established football positions and roles – if not, this summary should help provide an introduction.
However, it also uses terms that may be less familiar. Many of these are foreign phrases because, in the same way English football has traditionally lagged behind the rest of Europe tactically, it also lacks the the wide range of tactical phrases used in other countries. Many of these are Italian; where there are, for example, four or five phrases for different types of players that the English would group as ‘forwards’ – see here and here for more detailed explanations. Similarly, English lacks any equivalent of the term ‘carilleros’, the wider players in a diamond midfield, so it is often useful to venture into Italian or Spanish to precisely describe players and positions.
These are all original definitions. Many are a matter of debate, and the foreign terms may be poor translations – so the comments section is open.
Literally ’shuttlers’, this refers to the two widest players in a diamond midfield, inbetween a holding midfielder and an attacking playmaker.
A frequent mistake is to refer to any type of defensive play as catenaccio. In fact, the word applies to a specific defensive system, made famous by Helenio Herrera’s Inter side of the 1960s, where a very defensive sweeper plays behind a four defenders using a man-marking system. It has become a byword for simply defensive tactics, particularly from Italian sides, but this use is incorrect. The closest we’ve seen to it in recent years is the Greek side of Euro 2004.
Originally used to describe the central midfield player in the dominant 2-3-5 shape of the 1950s. It is now occasionally used as a synonym for ‘centre-back’ in Britain. On this site, the term is used to refer to a centre-back being played in a holding midfield role. Edmilson was often fielded here for Barcelona, as was Carsten Ramelow for Bayer Leverkusen.
Refers to a system featuring four defenders, three central midfielders, two advanced playmakers, and a central striker, resembling…well, a Christmas Tree.
Rarely used here, but is a South American term that is vaguely the equivalent of the Italian trequartista.
A unconventional lone striker, who drops deep into midfield. Francesco Totti perhaps invented it for Roma in 2006/7, Lionel Messi played here when he swapped positions with Samuel Eto’o for Barcelona in 2008/09, and Robin van Persie played the role for Arsenal at the start of the 2009/10 season.
A relatively deep-lying midfield player whose game is based around passing. Examples would include Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Maniche, Miguel Veloso, Ruben Baraja or Mikel Arteta.
Similar to a ‘holding midfielder’, yet perhaps not quite as deep as someone in the ‘Makelele role’, and certainly not as deep as this site’s definition of a ‘centre half’. Rino Gatusso would be a good example – someone who is very defensive-minded in the centre of midfield, yet is more of an all-action player than a simple holding midfielder.
A player deployed on the wing who doesn’t really belong there. This could occssionally be a central midfield player who has been shafted out to the wing (Steven Gerrard when forced to play on the left for England), or, more often, a player who generally plays as a seconda punta who has been dropped into a wide position – like Dirk Kuyt for Liverpool, although they would generally be more of a creative outlet than Kuyt.
Neuf et demi
Used here to refer to a particular type of player, rather than a specific role on the pitch. Literally ‘nine and a half’ if you know basic French, he is neither purely a goalpoacher or purely a creator. Raul, perhaps.
Outside left or outside right
Originally used to refer to the wide formation in a 2-3-5 formation, the term died out when teams begun to play 4-4-2, and the wide players were midfielders. Now, with many sides playing a three-man attack with two widemen supporting a central striker, it is fair to call the wide players ‘outside left’ and ‘outside right’ again.
The out-and-out striker. Often a poacher such as Filippo Inzaghi, sometimes a target man just as Luca Toni. Their main job is to score goals, and they are often technically limited elsewhere on the pitch.
The Italian term for a playmaker – often a deep-lying one like Andrea Pirlo.
The second striker – one who plays alongside a central striker or targetman, but is comfortable dropping deep, or to the wing. Alessandro del Piero, fielded alongside David Trezeguet, is a seconda punta.
The spare man at the back, almost always in a three-man defence when up against two centre-forwards. It is perhaps misleading when formations are drawn up and the sweeper is always noted as being behind the two centre-backs, for equally he can be stationed in front of them, and often brings the ball out of defence to create attacks from deep. The point is not that his starting position is necessarily deeper than the two centre-backs (for he would be playing any opposition forwards onside) but that he is ‘free’ (ie he does not have specific man-marking responsibilities) to cover for any mistakes by the centre-backs. With the dominance of one-striker formations in modern football, it could be argued that one of the centre-backs in a four-man defence is redundant in terms of marking responsibilities, and instead becomes a sweeper.
Not a foreign attempt to say ‘tactics’ (nor a type of mint), this phrase was used to describe the intricate passing game played by Spain, particularly by their midfielders, during their Euro 2008 win. It relies on good passing ability from numerous outfield players in order to keep possession.
Used to describe a player such as Roberto Baggio or Gianfranco Zola, who played centrally, between the opposition’s defence and attack.
The unit of three forwards in a 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 formation. The trio can take any shape, from a wide tridente featuring two wingers, or a central formation that could be interpreted as a 4-3-1-2.
Can refer to any position, but used to describe a player whose main attribute is pace. Often a winger or a full-back. Theo Walcott would be an example.
Only used here to describe wide defenders when used in conjunction with a three-man defence. Never used to refer to attacking full-backs in a four-man defence, apart from in the rare ocassions the side is flexible and uses a centre-half to drop into the defence when in possession, giving the full-backs the license to push up into midfield, to become wing-backs.
A zone has never scored a goal. Apparently.