Author: Mills

One of the major debates in the soccer world over the last several decades, and arguably longer than that, has been about the value of possession. When soccer first emerged as a game more than 150 years ago those playing did so for fun in their spare time on empty land whose quality as a playing surface was inconsistent at best. Quite often fields would be muddy, uneven, and very difficult to play on. This led to a brand of soccer where the best way to score would be to kick it up the field to try and have it as close to the opponent’s goal as possible. The closer you were to the opponents goal, this line of thinking went, the likelier you were to score. This also lead to lots of goals coming from crossing the ball in the air from a player out wide to a large target forward in the middle (to learn more about wingers and strikers check out the Forwards position page.) A typical goal in this style of play might also come just from the goalie punting it as far forward as he could and the striker heading it in or holding the ball up and passing it out to the winger for a crossed goal as mentioned before. For a game ostensibly about playing the ball with your feet, this version of the game had very little “football” involved. As you might imagine, possession as a concept had very little focus in this way of thinking, with the emphasis more on getting the ball as far up the field as quickly as possible.

27th February 1937: Two Preston North End players leave the pitch at half-time covered in mud, during a match against Charlton Athletic at ‘The Valley’. (Photo by J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Gradually, as the game grew and players moved from amateurs to full professionals and the surfaces being played on increased in quality some coaches began experimenting with the idea of possession being something that can contribute to the team’s success. This newer line of thinking suggested that if you have the ball that opponent doesn’t and therefore it is nearly impossible for them to score. Instead of the goalie punting the ball aimlessly down the field, they might instead pass it to their center back, who could pass it to a midfielder who could pass it up to a forward, who might send it back to the midfielder if he did not have an open shot. This idea of “recycling the ball”, sending it back to your teammate instead of forcing a shot was due to a belive that more goals would come with a quality over quantity approach to shots on target. Ultimately, both styles, and a mix of styles depending on the situation, are still common today.

How a team defends plays a large role in the formation of their identity as a team. Do they play a highline (pushing their defenders high up the field to force the opposing team back) and try to quickly press and win the ball back? Or do they sit deep, absorb pressure in a bend but don’t break bunker like fashion? These are both viable options, and not the only options, available to a manager. How a team lines up defensively also plays a huge part in how they defend. If your formation has 5 defenders like a 5-3-2 you are going to defend differently than if you have 4 in a 4-4-2. To learn what those numbers mean check out the Formations page.

Most common defensive setups will have 4 defenders in what is called the “back line” this is the line of defenders in front of the goalie that must work as a unit to protect the goal. The center backs are the two interior players, described in the Defenders position page. They form the anchor around which the defense is built and quite often are the leaders of the defense since their central position allows them to best see the field and adjust their teammates according to how the other team is attacking. They are also quite often in charge of maintaining the line’s discipline. This means keeping their fellow defenders the same way up the field.

visual demonstration of an offside trap
Fulham’s Mitrovic is caught offside by an offside trap.

As you can see in the picture, the circled player (Mitrovic) is offside because he is closer to goal than the last defender (the player in red towards the bottom of the picture). If this player (his name is Andy Robinson) was a little slower getting back up to the line his fellow defenders were holding than Mitrovic would have not be ruled offside and the goal he would go on to score from this offside position would have counted. This is important because not only did his team not score here, the free kick awarded for the offside that Robinson’s quick return to the defensive line earned ultimately resulted in a goal less than a minute later as his team counterattacked quickly down the other end. To learn more about counterattacks you can check out the Possession Tactics page here.

Good defenders are able to read the game in front of them and react in such a way that they can position themselves to cut off or prevent passes before they are made. The legendary Italian defender Paolo Maldini once said “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.” However, very few defenders are as good as Mr. Maldini was so quite often tackles need to be made. A standing tackle is when a player uses his body to muscle a player of the ball. This can be done legally if the contact is shoulder to shoulder and does include a hip check, a push with the arm, or other uses of excessive force as covered in our infractions page. If a player has to stretch and catch a player than they might opt for a sliding tackle. This is legal as long as the player does not point the studs of their cleats at their opponent, they get the ball, and they don’t go through their opponent to get the ball. Otherwise the tackle might be considered reckless or dangerous and could warrant a card.

Formations are how teams distribute their players on a field. They are rarely a hard and fast rule but more like an organizational structure and guideline informing how they want to play. Formations have evolved quite a bit over time, from the now comically sounding 2-1-7 of the late 1800s to the more modern 4-3-3 or 4-4-2. How a team sets their team up can say a lot about how they wish to play. Here are a few modern formations and descriptions courtesy of Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Examples of Formations

The variety of formations is only limited by the number of players allowed on the pitch, so don’t be surprised to see a range of setups and strategies employed. The overarching responsibilities for each position on the field stay the same, but it is the ability to flow as a unit and show creativity that truly makes soccer a beautiful game.

There are defensive and offensive formations, and any given formation may be more or less successful, depending on the other team’s setup. You’ll notice that the number of players in a formation only adds up to 10. That’s because the formations only relate to field players and exclude the goalie.

Typically, these field players are broken out into three key zones, with the formation being set up from back to front (defense to midfield to forward). That means a 4-4-2 formation has four defensive players, four midfielders and two forwards.

Sometimes coaches will divide the three main sections further, causing formations such as a 1-4-3-2, with one sweeper, four defensive players, three mids and two forwards; or a 4-4-1-1, which has four defenders, four mids, one second striker and one striker.

U.S. Soccer tends to favor a 4-3-3 formation. Two common variations of the 4-3-3 formation are a defensive setup and an attack-minded setup, based on where the 8 lines up. Generally, the 8 is a box-to-box player, so this can rotate continually through the game to react to the run of play.


Another popular formation in soccer is the 4-4-2. This is commonly run with a diamond shape in the midfield but can also feature a flat midfield.


Keep in mind that these are just some common formations and there are several you may see or use in the game. Every coach has a different style and there are multiple ways they could choose to set up formations.

The following description of each position comes courtesy of Dick’s Sporting Goods. Each position also has a traditional number associated with it, and while players are no longer required to wear the number tied to the position they play and instead have permanent personal numbers, the positional number is still quite often used in the discussion fo tactics and formations. The traditional attacking numbers are:

9– Striker
10– Attacking Midfielder/Playmaker
11– Left Midfielder/Wingers

Offensive Soccer Positions

Forwards, or strikers, are the primary attackers and play closest to the opponent’s goal. Their main objective is to score as often as possible. They are usually the quickest on the field and must have exceptional ball control. They should be able to take a shot from all angles, even directly off a pass. It’s also important that any offensive player avoids being offside at any time.

  • 9 – Center Forward (CF): Center forwards and strikers can often be synonymous. They must focus on scoring, whether this means dribbling past opponents when they have the ball or ensuring they stay open for a pass when they don’t. Being able to head the ball accurately can really come in handy here.
  • 9 – Striker (S): This player positions themselves nearest to the other team’s goal, in front of the center forward. A striker’s primary role is to score. Their teammates will try to pass to them often and there is constant pressure from the other team’s defense, so they should be fast enough to outrun defenders and possess quick footwork and precise ball handling to be most effective. When the other team’s defense is in possession of the ball, strikers should apply pressure to increase the defender’s chances of making a mistake.
  • 10 – Second Striker (SS): When used, they sit right behind the center forward and are mainly responsible for setting up scoring opportunities for other attackers. They should be able to shield the ball from the other team and hold them off while waiting for their teammates to position themselves for a good shot. As with any offensive position, second strikers should shoot on goal when they have the chance and possess good ball skills. Heading can also be very important in this position.

The following description of each position comes courtesy of Dick’s Sporting Goods. Each position also has a traditional number associated with it, and while players are no longer required to wear the number tied to the position they play and instead have permanent personal numbers, the positional number is still quite often used in the discussion fo tactics and formations. The traditional midfielder numbers are:

6– Defending/Holding Midfielder
7– Right Midfielder/Winger
8– Central/Box-to-Box Midfielder

Midfield Soccer Positions

As you could probably guess, midfielders, or halfbacks, play mostly in the middle of the field. If the team’s working as a well-oiled machine, midfielders are the gears that connect the defensive and offensive lines, transitioning the ball and making sure everything is moving smoothly. Mids usually see the most action during a game.

  • 4 or 6 – Defensive Midfielder (DM): Also known as a holding midfielder, they play directly in front of the defenders. They are responsible for keeping the ball outside of their zone, intercepting the other team’s passes, getting the ball away from the opponent and helping their offensive line by keeping the ball in the other team’s zone, managing rebounds and passing forward. In a 3-4-3 formation, the 4 will flank the 6 as the two holding mids.
  • 8 – Central Midfielder (CM): Often considered the most hardworking role, this player has to be ready for action and can play both defensively and offensively, depending on where the ball is. They are responsible for distributing the ball to other players, so it’s vital that they have exceptional ball handling and passing skills. When on the attack, they often take long shots on goal to help the offense. To fit a team’s strategy, they will sometimes line up with the 6 in a more defensive position or with the 10 in a more offensive formation.
  • 10 – Attacking Midfielder (AM): The attacking midfielder sits between the midfield and the offensive line. They must know how to score goals and dribble well to avoid the opponent’s defenders. They should attack the ball when the other team is in possession and not hang back like other positions on the field. This position is often seen as the conductor in offensive plays, directing the ball and creating scoring opportunities. They are the playmakers.
  • 11/7 – Left/Right Midfielder (LM, RM): Also known as wingers or outside midfielders, these players will stay wide, helping pull the opponent’s defense to the outside to create space for their offensive line. They should have strong 1-vs.-1 skills as they’ll have to get around the other team’s left and right fullbacks and/or wingbacks. These players most likely won’t have the ball much during a game but will instead look for ways to transition the ball forward via cross passes to offensive teammates or by taking shots on goal themselves. They must hustle and have plenty of stamina to keep up with gameplay. Due to their role on the field, wingers are sometimes grouped into offensive or forward positions.

The following description of each position comes courtesy of Dick’s Sporting Goods. Each position also has a traditional number associated with it, and while players are no longer required to wear the number tied to the position they play and instead have permanent personal numbers, the positional number is still quite often used in the discussion fo tactics and formations. The traditional defensive numbers are:

1– Goalkeeper
2– Right Fullback
3– Left Fullback
4– Center Back
5– Center Back (or Sweeper, if used)

1 – Goalkeeper (GK): Usually the last line of defense to stop the opponent from scoring, this player protects the net. Also known as the keeper or goalie, this is the only player allowed to use their hands and arms to block shots and pick up the ball while the game’s in play. These special rules only apply in the designated penalty area. When a goalie steps outside their penalty box, they must function like a regular field player. Also, they cannot use their hands to play the ball if a teammate passes it directly to them during gameplay or off a throw-in.

Soccer goalies wear specialized soccer goalie gear, including gloves, and often opt for long sleeves for additional protection. They wear a different color jersey than the rest of the team, so everyone on the field can tell them apart from other positions (youth teams may use a pinnie to designate the goalie). They can also wear shorts and pants made specifically for the position.

Defenders/Backs: These are the field players closest to the net. They are responsible for protecting the goalie, blocking shots and stopping the other team’s offensive players from passing, receiving, shooting and scoring. More specifically, there can be center backs, fullbacks, wingbacks and one sweeper.

  • 4/5 – Center Back (CB): Also known as the central defender, center fullback or stopper, this position plays in the middle of the rear defensive line. A 4–4–2 formation will have two center backs, which will hang back to protect the goal.
  • 3/2 – Fullback (LB, RB): These are the rear defenders on the left and right sides of the field, also referred to as outside fullbacks. They usually play wide to protect the sides of the field, but they can also assist with protecting the center as needed. These players will often move up and down the field to help with offensive plays.
  • 3/2 – Wingback (LWB, RWB): This position defends like other defensive backs but is a more offensive position, like a winger. They play wide left and right, running up and down the field. This position requires a lot of stamina and can be more physically demanding than other positions.
  • 5 – Sweeper (SW): This position isn’t as common nowadays. When used, this player positions themselves between the goalie and the main defensive line. Their job is to sweep up any balls that get past the defensive backs. While they typically stay behind the other defenders, they can also help take the ball up the field in an offensive push.

The game of soccer is played over 90 minutes, dived into two 45 minute halves. Unlike many other sports, when a foul, injury, or other stoppage in play occurs the game clock does not stop. Instead the referee keep track of how much time has elapsed during the “stoppage” in play and then they add it on to the end of that half. For example, if an injured player requires attention on the field for 3 minutes before play can resume the referee would announce shortly before the end of the half that there would be a minimum of 3 additional minutes. Time is always kept by the referee and it is up to their discretion to end the half after they determine the correct amount of time has passed.

Halftime is a 15 minute period dividing the games two halves. Players may leave the field, receive treatment, hydration or instructions from their coach/manager during this time period as it is largely unstructured. As soccer is a game of near continuous running, this is often a welcome break fro players and for fans who may need a bathroom or snack break. Once the teams return from halftime they also switch ends of the field to ensure that neither team has an unfair advantage.

As mentioned during the How to Play section most games can end in a tie if the score is level at the end of the 90 minutes plus any additional stoppage time that may be added on by the referee. However, if they game is level in a knockout tournament where a winner must be determined then the first tiebreaker is called extra time. Two 15 minute halves are played, almost like a mini game after the game where there is a halftime where the teams switch ends. However, in extra time their is no break for halftime, only enough time for a quick sip of water and for the teams to switch ends. Currently there is no golden goal like there has been in the past, where the first team to score wins, so once extra time starts both teams must go the distance and play the full additional 30 minutes.

picture of a penalty shootout
Chelsea’s John Terry taking a penalty during the shootout against Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League Final as both teams watch on.

If the scores are still even at the end of this period of play then the final tiebreaker is a penalty shootout, where both teams take turns taking penalty kicks ( a description of what a penalty kick is can be found here) until there is a winner. Each team must take a minimum of 5 kicks, and at 5 if a team is ahead then they have won. If teams are even on kicks then the shootout continues until one team leads after both teams have had their turn in a round of the shootout. These are, quite obviously, very tense affairs but can also be incredibly exciting. A rare event but certainly an exciting one!

As we said in the previous section, soccer is a fairly simple game. However, to keep the game competitive as well as safe for all competitors, there are a number or rules and restrictions in place. To see the full rules of the game you can visit the IFAB website for the official, up to date rules of the game. However, I will highlight several of the most important rules.

First, soccer is a game played with the feet, or head, chest, thighs, really any body part other than the hands. If a player uses their hand, arm, or sometimes shoulders to play the ball the referee will blow his whistle to stop play and issue a freekick. A freekick is where the ball is stopped and placed on the ground and the team which is awarded the freekick can kick it anywhere they like and the opposing team must be at least ten yards away from the ball. Interestingly, that ten yard rule is the reason the field shown on the How to Play page has a circle in the middle of the field to make sure opposing players are at least 10 yards away from the ball when the game begins as this is considered a freekick. It is also why there is a half circle, called the arc, at the top of the penalty area to make sure opposing players are at least ten yards away when a penalty kick occurs.

Salah shooting a penalty
Mo Salah takes a penalty

A penalty kick is a special kind of free kick that, as mentioned in the previous section, is awarded whenever a foul is committed inside the penalty area. The fouled team places the ball on the penalty mark, a spot ten yards from goal halfway from either side, and is allowed to shoot on goal with only the goalie defending the goal.

Other types of fouls that can end up in a penalty kicks are when a defender pulls back an attacking player, either by an article of clothing or by grabbing their body, or when a player slides in and tackles a player without getting the ball. If the tackle is considered reckless or dangerous it can also result in a free kick even if the ball is won in the tackle. If these reckless or dangerous fouls are considered excessive enough they could result in a yellow card or a red card depending on severity. Like technicals in basketball, a player who receives two yellow cards is removed from the game. A single red card is enough to send a player to the showers. However, unlike basketball or other american sports that feature ejections, in soccer you are not allowed to replace the ejected player, instead the team must play the remainder of the game down a player (or several if more than one red card is issued to a team). This makes each card a significant event in the game, as losing a player can hand the other team a significant advantage and also force the down team to work harder and tire easier as they work to cover the missing player.

Australian referee Benjamin Jon Williams (L) gives a red card to Belgium’s midfielder Steven Defour (not pictured) during a Group H football match between South Korea and Belgium at the Corinthians Arena in Sao Paulo during the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 26, 2014. AFP PHOTO / ODD ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Up to this point we have only mentioned defensive fouls, but the offense can also commit fouls. Like the defense an attacker can be called for a handball and give a free kick to the defense. They can get a foul for being too physical, forcefully bodying a defender of the ball can be considered a foul if its from behind or otherwise in an excessive manner. Attackers are also not allowed to run into or otherwise challenge a goalie once they have the ball in their hands.

Visual demonstration of an offside player
The player receiving the pass is beyond the “last defender” and is therefore offside

The offense can also be offside. The offside rule is seemingly one of the most confusing rules for American fans but if you bowl it down it is ultimately quite simple: An attacker in the opposing teams half of the field must have two defenders between themselves and the goal when a pass is played to them OR they must be behind the ball when it is played. In almost all cases one of the two players between the attacker and goal will be the goalie, so they only really need one defender between themselves and the goal. The second possibility, the backwards pass, should be very familiar to many American sports fans as it is essentially the same rules governing laterals in American Football. Be behind the player passing the ball to you and you’re good to go! We will discuss this more in our Defensive Tactics page, but some defenses will try and make sure all their players are stepped up high up the field to try and “trap” an attacker offside. They must be careful, however, especially if the defender is quick because the farthest they can step up is halfway sine a player can never be offside in their own half, even if the defenders have all stepped up.

Soccer (as I’ll be referring to it by for the purposes of this website) at its core is a very simple game. One of the many speculated explanations for its mass appeal and adoption around the globe is this simplicity. At its most stripped down version all you need to play soccer is two people and a ball. Or a rock. Or a jumble of sphere shaped tape. From remote villages to dense urban areas, the game of football is quite possibly the most accessible sport in the world. However, the competitive, professional version of the sport that this website serves as an introduction to is conducted under a set of rules known as the Laws of the Game. These laws are codified and maintained by FIFA, the international governing body for the sport. These rules have grown to be fairly dense over the years, with intricacy and specific exceptions and conditions that you might expect in the rules of a sport that has been played professionally for more and than a century (closing in on one and a half). This page will go over the basics of how the game is played, while the other two pages in this section will cover what constitutes a foul and explain the different phases of play.

A team in soccer is made up of eleven players on the field, one goalkeeper and ten outfielders (i.e. those who do not play in goal and instead play out in the field). The positions section will cover what makes each of those players different but for now the only important distinction is that the goalkeeper is the only one who is allowed to pick up or touch the ball with their hands, and they are only allowed to do so in a specific area of the field. A team is allowed to name a bench of usually up to 7 players (certain tournaments allow for an expanded bench) from which the coach can make 3 substitutes. Subs are not rolling so once you’re out you’re out, so when you make your subs and who you take off and bring on makes up a huge portion of a coaches in game tactical management. You can read more about tactics in this section of the website.

diagram of the field of play
The field of Play diagram from the IFAB website

The field of play is a rectangular pitch of either natural or artificial grass with a long side (touchline) of at least 110 yards but not longer than 120 yards and a short side (goal line) at least 70 yards wide but no longer than 80 yards. So more variation is allowed in ameatur or other lower level matches, but no matter the level the touchline must always be longer than the goal line. Like many other sports Americans watch everyday the field of play contains several markings and divisions. The simplest division is into two halves, with a line perpendicular to the touchline exactly halfway between the two goal lines dividing the field into two equal halves. Each half contains a penalty area and a goal area, two boxes at either end of the pitch surrounding the goal. The former extends 18 yards from the goal line and stretches 18 yards out from either side of the goal. It is the area of the field where the goalie is allowed to use their hands. Additionally any foul committed by the defence in this area will result in a penalty kick, which you can read more about here. The second box is the known as the goal area, it is a 12×6 yard box with its long side consisting of the goal line and a line parallel to the goal line 6 yards away. This line is where the goalie places the ball for a goal kick.

The object of the game is to score goals (points) by kicking, heading, or otherwise getting the ball into your opponent’s goal while at the same time preventing the other team from doing likewise. At the end of the game the team with the most goals wins, or if an equal number were scored or no goals were scored the game will end in a draw. The only exception to this is in a knockout tournament, where extra time would occur. You can discover how this works by checking out the “Phases of Play” section.

At its core soccer is a very simple game. However, there are a number of rules and restrictions that make the game both more challenging and more interesting. Why can’t anyone just pickup the ball and run (cause then it would be Rugby) or how come someone can’t just tackle someone to stop them from getting to the ball? In the next section we will explain the major laws governing what is considered fair play. Read on.