Back in the day football games were usually won by winning most of the 15 individual battles on the field. If your two towering midfielders dominated in the air then everything would fall into place. If your corner back is getting roasted by the corner forward then the alarm bells would be ringing.
Times have changed. Nowadays those two midfielders might rule the skies but are surrounded by a ring of scavenging half backs and half forwards who take the ball off them. The corner forward will be the player with the highest possession count, but that’s because he is playing as a third midfielder allowing his man to ‘drop’ as a sweeper.
Numbers mean nothing. Positions mean nothing. The settling down period used to mean the five-minute spell when you tested the ribs of your marker or the vital early stages when the nervous debutant got a few simple touches to get him into the game.
Now the settling down period is very different. It is the short spell when the 3-3-2-3-3 formation changes into the team’s ‘shape’, although this varies depending on the side and the manager’s style of play. After this the match turns into a game of chess with teams trying to suss out each move.
Here are the new range of positions often found in the modern game:
Goalkeeper (1) – No longer the man who can kick the ball off the ground the furthest. The kick-out is a key factor in the game, meaning you need someone who can accurately pick out the runs of the midfielders and half forwards.
First Choice Man-Marker (2) – The quickest and best tackler on the pitch. He is assigned the role of marking the opponent’s most potent forward. If this dangerman can comfortably score with both feet the extra man (see number 4) will then double up to ‘mark’ his other side once the forward gains possession.
Second Choice Man-Marker (3) - He is the taller of the man-markers and is handed the job of marking the tallest of the other team’s inside forwards. If this forward is considerably bigger then the extra man (4), he will be told to read the breaking ball.
Extra Man (4) – If the opposition play with two men inside this player will be free. It is a difficult role, as you have to double up with (2) for the two footed attacker and also read the breaks off (3) and the big full forward. Usually assumes the role of extra man as he is a ‘better baller’ with a license to join the attack. Often replaced by a forward if his team needs to chase the game.
Attacker defender (5) – In the modern game, these players are key. He can bomb forward and as an attacking threat. Often managers try and get this man on the opponent’s laziest forward to ‘expose’ him.
Holding player (6) – This man usually gets the raw end of the deal as (5) and (7) will keep attacking and he is left holding the centre. He will need to have two qualities. A good reader of the game and the ability to stop runners without drawing the dreaded black card.
Attacker defender – Similar to (5) above
Dropping Midfielder (8) - Not allowed to attack, he needs to drop back into ‘the hole’ if any of the half backs go on the attack. Needs to support the half backs in possession. He will never get any credit as the attacking midfielder will take all the plaudits.
Attacking midfielder (9) – Will be instructed to run, punch holes in the defence and giving support the inside forwards. If the run is strong enough you will win frees as defenders will see him as a goal threat. Will be expected to tag on a few points.
3rd midfielder (15) - Listed as a forward but only ever up there for opposition kick-outs. For kick-outs he can act a decoy run or a break ball magnet. Will be encouraged to link up with the half backs to ferry ball from defence.
Link player / Playmaker (11) – The key player in the transition from defence to attack. This man must always be present on the forty. He is elusive, can maximise space and is a great passer. The opponent’s will have to either follow him or sit in the space he vacates This is the key to unlocking the defence.
Link player (12) – This player will also need to be available for the ball coming from defence. Very often a bigger man than the primary playmaker so will be instructed to keep tuned into the goalkeeper and make himself a kick-out target.
Wide man (10) – You run up the wing literally hugging the sideline available for a pass. If you get involved in the play often enough the other team will commit some men from their blanket defence to curb your influence. When the other team attacks he is encouraged to drop back.
Inside forward (13) – Primary focus is to win possession and either score or lay off to the attacking midfielder. He must have a good understanding with this fellow inside forward. Communication import that if the game plan is low fast ball, both inside men must mot make their ruins to the same wing.
Inside forward (14) – Same role as (13) and on any high/diagonal balls played in you need to anticipate the ball breaking and adjust your positioning. This can lead to the crucial goal chances. As mentioned above, if the your attacking plan is about low ball, you need to vary your run from the other inside forward to stretch the opposing defence.
So the next time you are at a game look out for some of these individuals. The game has changed and when a fellow fan asks you "who the hell is marking number 15" you might actually have a different answer for him.