Center back in soccer: The Definitive Guide For Beginners

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Center back in soccer: The center-back position in soccer requires a variety of different qualities and skills, plus a high level of game understanding. A position often occupied by the natural leaders and best communicators in a team, the center-back in soccer is one of the most important on the field.

Although all players are responsible for defending, center backs lead the last line of defense while also helping to organize the players in front of them. As such, center-backs bear the brunt of responsibility for helping their teams keep a clean sheet or at least concede fewer goals than their opponents!

In this post, we will look at the center back roles and responsibilities, skills needed to play this position, and how to play as a center back when both attacking and defending. We’ll also look at some of the best center-backs of all time and the skills they bring to the role.

What is a modern center-back?

A modern center-back is a central defender with the same responsibilities as a traditional center-back. But more importance is placed on their in-possession actions. As with any center-back, they mostly deal with opposing center-forwards or wide attackers moving inside.

However, modern center-backs will also look to start attacks by building play and breaking through, around, or over an opposing block or press with penetrative passes or dribbles.

What Is The Role Of The Center Back In Soccer?

The center-back position in soccer is otherwise known as a central defender. Barring the goalkeeper, it is the most defensive position on the field. The primary role of a center-back is to protect the center of the field and keep the ball as far away from the goal as possible.


However, center backs also have a key role in helping their team keep possession of the ball, especially when building out from the back. Therefore, the best center-backs in the world are as competent and comfortable on the ball as they are off it.

How Many Center Backs Does A Soccer Team Have?

Typically a soccer team will play with two center backs and two outside backs (or fullbacks). This setup is commonly known as playing with a back four. When this happens, the central defender’s position numbers are 4 and 5. Formations with a back four include the 4-3-3 formation, the 4-4-2 formation, and the 4-2-3-1.

Sometimes a team will play with three center backs or ‘A back 3’. Examples of formations with 3 central defenders are the 3-5-2 and the 3-4-3. When this happens, central defenders are usually numbered or referred to as the 4, 5, and 6.

How To Play As A Center Back In Soccer

Skills Needed

A good center-back is as comfortable with the ball at their feet as they are making challenges and tackles to win the ball back. It’s therefore crucial that a central defender has a wide range of skills and abilities. Here are the skills needed to be a great center back:

  • Good heading ability. Central defenders need to be able and confident to win the ball in the air and challenge the opposition’s forwards for the ball.
  • High speed, athleticism, and physical strength.
  • Strong game understanding. Good central defenders can read the game well and anticipate where the ball will be. They’ll also be able to predict the passes and moves that opponents are likely to make.
  • Good communication and organization skills.
  • Strong in 1v1 situations. A good central defender must be effective in making well-timed tackles and winning the ball.
  • Comfortable receiving the ball under pressure and making passes over short and long distances.
  • A good mentality and calm under pressure. Players with a high level of focus and a strong desire not to be beaten make great central defenders.

When Attacking

A good center-back is just as involved when their team is attacking as when they are defending. This is especially true when teams have the desire to build out from the back and play through the thirds. When attacking or in possession of the ball, a center-back should do the following:

  • Provide a forward pass option when the goalkeeper has the ball. The central defender should look to receive ‘side on’ and with their hips open so they have the option to continue to move the ball forward and help their team progress.
  • Provide a drop option for the full-backs and number 6 when those players are under pressure and cannot find a forward pass themselves.
  • Upon receiving the ball, center backs should look to play forward passes into the midfield and forward line.
  • Upon receiving the ball, center backs should look for opportunities to play through balls behind and over the opponent’s defense.
  • Upon receiving the ball and given time and space, center-backs should look to carry the ball forward into the midfield and forward areas.
  • Go forward for their team’s corners to be a goal threat in the opposition’s penalty box.
  • Ensure the team is prepared and ready for a loss of possession. Center backs should be able to transition quickly, so as not to be beaten on the counterattack.

When Defending

Center backs need to stop opposing players from getting behind them and creating scoring opportunities. To do this, center backs need to not only defend themselves but also organize other players on their team. When defending, or not in possession of the ball, a good center-back should do the following:

  • Win aerial challenges, particularly of long goal kicks or punts from the opposition goalkeeper.
  • Control the last line of defense, so they are organized, compact and difficult to get behind.
  • Anticipate through balls, by dropping deep and getting to the ball before the opponent forwards or
  • Look to play opponents and attackers off-side by ‘holding the line’ and letting the attackers make pre-emptive runs behind them.
  • Intercept attempted passes behind the defense.
  • Make challenges and well-timed tackles, winning the ball whenever an attacker tries to dribble past them.
  • Provide cover and support for other defenders when they are pressuring the ball.
  • Attack crosses in the penalty box and ensures opponents do not get first to the ball.
  • Block shots and put extreme pressure on opponents when they are trying to shoot.

Best Center Backs Of All Time

Virgil Van Dyke

He is the current captain of Liverpool and the Netherlands. Virgil Van Dyke has a strong claim to being the best center-back currently playing the game. Known for his intense physical presence and athleticism, Virgil Van Dyke is also a great reader of the game. And he is a defensive organizer who improves the level of everyone he plays with.


He is a leader on the pitch, regularly communicating with and organizing his teammates. On the ball, he breaks lines with his passing. And he is particularly skilled at switching the play. His passes from left center-back to find Mo Salah on the right wing are extremely effective.

Sergio Ramos

Ramos has always shown impressive ability in one-on-one duels, as well as the aggression and desire to jump out of the back line to intercept. He presses in central areas of the pitch when he feels it would be a good idea to step out. But he can also act as the covering defender whenever his central-defensive partner is in a better position to engage the ball carrier.

On the ball, he is a bold passer with the ability to go short or long when starting attacks. He also dribbles forwards effectively, and will often follow a successful tackle by stepping up to instigate a counter-attack.

Paulo Maldini

The former AC Milan and Italy legend won every trophy imaginable and is often touted as the best defender of all time due to his well-timed tackles and impeccable ability in 1v1 battles.

Lothar Matthaus

As the only outfield player ever to play in the 5 World Cup finals, Lother Matthaus was the original ball-playing center-back with skills and passing ability to match even the most creative of offensive players. Winning numerous domestic titles with Bayern Munich as well as the 1990 World Cup, Matthaus is one of a select few defenders to also win the Ballon d’Or!

Sum up

As you can now probably see, the importance of center-back in soccer cannot be overstated. They play a crucial role, not just when defending, but when attacking too. Before you go, be sure to check out other position guides at FootballTerms.

Thanks for reading!

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