What Is An Attacker (Positions and Skills)

No matter what team you support, all soccer fans can appreciate quality attacking players. Attackers are the conductors of the orchestra, dictating the tempo of the game, creating chances, and ultimately, putting the ball in the back of the net. 

In such a tactical sport, it can be difficult to identify the specific roles of an offensive-minded player. Have you ever wondered, what is an attacker in soccer? 

This article breaks down the different attacking positions, and their key responsibilities, and identifies some of the best attackers in the game. We’ll cover important topics like: 

  • What an attacker is
  • How to play as an attacker
  • Attacking positions
  • Attacker roles and responsibilities
  • Main soccer positions

Who do you think is the most exciting attacker in the game today? Let’s see who’s the best and why.

Kylian Mbappe, Right, Of Paris Saint-Germain Challenges James Lea Siliki Of Stade Rennais During The Trophee Des Champions (Champion's Trophy) Match In Shenzhen City, South China's Guangdong Province, 3 August 2019.
Kylian Mbappe, Right, Of Paris Saint-Germain Challenges James Lea Siliki Of Stade Rennais During The Trophee Des Champions (Champion’S Trophy) Match In Shenzhen City, South China’S Guangdong Province, 3 August 2019.

What Is An attacker In Soccer?

An attacker in soccer is primarily responsible for their team’s offense, including goals, chance creation, and buildup play. The term attacker doesn’t refer to a specific position. It alludes to the various attacking roles a player can fill.

The primary attacking positions include strikers, center forwards, attacking midfielders, and wingers. Although these players may have defensive responsibilities, they are mainly responsible for attacking plays.

Inversely, fullbacks or defensive midfielders may provide attacking support but their primary roles are defensive. Depending on the formation and tactics, teams can play with different numbers of attackers. In the modern game, most teams play with at least three attackers from the start of the game. 

  • In a 4-3-3 formation, a team plays with a striker and two wingers as attackers. Depending on the configuration, they may also deploy one of their midfielders as a more creative or attacking-style player. However, this doesn’t necessarily make them an attacker.
  • Another popular formation today is a 4-2-3-1. The two defensive midfielders, allow the coach to deploy four attackers: a striker, a center forward or attacking midfielder, and two wingers. 

If a team is in a losing position, the coach often gambles by bringing on multiple attackers. When teams are holding on to a narrow lead, they may take off attacking players, substituting them for defenders to protect their goal. 

Attacker FAQs

How Do You Play As An Attacker?

To play as an attacker you need to create goal-scoring chances or score goals. The best attackers can create and score goals. Although there are specialist players who are world-class in one department.

Let’s take a look at the different attacking positions in soccer and what is required of a player in each position.

Striker 

A striker is the furthermost attacker on any team and is typically responsible for scoring a large portion of their team’s goals. There are many different types of strikers. Some are known for their physical attributes, using their height and weight to cause problems for opposition defenders.

These players often fall into the category of “target man” strikers. They tend to be aerially dominant with good hold-up play, often scoring from close range or through headers. 

Not all strikers are tall and physically imposing, however. Many forwards are small and fast, using their low centers of gravity and dribbling skills to mount attacks. 

While no two strikers are identical, the number 9 archetype has a particular skill set. They are often the most technically gifted and well-rounded players on a team. 

Key characteristics of a modern striker include: 

  • Excellent ball control
  • Speed
  • Agility
  • Strength
  • Quick feet
  • Passing accuracy
  • Positional sense
  • Game intelligence
  • Calmness in front of the goal

Some of the best strikers in the modern game include Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski, Karim Benzema, and Harry Kane. 

Center Forward 

Although the terms striker and center forward are used interchangeably, they are in two different positions. Center forwards typically operates in deeper positions than strikers, receiving passes from midfielders.

While center forwards scores their fair share of goals, they often play the role of the facilitator, making an impact in the buildup play that leads to the goal.

Some strikers are rarely involved in attacking sequences but somehow manage to be in the right place to finish the move. Although a center-forward doesn’t need to be physically gifted, they must have exceptional technical skills.

They often receive the ball in heavily congested areas and must try to create opportunities in chaotic situations while surrounded by defenders. Quick decision-making and in-game intelligence are critical for effective center forwards. 

The best center forwards in soccer today include Lionel Messi, Kevin De Bruyne, Kai Havertz, and Paulo Dybala. 

Attacking Midfielder 

An attacking midfielder is essentially a bridge between the defense/midfield and the attack, linking play and creating goalscoring opportunities. Attacking midfielders typically have a good all-around skill set as they may also operate as center midfield players in some games.

However, they tend to have elite-level technical skills when it comes to dribbling and passing. They generally have great vision, possessing the ability to find their strikers when they make forward runs.

In the modern game, it can be hard to distinguish between an attacking midfielder and a center forward. In many attacking systems, they are identical roles. Although, an attacking midfielder often has some defensive duties. 

As the playmaker, the attacking midfielder usually plays as part of a midfield trio or in front of two defensive-minded midfielders. Attacking midfielders tend to contribute with their fair share of goals and assists. Many have an eye for the spectacular and are known for scoring from long range. 

Top attacking midfielders in recent years include Bruno Fernandes, Luka Modric, Marco Reus, and Christian Eriksen. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OR7dC75gt6A

Bruno Fernandes has racked up some world-class goals since joining Manchester United in 2020. 

Winger

A winger is an attacker that plays predominantly in wide areas, creating goal-scoring chances, contributing to attacking build-up play, and scoring goals. 

Wingers are often the most exciting attacking players, regularly competing in 1 v 1 situations with opposition fullbacks and defenders. They are usually the fastest players on the team and provide a lot of flair and skill. 

In the past, wingers were midfield players and had plenty of defensive responsibilities, like tracking their opposite winger or fullback. This is one of the main reasons traditional wingers didn’t necessarily score as much as the wide attackers of today.

  • Old-school wingers include Ryan Giggs, Luis Figo, and David Beckham. Modern wingers are often the highest scoring players on a team. They are essentially wide forwards that rarely track back.

Defensive duties of modern wingers typically revolve around pressing the opposition defenders in their own half of the field. 

In the past decade, soccer has become a highly transitional game, where teams counterattack at a ferocious speed. This is where fast wingers come to life, leading transitional counterattacks and finishing their chances. It’s very common for wingers to play invertedly. 

Right-footed players operate on the left side of the field, cutting onto their right foot to dribble at defenders, cross the ball, or shoot. We are fortunate to be in an era where world-class wingers are plentiful.

Exciting wingers from the best leagues in the world include Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho, Vinicius Junior, and Christian Pulisic.

Other Attacking Positions

Tactics and attacking systems have also led to the creation of many nuanced positions. There are several variations of attacking positions. While these are less common than the roles outlined above, some other attacking positions include: 

False 9

A false 9 usually plays instead of a striker, assuming the role of an advanced playmaking midfielder. The name “false 9” was given to this role as the player may appear on the team sheet as a sole striker, only to drop into deeper positions during the game. 

A false 9 plays “between the lines”, meaning they occupy space between the defense and midfield. This creates a host of issues for the opposition as they may not know who is responsible for guarding false 9.

If the center backs break the line, they leave space for the wingers to exploit, cutting inside toward the goal. If a midfielder stays back to mark the false 9, there may be a mismatch in midfield, opening up other opportunities. 

False 9 is a specialist position that requires a specific skillset. A false 9 must-have exceptional positional sense, vision, great ball control, and a good passing range. 

If a false 9 has a bad game, their team often struggles to create fluid offense. Since much of the attack goes through this position, they must be able to deliver.

  • Without a traditional striker, the team can be at a disadvantage in terms of direct play and tactics. These are the main reasons most teams don’t play with a false 9. 

Perhaps the best example of a false 9 in the modern game is Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino. Jurgen Klopp was full of praise for the Liverpool and Brazil star:

“But Bobby, for people with football knowledge, I’m pretty sure when he finishes playing people will write books about the way he interpreted the false-nine position.

Jurgen Klopp, 2021

Outside Forwards

An outside forward is a hybrid of a winger and striker. This type of attacker usually plays in a front three, taking up positions on either side of the main striker.

Outside forwards sometimes drift into central positions or cut inside to create space on the wing or to increase pressure on the center backs. 

Outside forwards are some of the most creative players on the field and are largely responsible for goal scoring and assisting. They typically have a very attacking skillset, possessing speed, good movement, dribbling skills, and passing ability.

Players who’ve excelled in the outside forward position include Marcus Rashford, Neymar, and Kylian Mbappe.

Inside Forwards

An inside forward is one of the main strikers in a highly attacking formation. An inside forward plays centrally, alongside the main striker, and potentially another inside forward.

They are usually flanked by a winger or wingback. This type of attacker is very uncommon in the modern game.

However, if a team is losing an important game, they may substitute defenders for attackers, switching to an attacking formation. 

What Is An Attacker In Soccer 2
Neymar is one of the most exciting attackers in world soccer. Wikimedia

Soccer Attacker Roles And Responsibilities

The role of an attacker is to score goals and create chances by setting up assists. The best attackers in history have high records in this department.

Although all positions have specific roles and responsibilities, attacking players share the same core objectives:

Let’s take a look at scoring and assisting roles and the best attackers in recent years.

Goal Scoring 

Attackers are on the field to perform the most important job in soccer: score. You can play the most attractive brand of free-flowing soccer and defend valiantly but without scoring, you have no chance of winning the game.

Attackers work in unison to create high-percentage goal-scoring chances and put them away. Although midfielders and defenders come up with plenty of goals, attackers are more prolific. Unsurprisingly, strikers are responsible for the majority of goals scored.

  • In a study analyzing 795 World Cup goals, researchers discovered that 54.2% of all goals were scored by strikers. 

While there are elite goal scorers in soccer, like Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski, and Lionel Messi, the past 10 to 15 years have produced some unstoppable attacking partners and trios. 

Five attacking trios managed to score 100 or more combined goals in recent years:

TeamAttacking TrioNumber of Goals
Real Madrid (14/15)Ronaldo, Benzema, & Bale100
Barcelona (08/09)Messi, Eto’o, & Henry100
Red Bull Salzburg (13/14)Mane, Soriano, & Carvalho108
Real Madrid (11/12)Ronaldo, Benzema, & Higuain118
Barcelona (15/16)Messi, Neymar, & Suarez131
Three Attackers From The Same Team And Their Goal Total

Assists 

Attacking players generally get the most assists for their teams. 

An important stat in modern soccer is goal contributions. This is the total number of goals and assists a player makes. Many teams play within attacking systems, meaning the goals are often evenly distributed among attackers. 

Since they are usually the most attacking players on the team, strikers provide a lot of assists as well as goals. 

In soccer, assists have only been officially recorded for the past decade or two. Interestingly, the players who’ve recorded the most assists ever are all currently active. The top 5 assisters in soccer history are: 

Current Team PlayerNumber of Assists
PSGLionel Messi363
Bayern MunichThomas Muller284
Atletico MadridLuis Suarez278
Manchester UnitedCristiano Ronaldo273
PSGAngel Di Maria269
Attacking Players and Number of Assists

What Is A First Attacker In Soccer?

The first attacker is a term used to describe the attacking player who is in possession of the ball. It is a useful reference when discussing tactical play or attacking patterns as the coach can quickly identify or describe the scene without having to specify who has the ball at each phase. 

There are also second, and multiple third attackers. These are the various passing options or link players that work with the first attacker. 

The second attacker is always the closest to the first and is usually the primary passing or link-up option. The third attackers are all other teammates that join the attacking phase.

What Is The Role Of A First Attacker?

Since they are in possession, the first attacker is critical for any attacking sequence and must be able to at least retain possession to keep the attack alive. 

The first attacker should be a skilled dribbler, with good ball control and holdup play. Where possible, a first attacker should also have good vision and a decent range of passing to find fellow teammates when they are in space. 

As an offensive player, the first attacker often finds themselves in close proximity to the opposition goal. First attackers should be decent finishers and willing to pull the trigger if the opportunity arises. 

11 Positions In Soccer and Their Roles – Attackers and Defenders

Here is a typical line-up of a soccer team and their main role in a team as an attacker or defender. (These roles will vary depending on the formation and tactics of the coach).

  1. Goalkeeper – Defender
  2. Right-back – Defender
  3. Left-back – Defender
  4. Right center back – Defender
  5. Left center back – Defender
  6. Center midfield – Defender/Attacker
  7. Left/Right Wing – Attacker
  8. Center midfield – Defender/Attacker
  9. Striker – Attacker
  10. Center-forward – Attacker
  11. Left/Right Wing – Attacker

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