What Is a Center Back in Soccer?

The center back is the outfield player positioned closest to the goalkeeper on the soccer field whose main task it is to prevent the opposition from having a shot on goal. They do this by attempting to prevent the opposition team from advancing towards the goal and look to close down space and make it harder for opposition players to receive the ball. The center back rarely plays without another center back alongside them and teams will play with as many as three at one time.

Diagram of center back positions in soccer
A diagram showing the positions of center backs in soccer. The red team is playing with two center backs, while the blue team is playing with three center backs.

What physical attributes do you need to be a center back?

Like goalkeepers, center backs tend to be over 6ft tall and well built, as the role is a physical one where they can expect to be pushed around and physically intimidated by opposition strikers. While it is useful to have good acceleration and pace, many successful center backs do not possess this and make up for what they lack in pace with an intelligent positional sense and imposing physical attributes.

Despite the preference for being 6ft or over, many of the world's most successful centre backs have been under that height. Carlos Puyol, Franz Beckenbauer, Fabio Cannavaro, and Franco Baresi were all 5ft 10in or under and left a legacy of world-class excellence through their careers.

Increasingly in modern football center backs are required to have good ball control and a range of passing skills, as more teams now look to play short passes out of defense rather than long direct balls up to the strikers. While they do not require the level of ball control and passing skills that midfielders require, it is important that they do not give the ball away when in possession, and protect the ball as much as possible. The center back will usually pass the ball to a teammate shortly after receiving it and then position themselves in space to receive it back if necessary.

What are the main responsibilities of the center back?

Center backs must position themselves to prevent the opposition from having the opportunity to shoot on goal, particularly in dangerous areas of the pitch. They do this by preventing the opposition team from advancing on the goal by attempting to close down space when they get within shooting distance of the goal.

Teams will look to develop center back partnerships as the role cannot be carried out by a single player alone. Where possible the two players should complement each other and have differing skills that can cover up any individual weakness their partner may possess. Modern-day center back partnerships are often comprised of a player who is more physical and positionally sound, alongside a player with greater technical ability with the ball who can roam out of the defensive line to win back possession or take the ball out of defense.

The center back partnership is especially important when coordinating an offside trap, as any lack of understanding can lead to an opposition player getting behind the defense for a one-on-one with the goalkeeper and a clear shot at goal.

What is a Sweeper / Libero?

The role of sweeper in soccer is seldom seen in the modern game but was used extensively by teams in the 1940's-90's. The sweeper acts as a support center back who 'sweeps up' the danger when defending. They do not have the same defensive responsibilities of the center back and do not mark opposition players, leaving them free to position themselves in anticipation of where the ball will be zonally.

As well as defensive responsibilities, the sweeper also has attacking responsibilities. The sweeper will ideally have a good range of passing and will launch attacks in the transition. When the team is in possession of the ball the sweeper is free to join the attack and act as an extra forward. Often the more attacking player is called a libero rather than a sweeper, but the terms are largely interchangeable.

Animation showing one of the roles of the sweeper. The sweeper for the red team (highlighted) is positioned slightly deeper than the other defenders. The sweeper is not marking any specific player, but is able to anticipate the pass from the blue team, and intercept the ball, or 'sweep up' the danger.

Examples of successful sweepers from football history are Franz Beckenbauer, Ronald Koeman, and Franco Baresi, however, modern tactical developments have made the position all but redundant. Firstly with the development of sweeper keepers who possess good ball skills are now able to cover the space behind the defense, and also as a result of many teams now adapting to only play one striker up front with a 'number 10' who drops in the space between defense and midfield.

Why is a center back partnership important?

It is important for center back partners to have differing skills, as the opposition will look to exploit any weakness they have. Having two players with different specialisms allows them to cover any shortcomings their partner might possess. For example, if one of center backs does not have pace, it is wise to partner them with a player who does.

The partnership must also be able to communicate effectively to maintain positional balance in the defense. If one player is pushing out to proactively try and stop an opposition attack, it is important for the other center back to cover the space left behind them, with the help of the fullbacks. Communication will be both verbal and non-verbal and good partnerships will develop these skills over a long period of time.

Most football managers will try and play the same center back partnership together where possible, as this allows the partnership time to develop and get better. By swapping defensive partners for each game it would be difficult to build the non-verbal understanding necessary to be effective. As Sir Alex Ferguson who won 13 English Premier League titles with Manchester United said:

"Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles"

- Sir Alex Ferguson

Who are the greatest center backs of all time?

It is difficult to name individual center backs as the greatest of all time as the solidity of the partnership they are part of is most important. But great defenders such as Alessandro Nesta, Franco Baresi, Sergio Ramos, Paolo Maldini, and Franz Beckenbauer are amongst the most highly regarded center backs in the history of soccer.

Maldini in particular had an astonishing career. Starting out as a left-back at AC Milan in 1985 and retiring in 2009 after 902 appearances for the same club. He eventually moved into the center of defense and won 26 trophies for the club including 7 Serie A titles and 55 European Cups/Champions Leagues.

First-hand accounts of world-class players who played against him tell their own stories.

"Paolo Maldini is the best I've played against."

- Ronaldo

"Maldini was the best and toughest defender I ever faced. He had everything: he was a complete defender who was strong, intelligent, and an excellent man-marker."

- Zlatan Ibrahimovic

"The night Milan annihilated Barcelona in the 1994 Champions League Final, he played center-back, as Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta were both suspended, and looked like he'd played there all his life."

- Ronald Koeman

"When I think of the current generation, Lionel Messi is top-level. Kaka has impressed, Zinedine Zidane was brilliant but without a doubt, Paolo Maldini has been my favourite."

- Sir Alex Ferguson

German Franz Beckenbauer must also be noted as the first defender to win the Ballon d'Or, and the only one to win it twice. He also captained West Germany to their 1974 World Cup victory and won the European Cup in three consecutive seasons. As a manager, he also lead West Germany to their 1990 World Cup victory.

Franz Beckenbauer


Do center backs have to be fit?

Center backs cover less ground on average than any other outfield player on the pitch, but they do need to be fit to play in the position. Opposition strikers will be looking to try and move them out of position with off-the-ball runs, and also get in behind the defense, particularly if they defend higher up the pitch. When defenses position themselves closer to their own goal, there is less space and less running for them to do but being able to stay alert for the full 90 minutes of the game is critical.

Do center backs go into the opposition half?

There are no rules that restrict where players must be positioned on the field. When a team has a corner, or set piece in the opposition half, it is common for both of the center backs to go into the opposition box and attack the ball. They are needed in these situations due to their height and physicality for high crosses into the box. When they go forwards it is important that other members of the team cover their position until they are able to get back.