Each player on a soccer team plays with a number displayed on the back of their jersey. One of these numbers that you often see a player wearing is the number 6. However, understanding the meaning behind the number 6 in soccer and the role and position associated with it can be a challenge for many people.
So, let’s find out all about it.
The number 6 in soccer is the defensive midfielder on a team. They play just in front of the defenders, and their role is to protect the defense, link up the play between the defense and midfield, and tackle and intercept the ball as necessary to disrupt any attacks from the opposition.
This answer gives a broad overview of the role of a number 6, but exploring what this means can provide a much better understanding of the role. Especially as there are many times when no player on the field is even wearing the number 6!
This article will be specifically about the number 6 in soccer but to discover more about defensive midfielders in soccer click here to go to my article – 17 Qualities of a Defensive Midfielder.
Meaning of the Number 6
Whether you watch, play, or take any sort of interest in soccer you will have, at some point, seen a player with the number 6 displayed on their back or heard someone refer to the role of a number 6 during a game.
As an example of this take a look at this video of the top 10 goals scored by players wearing the number 6 jersey.
The use of soccer terminologies, such as referring to a player or a position as a number, can be very confusing to someone who is as yet uninitiated to all the terms and phrases used in soccer. To find out the meanings to many of the terms and meanings used in soccer click here to check out my comprehensive soccer glossary.
Just below this section, we’ll look at the specific roles and position of a number 6, but first, it’s helpful to understand why a player is referred to as a number 6 and why in some games you see a player wearing this number on the field but there are also many times when you don’t.
Why a player is referred to as a number 6
The numbering system in soccer has been in place since the 1920s when an English coach, Herbert Chapman, sent his players onto the field with a number from 1 through 11 displayed on the back of their jerseys.[source]
Although using this numbering system didn’t end up being more widely accepted until 1939, the idea behind it was to give each player a clear understanding of what position they should be in on the soccer field. It also helped those around them to see where every other player should be.
For example, if a player were to play on the right side of the field near the halfway line, they would wear the number 7 jersey. If a player were to play as a goalkeeper, they would wear the number 1 jersey, and if a player were to play in the middle section of the field, just in front of the defense, they would wear the number 6 jersey.
In this numbering system, the players were numbered in ascending order from the back of the soccer field to the front. Where players were positioned along the same line as another player the numbers ascended from the right side of the field to the left.
So the goalie, who plays at the back was given the number 1 jersey and the furthest forward offensive player on the left of the field was given the number 11.
Over the years, the positions of these numbers have changed slightly as the setup of teams has evolved, and the positioning of players can change from game to game. Still, most of the numbers occupy a similar position on the field as they did originally.
This way of numbering the players also meant that the number a player wore could change from one game to the next as the numbers were related to the position on the field, not the player.
If a player played on the left-wing in one game, they would wear the number 11. If in the next game they started on the right side, they would wear the number 7.
Another reason for using a numbering system was to be able to clearly describe to people where a player is positioned on the soccer field.
If you only used the name of the position to describe where a player is on the field, then it’s possible you would find yourself even more confused as there can be multiple names for the same position. For instance, a right-sided defender can be referred to as a right-back, full-back, a wing-back, or simply a number 2.
Using a simple number, such as the number 6, should tell you all you need to know about the position and role that player is fulfilling in that game.
Because in a game, they are playing in the position and role that is traditionally known as the position and role of the number 6, they are often referred to as a number 6.
This leads to the question “if a player is playing in the role of a number 6 then why don’t they always have the number 6 on the back of their jersey?”
Why there isn’t always a player on the field wearing the number 6 jersey
In the modern era of soccer, the way numbers are used has changed.
Instead of the numbers rigidly remaining in one area of the field, the numbers are now more commonly associated with an individual player rather than a position.
At the beginning of a new soccer season, most soccer clubs will allocate a number to each player. That player will then wear a jersey with that number printed on it each time they play for the duration of the season. No matter what position they are playing in on the soccer field, they will wear the same number each time.
This change has lead to a wide variety of numbers being used during a game. From still using the number 1 to numbers all the way up in the thousands!
For example, in July 2015, Atlético Mineiro’s goalie Victor wore a jersey with the number 2019 on the back. The reason behind this was to celebrate a new contract that he had just signed that kept him at the club until 2019.
The reality is that the use of 4, or even 3, digit numbers is still uncommon. Single or 2 digit numbers are what you are far more likely to see. And in international games, it’s still commonplace to only use the numbers 1-11 for the players starting a game.
This change in the use of numbers is why you don’t always see the number 6 on display in every soccer game. It may be that the player allocated the number 6 for that season is not playing in the game you’re watching, or it may be that no one in the squad is using the number 6 for that season.
If you do want to get hold of your own soccer jersey with your name and number printed on the back, my recommendation is that check out the huge range of jerseys on soccer.com by clicking on this link. They make choosing your jersey easy and affordable.
Position of the Number 6 on the Soccer Field
As we described above, the numbers used in soccer were originally used to show everyone what position a specific player was playing in on the soccer field.
So, what is the position of a number 6 in soccer?
In a game of soccer, a number 6 plays in the position between the defense and midfield. They are positioned in the gap at the back of the midfield and just in front of the defenders. Playing in this position allows them to perform the role they are required to fulfill: protecting the defense while also linking up with the midfield.
If you look at a picture of a soccer formation, such as in the image above, you will see a natural gap between the defense and midfield. This is where the number 6 spends most of their time.
But just being in a certain position isn’t enough on its own. The player needs to know what roles are expected of them.
The 5 Roles of a Number 6
It’s important to remember is that just because the number 6 may not be displayed on the back of a player’s jersey doesn’t mean that a player isn’t playing the traditional role of a number 6!
The player in the role of a number 6 in soccer is also known as the defensive midfielder. If someone is playing in the role of a defensive midfielder that means there is a player playing as a number 6.
At this point, I can almost hear you asking “so, what is the role of a number 6 on a soccer team?”
The number 6 in soccer performs 5 main roles for the team.
- Protect the defense
- Intercept the ball
- Tackle the opposition players
- Link the defense and attack
- Dictate the pace of the game/vision/decision making [source]
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
1. Protect the defense
Probably the most important role the number 6 in soccer performs is to protect their team’s defense.
In any game of soccer, the further a team can keep the ball away from their goal, the better. If the ball doesn’t come near their goal, their opponents have less chance of scoring, and the fewer goals the opposition score, the smaller the chance is that they will win the game.
The number 6 has a vital role to play in this.
Playing in front of the defenders, the number 6 presents an extra layer of defense that the opposition needs to get past. Because of this, the number 6 needs to be strong and capable of getting in the way of the ball and the opposition players.
The number 6 must also have a high degree of positional awareness that enables them to be at the right place at the right time to support their defenders and position themselves as an extra obstacle for the opposition to get past.
2. Intercept the ball
A high level of positional awareness is also vital to this next role that a number 6 must perform – intercepting the ball.
As the opposition look to pass the ball from their midfield to their forwards, the number 6 should be looking to stop that pass in its tracks. To do this, the number 6 has to be highly aware of where the pass is likely to go and get in a position to stop it.
Being able to do this regularly and effectively takes experience and practice. Hours spent on the training ground and playing in games gives the player an acute awareness and ability to predict where a pass is likely to go.
This ability to accurately anticipate where the ball is about to go relies on the number 6 being aware and focused on everything that is going on around them, from the movement of the players to the flight of the ball. They can’t allow anything to go unnoticed.
3. Tackle the opposition players
A great number 6 also needs to be an exceptional tackler. The ability to tackle well can be the difference between conceding a goal or preventing the chance even taking place.
When the number 6 sees an opposition player coming towards them they must be ready to do everything they can to tackle the other player and regain possession for their team.
The number 6 will have spent hours working on this skill in training as timing is everything when it comes to tackling. Go in too late, and you could commit a foul and allow the opposition a chance to attack your goal. Go in too late, and the other team player could be long gone, and you will be left chasing them down.
4. Link the defense and attack
Another significant role that every number 6 must play is to effectively link the defense with the offense.
The number 6 is strategically positioned between the two and must be effective at receiving the ball from the defense and swiftly distributing it to the attacking players. Playing in the position they do, they are perfectly situated to do this.
A great number 6 should always be looking for an opportunity to move the ball forward and allow the attacking players to do what they do best.
5. Control the flow of the game
The last role that a number 6 performs for their team is controlling the flow of the game.
What I mean by this is that:
- they are able to dictate the pace of the game
- They pass the ball around the field in an incisive manner
- They can stop an oppositions attack when necessary
The position a number 6 plays in is perfect for controlling the flow of the game and one of the reasons I consider defensive midfield to be the best position in soccer.
They are far enough back in the team that they can see a full picture of what is happening in the offensive end of the field, but not too far back that they are unable to have any influence.
Sitting at the back of the midfield gives them access to the attacking players, and the number 6 can use their passing skills to play the ball exactly where the forward players want it.
Because of this opportunity to influence the game, the player in the role of the number 6 must have an exceptional ability to choose the best pass every time.
So many attacks in soccer originate from the number 6 as they collect the ball and distribute it up the field straight to the feet of an attacking-minded player creating multiple attacking chances throughout a game.
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How to Play as a Number 6
Knowing the position and role of a number 6 is important, but knowing how to actually play as a number 6 is a different question. When you’re out on the field you need to know how to take the knowledge you have about the role and put it into practice.
Here are 4 ways to help you do this effectively and show everyone you have what it takes to be a great number 6.
To effectively play number 6 in soccer you need to:
- Always be looking for space to receive the ball
- Choose your passes wisely
- Maintain strict positional discipline
- Be assertive
Let’s look at each of these.
1. Always be looking for space to receive the ball
To be able to effectively link up the defense and attack a good number 6 should always be looking for space around them on the soccer field. Finding that space and moving into it allows the players around you to pass to you without the risk of the ball being intercepted by the other team.
Receiving the ball in space also gives you that extra moment to look up, see the best option for a pass, and then pass the ball before any opponent gets near you.
The best way to do this is to keep your eyes open and be alert to the movement of the players around you.
When your team is in possession of the ball, the other team is naturally going to want to stay close to you to prevent any opportunity for someone to pass to you. Try to keep noticing and moving into the spaces around you and making yourself available to be passed to.
This is going to be much easier if you can maintain a high level of fitness. For a step-by-step guide to getting fit for soccer, check out my Soccer Fitness Guide and see your fitness jump to the next level .
2. Choose your passes wisely
Once you have the ball at your feet your next job is to choose the best pass for your team. What type of pass you play can be different in each situation.
Although your first thought should be to look ahead and see if there is a pass you can play that puts your team in a better attacking situation, in some situations it may be better for the team to play the ball sideways or even backward. This can often be the case when your team already has the lead in a game and you want to do all you can to protect that lead and not take any unnecessary risks.
Part of playing as a number 6 is being fully aware of how the game is going, understanding what is happening around you, and then choosing the pass that is of most benefit to your team.
Maybe consider investing in an online soccer coaching course such as this one to increase your own skills.
3. Maintain strict positional discipline
Knowing where you need to be, and when to be there, is key to playing effectively as a number 6 in soccer.
All to often players can be drawn out of position leaving a gap where they should have been. They may be distracted by the ball, or start following an opposition player without considering the fact that someone else could be coming in behind them ready to exploit the space they’ve left behind.
Of course, there will be times where it is the right and appropriate choice to move out of position to cover another player on your team, chase the ball, or even move up to support the forwards. But anytime this is done, your first thought should be “am I doing what is best for the team, and not leaving my position to vulnerable to being exploited?”
Knowing exactly where you should be on the field and what your role is for your team is hugely important, but as important as knowing this is putting it into action.
Don’t let the players around you, or the movement of the ball distract you from staying in the position you need to be in.
4. Be assertive
The last tip you need to know in order to play as a number 6 in soccer is to be assertive in all you do.
Being assertive on the soccer field can change a number 6 from being just good to being great. When any player is assertive they are more likely to win that tackle they go in for or intercept the pass that may have otherwise got past them.
As you play the game trust your instincts. If you see the opportunity to make a tackle, go for it. If you can see where a player is about to try and play the ball past you, commit to the interception.
Sure, you will sometimes make mistakes and make the wrong decision but each time you do this you will learn something and set yourself up to be better at the next opportunity.
It’s the players who doubt themselves or their actions that never quite do enough to protect the players behind them or play the best they can in their role of the team. Be assertive in each action you take on the soccer field and notice the benefit it has to your game and to the team.
Remember, being assertive is different from being aggressive. If you play aggressively you are going to end up committing too many fouls and could find yourself cautioned or even sent off. Being assertive is about being firm and strong, but also being in complete control of what you’re doing.
Best Number 6’s in Soccer
I wanted to end this article by inspiring you with some of the best number 6’s who have ever played the game of soccer.
This list includes players who simply wore the number 6 as well as played in the traditional number 6 position.
Undoubtedly one of the best players in the world to ever wear the number 6 jersey was Brazilian Roberto Carlos.
Carlos played professionally between 1991 and 2012 having the best years of his career while playing for Real Madrid where he won the UEFA Champions League 3 times and the Spanish La Liga title 4 times.
Although Carlos was a great defensive player for his team he was also an expert at taking free-kicks and scoring goals. Throughout his career, he scored some incredible goals including this one in the video below against France in 1997.
Spanish soccer player Xavier Hernández Creus, also known as Xavi, is often regarded as one of the best midfielders of all time. [source]
Xavi had an exceptional understanding of a game. He could see everything that was going on around him and would seemingly know how to always be in the right place at the right time. This ability gave him allowed him to be able to intercept the ball at will.
Not only did he always seem to know where the ball was going to be but he was a master at executing a pass to perfection. Check out his incredible range of passing as shown in this video below.
Andrea Pirlo is another player who had a world-class range of passing.
Although he never actually wore a number 6 jersey, for the majority of his career he occupied the traditional number 6 position. Sitting just in front of his team’s defense he was an expert at collecting the ball, finding space and then playing the perfect pass up to those in front of him.
Pirlo was not known for his pace or quick movement off the ball(in fact by most measurements he was just plain slow!) but what he lacked in speed he more than made up for in his quick thinking, and ability to read the game. He always seemed to know where to be. If there was any space to find around him, he would find it and be there before anyone else.
The combination of his perfect soccer brain along with his ability to produce the perfect pass earnt him the title of the “Maestro of Italian Football”.
I hope you now feel you have a much greater appreciation for what the role of a number 6 is and how to play it well.
If you are interested in more information about soccer positions click here to see my article – Soccer Positions: A Complete and Easy to Understand Guide. Or click here for my article specifically on Youth Soccer Positions.
If you’re interested in the meaning and significance of the number 10 in soccer then click here to go to my article all about this important position in soccer.
Lastly, if you’re looking to purchase the best soccer equipment out there at the moment then click here to head over to my recommended soccer equipment pages where you can find my personal recommendations for everything from soccer cleats to online soccer coaching programs.