Centre Back vs Full Back

Centre Back vs Full-Back – What’s The Difference?

Last updated on February 28th, 2022

Under normal circumstances, a centre-back and a full-back play in the defence area of the pitch, and identifying the difference between these two positions may prove problematic for many.

Here’s a guide on how these 2 positions differ from each other.

Differences between a centre back and a full-back

The full-back is usually the widest member of the defence tasked with marking opposition wingers and full-backs, preventing crosses from being sent into the box. Meanwhile, the centre backs exclusively protect the goalkeeper. They occupy the central areas of the box and aim to block direct opposition routes to the goal at all times. 

Here’s a further explanation of these 2 positions:

Position on the pitch

On paper, the duties of the centre backs and full-backs are somewhat intertwined. 

A centre back is primarily stationed in his own penalty box, ready to deal with opposition threats when they arise, especially from the opposition’s centre forwards.

All formations in football utilise centre backs in defence in various roles:

#1 Sweeper

Also known as a libero, this centre back usually sits deeper than any other team member. They are rarely drawn out to make tackles or pressure opposition players outside their penalty box. 

They typically depend primarily on their intelligence and game reading ability to thwart opposition forwards when they manage to beat the defensive line.

Modern-day football has seen the evolution of sweepers from playing behind the defensive line to playing in front of the defensive line. 

Traditionally, the position was dominant in the 1970s and 1980s, as seen with Franz Beckenbauer, before the general shift to playing a back four.

#2 Ball-playing defender

These defenders are expected to be their teams’ build-up starting points. This role has been made famous in modern football, and nearly every team in world football today has ball-playing centre backs

They are characterised by their confidence with the ball and ability to get out of tight situations. Examples of these defenders today include: 

A full-back is stationed usually at the widest point of a back four or a back five with the explicit duty of thwarting opposition advances down the flanks. They can feature in any of the following positions:

  • 4-4-2
  • 4-3-3
  • 4-5-1
  • 5-4-1
  • 5-3-2
  • 4-2-4

The full-backs have always been generally expected to provide attacking support for their wingers or wide midfielders. This is part of their modern-day function, as well.

Both sets of defenders primarily perform defensive duties, but the full-backs’ secondary function also entails supporting their team’s attack and creating chances for their attacking players.

Common numbers associated with these positions

Every football team today uses centre backs and full-backs in one form or the other. Players in these positions used to have specified jersey numbers in the past, but the recent evolution of football has ensured that shirt numbers do not really have to correlate with positions on the pitch.

Centre backs usually wear the numbers 4, 5, or 6. However, there are usually exceptions in lots of cases.

For example, former French defender William Gallas wore the number 10 shirt at Arsenal.

Moreover, Khalid Boulahrouz was once Chelsea’s number 9. Barcelona’s Gerard Pique and Manchester City’s Ruben Dias wear the number 3 shirt, and Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger wears the number 2 jersey. 

These are only a few of the many players who wear numbers that do not correspond to those normally worn by centre backs.

Similarly, full-backs have been known to wear the number 2 or 3 shirt to correspond with their position on the pitch. For example, Real Madrid star Dani Carvajal wears the number 2 shirt, just as former Manchester United star Gary Neville did.

If you are looking to buy the latest Manchester United merchandise, you can get it from the official Manchester United store.

Moreover, the likes of Patrice Evra and Ashley Cole had the number 3 shirt for their teams. 

However, in recent years, we have seen Real Madrid left-back Marcelo wear the number 12 shirt and Trent Alexander-Arnold wearing 66.

Many other full-backs have picked up different numbers from the regular ones as specified shirt numbers per position are not followed anymore.

Roles on the pitch

The centre back and full-back are essentially defenders. Their primary role is to prevent the opposition from scoring goals. There are, however, slight differences in the roles that they each perform on the pitch. For example, full-backs are usually more rounded than centre backs, owing to their added attacking functions in games.

Here are some of the different roles of a centre back:

  1. Covers the ground inside and in front of the penalty area
  2. Delivers quality passes out from defence to the more advanced players
  3. Provide aerial threats for their team during set-pieces

For centre backs, greater emphasis is placed on denying the opposition’s strikers goalscoring opportunities. This does not mean that centre backs are not required to have attacking inputs on games for their teams.

Centre backs like Sergio Ramos, Fernando Hierro, John Terry and Ronald Koeman managed to score many goals in their career

On the other hand, a full-back is required to play from the wide positions in defence. Although part of the rearguard, the position has been modified to have attacking qualities and provide extensive support for their attacking players.

They are usually tasked with tracking runners who may have evaded the attentions of the midfielders and centre backs.

Traits required for the roles

To function optimally in each of these roles, players require several different traits. Here are the qualities needed to play each role successfully:

Centre back

Aerial ability

As much as a centre back should be excellent with the ball on the ground, a large chunk of the work of centre backs is done in the air. A player must be aerially dominant in both penalty boxes to be effective as a centre back.

This aerial dominance will help them to stop opposing players from scoring headers and, at the same time, allow them to score headers in front of the opposition goal.

Game reading ability

Part of the job description of centre backs is pre-emptive action. They have to be able to stifle opposition attacks early enough to prevent goals.

Moreover, they should know when and how to move in and around the defensive third of the pitch.


A centre back must be a composed player who will remain unfazed even in the face of the sternest of oppositions. This composure involves knowing how to select the right passes at the right time and to the right players.


A good centre back must be 100% committed and ready to leave it all on the pitch for their team. They must not shy away from making tackles or blocks at any time.



A good full-back must have great speed to patrol the flank effectively. Due to their increased attacking function these days, full-backs may be caught upfield by opposition counterattacks.

They must be able to recover as quickly as possible and catch up with their opposition.

Defensive awareness

A good full-back must always be aware of what is around him at all times. Due to the nature of their position, a full-back may be caught by an opposition overload.

In such a situation, the full-back must be able to account for every player around him to defend effectively.


A full-back must be excellent at crosses. This enables him to be a valuable asset to the team in attacking areas.


A quality full-back must also be a good tackler. It is inevitable for a full-back to face opposition wingers and wide midfielders who will seek to dribble past them. 

Famous examples of players in each position

Here are some of the notable examples of players that have played as centre backs and as full-backs:

Centre back #1: Sergio Ramos

Sergio Ramos is one of the world’s most respected and decorated centre backs. The Spaniard is also an accomplished goalscorer and has scored more goals than most of his peers in defence.

Centre back #2: John Terry

Chelsea and England legend John Terry enjoyed a hugely successful career as a centre back. He was a no-nonsense defender who had all of the qualities of top defenders.

Moreover, he was quite an accomplished goalscorer too!

Centre back #3: Franz Beckenbauer 

Today, many young people simply do not realise how impressive Franz Beckenbauer was when he played in the 1960s and 1970s. The German played as a sweeper and is widely remembered for his quality in the role.

Full-back #1: Marcelo

Very few modern-day full-backs are as highly rated as Brazil’s Marcelo. The Real Madrid man has been one of the world’s best for most of his professional career.

Full-back #2: Dani Alves

Dani Alves is another Brazilian full-back that has excelled in the full-back position for many years now.

Full-back #3: Trent Alexander-Arnold 

Englishman Trent Alexander-Arnold has redefined the full-back role in recent years with his excellent attacking ability for Liverpool. The young man is presently one of the best in the world in his position.


Here is a summary of the differences between a centre back and a full-back:

Centre backFull-back 
Position Centrally and in direct
view of the goalkeeper
Wide of the
centre backs 
RoleTo protect the goalkeeper
from opposition strikers and
block direct routes to goal
To stop progression and chance creation
from the flanks and prevent crosses
into their penalty box.
5, 6, 42, 3
Traits Aerial ability
Reading of the game
Defensive awareness 
Sergio Ramos
John Terry
Franz Beckenbauer
Dani Alves
Trent Alexander-Arnold 

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