In order to understand Pelé’s position on field, it is necessary to explain the tactical formation of Brazilian football during his reign. Almost every Brazilian team played in a 4-2-4, organized like this (adapted, not literal translation): goleiro (goalkeeper); lateral direito (right-back), quarto-zagueiro (centre-back on the left), zagueiro central (centre-back on the right) and lateral esquerdo (left-back); médio-volante (defensive midfielder) and meia-armador (midfield playmaker; also called meia-direita); ponta-direita (right winger), centroavante (centre forward), ponta de lança (literally “spearhead”, to be explained later) and ponta-esquerda (left winger) — about the origin of such terms, I recommend reading an article in Portuguese written by experienced Brazilian journalist Alberto Helena Júnior).
The most traditional number assignment from midfield to attack was this: 5, volante; 8, meia-armador; 7, ponta-direita; 9, centroavante; 10, ponta de lança; and 11, ponta-esquerda. About the number 10, it is important to inform that it only became a synonym of the ponta de lança after Pelé wore it in 1958 (Brazil’s numbers were determined randomly).
Botafogo, Brazilian Champions in 1968, and the Santos, that won basically everything in 1962, strictly followed that criteria (none the less, some times, like Cruzeiro, used to invert numbers 8 and 10: Tostão, ponta de lança, played with the 8, Dirceu Lopes, meia-armador, wore the 10):
In this classical formation, the team’s main organizer was the meia-armador (responsible mainly for playmaking; usually did not score much). However, the ponta de lança (regularly the team’s leading scorer), besides going forward to make plays with the centroavante, had a double job, because he also went back to help the meia-armador in making plays; that was the famous “8 and 10” duo in the midfield.
To illustrate what was explained above, Santos formation in 1962 (very nice work done by the excellent webpage “Imortais do futebol“; personally, I would add an yellow arrow going back for Pelé, showing his retreating to midfield during parts of the game):
One can notice that, during a significant part of the game, the ponta de lança played behind three other forwards (pontas and centroavante), specially when coming back to make plays. When he went on to the attack, he would make a duo with the most advanced player, o centroavante.
Few Brazilians know that this division of roles remained predominantly in Brazilian football until the end of the 80’s. In 1988 it was still used for the “Bola de Prata”, awarded by “Revista Placar” (the most famous football magazine in the country) to best players (by position) of the national league (notice that the great Zico is in the list as a ponta de lança; pay attention, those are only the preliminary results from that year):
Only in 1989, (picture below), the magazine went on to make a team with: two “Meias” (attacking midfielders), putting both meia armador and ponta de lança into the same position (for example, Cuca and Toninho, pontas de lança in 88, were placed as “Meias” in 89); and three atacantes (forwards), placing both wingers and centre-forwards in the same spot. From 1996 on, another defender was added in place of a forward in the final team of the year — both remaining forwards were usually a duo of a second striker and centre-forward).
1958 and 1970 Brazil
That foundation was kept throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, but, we still saw changes, innovations and adaptations in the period, mostly in the Brazilian National Team in World Cups.
In 1958, Zagallo, ponta esquerda (left winger), was brought to the midfield, and Brazil played in a 4-3-3.
Brazil in the 1970 World Cup, as explained by the competent Brazilian journalist, André Rocha (free translation here and everywhere else):
The magical national team of the “number 10’s”, chosen as the best of all time did not dominate solely on talent. Prior to that, there was a good execution of the 4-3-3 that, seen today, was a perfect 4-2-3-1 with only Tostão upfront, without the ball and with great mobility. Also speed in counter attacks, deciding most games in the second half because of the team’s great psychical training .
Zagallo, Brazil’s coach in that World Cup, stated another characteristic of that unforgettable team: “We defended in a 4-5-1. Only Tostão stayed upfront. But even he went back, if needed“.
It is usually claimed that the Seleção in 1970 played with five “number 10’s”. In their teams, Rivellino, Gérson (at São Paulo FC in that year), Jairzinho and Pele, played with that number. However, in regards to what really meant to be a “10”, Brazil had four of such players (since Gérson was a meia armador): Rivellino (who also could play as a meia-armador, but he won his only “Bola de Prata” as a ponta de lança), Tostão (although he wore the 8 for Cruzeiro), Pelé and Jairzinho (“I was a ‘ponta de lança’ a number 10”; Rogério was the right-winger for Botafogo).
Some journalists and football fans, when discussing a “true number 10”, usually mention Maradona, Zidane, Zico, Platini, among others. A few of them define Pele like that. However, from the information reported here and later on, I believe it’s possible to state that Pele was a “true number 10”, like Zico, Platini and Maradona. The more careful reader notices that I did not mention Zidane. Yes, in my opinion, Zizou, in the Brazilian tradition, was closer to the old number 8, the meia armador. Let’s see, the main playmaker of his teams, the French player did not use to enter much the opponent area and scored very few goals (0.19 career average). On the other hand, players in the mold of Zico, Pelé, Platini and Maradona, helped in making plays, but were also great scorers with goal averages considerably superior to Zidane’s in official games: Platini and Maradona with a little more than 0.5 per game; Zico, approximately 0.7; and Pelé, 0.93. Because of that, I consider a mistake to talk about a “true number 10”, as someone supposed to be “the brain of the team” (the main playmaker), because that was the role of “the true number 8”.
Furthermore, other evidences suggests Pele played in the same position as Zico and Maradona. Both 80’s legends were called “ponta de lança” in Brazil. Regarding Zico, check again the picture of the 1988 “Bola de Prata” and Flamengo’s tactical formation above . As for Maradona, César Luis Menotti, who coached Argentina in the their 1978 World Cup victory, said the following words, reported by “Placar Magazine” in the end of that year (image below — in the article, the 18 year old Diego is called a ponta de lança): “In the current stage of world football, Maradona is Pelé. There is a difference in physical structure, but a lot of similarities in the space in which he plays, in the kind of long passes he makes. And he is a goal scorer”.
In their teams, Maradona and Zico always played in advanced roles, behind only one or two forwards. The Argentine, for example, in the 1986 World Cup, highlight of his career, only had Valdano in front of him; and for Napoli, there were two forwards, Careca and Carnevale. Likewise, Zico and Maradona were capable of playing as second-strikers.
See below how similar were the positions of the three legends on field:
Also relevant to reinforce the comparison of Pele to Zico and Maradona, the opinion of the legendary Tostão, “O Rei” teammate in 1970 and, currently, a brilliant columnist:
Na In the old terminology, Zico was a ‘ponta de lança’, a forward that retreated to the midfield to get the ball, dribbled, made give and go’s, put his teammates in front of the goalkeeper and scored spectacular goals, of all types. It was the 10. The King Pelé and the super great players Maradona, Di Stefano, Cruyff and Platini, also played in this position .
The ‘ponta-de-lança’ was similar to the current playmaker or attacking midfielder, the player who made the link between midfield and attack, like Kaká, Alex and Zidane and others. The ‘ponta de lança’ was more of a forward than a playmaker. The current attacking midfielder is more of a playmaker than a forward. Rivaldo and Kaká have more characteristics of a ‘ponta de lança’, forward. Zidane, Alex and Ronaldinho are more like playmakers.
As we can see, Tostão calls Pelé, Maradona and Zico as ‘Pontas de Lança”. Although he used the word “forward” to describe such position, it is clear, by his explanation, that those players had similar roles to current and recent attacking midfielders like Kaká and Rivaldo.
Moreover, it is important to read the words of Jairzinho, leading scorer for Brazil in the 1970 World Cup: “I was a ‘ponta de lança’, a number 10 (…) Botafogo from that Time had Roberto Miranda as the centre-forward. Pelé, at Santos, had Coutinho. Evaldo for Cruzeiro. And so on. None of was really a forward”.
Well, we have seen that Pele was a ponta de lança, with similar roles as Zico and Maradona. All those three great footballers made plays and scored lots of goals. Hence, I think it is possible to state that the most proper contemporary term for Pele’s position is attacking midfielder, an active player in both midfield and attack, like recently were Kaká and Rivaldo. To corroborate those arguments, it is essential to inform that Pelé himself called himself in his autobiography “an attacking midfielder” (London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd. 2006. p. 41) and that he talked in an interview about his similarities with Kaká:
Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká will work playing together. They have different roles and can be played in the same team. Ronaldo is an explosive player who plays more upfront. Kaká, on the other hand, comes from behind. It’s like Pelé and Tostão. Pelé would be Kaká.
Still in that perspective, Cláudio Adão, great centre-forward from the 70’s and 80’s, Pelé in the early 70’s, recently explained, in an interview for “ESPN Brasil”, why he had to change his position in the beginning of his career (I’ve edited this post and added this quote in 07/19/2016):
No, when I started at the youth system, I was an attacking midfielder. But as I was moving up, Mr. Macia himself, Pepe, said: ‘Hey, you should move to centre-forward, because if you move to the senior team, you won’t play there (as an attacking midfielder)’ . Because there was ‘the man’ (Pelé). Then I had to adapt as centre-forward, playing with my back to the goal.
Pelé can’t be considered a pure forward, because, despite constantly entering the box to shoot at goal, he used to retreat back to defense with a much higher frequency than current footballers from that role (Messi, for example, unlike Pelé, has even played as the most advanced forward in his teams, the “false 9”). In this sense, observe the map done by the French newspaper L’Equipe, showing where Pele touched the ball in the 1970 World Cup final:
Nonetheless, several football all time XI selections put Pele as a forward, or, astonishingly, as a centre-forward. It was not like that during his playing days, as we can see in the yearly World XI in the 60’s, done then by English journalist Eric batty, in the renowned “World Soccer Magazine”. Next 1962 and 1966, respectively, as examples (images taken from the blog “Beyond the Last Man”):
Oddly, Batty chose the outdated 2-3-5 formation, where, between the “five forwards”, two had similar roles to today’s attacking midfielders (playing behind three real forwards, as taught by Alberto Helena). Where was Pele placed? Precisely at the position that today would be the attacking midfielder, behind three forwards. Incongruously, “World Soccer” in 2013, made a worldwide survey among journalists to choose the all time XI, and, disregarding its own history, put Pele in the same section as centre-forwards like Romário, Ronaldo, Van Basten and Gerd Müller. Several journalists even committedthe sin of putting Pele as the most advanced forwards of their “dream teams”. On the other hand, the webpage of Globo (Brazil’s biggest TV station), rightly put Pelé among the attacking midfielders (“Meias”), together with players like Zico, Rivaldo, Rivellino, Ronaldinho and Kaká, in its online survey to choose Brazil’s all time XI; Pelé was the most remembered players with over 306 thousand votes.
There stills lies a question: what role would Pelé have in the most used tactical formations today?
The King would definitely not be a pure playmaker like Iniesta, Ozil and Fabregas, players similar to the meias-armadores (number 8) from the past, main organizers from their team and who don’t score much. In his original position, Pelé could play in a 4-2-3-1 as the central attacking midfielder or as the sole attacking midfielder for the team in a 4-3-1-2. Although not ideal, he would also be effective as a second striker (in some forms of 4-4-2 or 3-5-2), ou even as side forward in a 4-3-3 (not as winger, but as someone who would cut to the middle a lot and would participate in the playmaking there, like Messi, recently, for Barcelona).
Therefore, based on everything I’ve written, I believe Pele was an attacking midfielder, a “true number 10”.
I recommend this excellent video with 100 great goals by the King, posted by youtube channel “Futebol Nacional”: