There are some players that don’t look quite right in their shirt numbers.
Etched into our soccer consciousnesses are intangible, requisite criteria when it comes to the number a player should have emblazoned on the back of his jersey. It’s the reflex that niggles at us when we see Samuel Eto’o donning No. 5 for Everton, or the uncomfortable feeling that festered when William Gallas wore No. 10 for Arsenal.
As supporters, we know these numbers are a bit peculiar, but why does something so trivial irritate us? Where does this seemingly inherent instinct emerge from? And why is it such a big deal anyway?
Naturally, to fully understand it, we need to take a few steps back.
The man that much of this is ultimately down to is legendary Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman, who pioneered the idea of numbered strips in a match with Sheffield Wednesday back in 1928. In the aftermath, the idea was cast aside by English football’s governing body, but after various reported instances of sides wearing them for the next decade or so, it was decided that all players should wear numbered shirts in 1939.
A brief foray into Chapman’s methodologies will reveal he was something of a visionary, and the underpinning motivation behind numbered shirts was that it’d allow his players to maintain an awareness of where they are in relation to their teammates on the pitch. And it set in motion the process for the classic 1-11 that is still adhered to today by many international teams today.
Chapman numbered his players in ascending order, beginning with the goalkeeper and then moving forward from right to left and up the pitch. So in the 2-3-5 system—the most popular during that particular era—the two defensive players wore 2 and 3, the three midfielders donned 4, 5 and 6, while the five across the front wore numbers 7 to 11.
But as that system became outdated and superseded by the W-M and eventually 4-4-2 et al, the numbers shifted around the team. 2 and 3 eventually pushed wide to play right and left back respectively, while two players from the central midfield area—numbers 5 and 6—dropped back between them to form a back four. 7 and 11 maintained their width, but dropped back to flank 4 and 8—who also moved deeper to make a four-man midfield. 9 and 10 remained up top.
Here’s a look at how the changes happened:
When substitutes were eventually introduced in 1965, they were allocated ascending numbers from 12 upwards, although if those on the bench were of a superstitious disposition, they could decline wearing the No. 13 shirt.
In England, players were assigned those numbers on a match-by-match basis. So during that era, even the greatest players didn’t really have a number that was wholly synonymous with them. When George Best, a player typically associated with the No. 7, was at his majestic best for Manchester United, he’d don myriad numbers depending on where he’d start on the pitch.
While that was the case in England up until the inception of the Premier League, across the globe and on the international football scene, things were a little different. The most notable example perhaps being Argentina.