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Figuring the numbers

Examples of pre-First World War numbers on players’ backs to identify them on the pitch are very rare. (Astonishingly, as football had not taken off in the old British Empire unlike like cricket, Australia seems to have been the first to adopt the idea – still, mustn’t start with a digression.) A match at Stamford Bridge in 1914 was the earliest in England. Between the wars, the practice was widely adopted in South America, and FIFA’s World Cup competitions have all had numbered shirts since the Second World War.

Billy Liddell number 11 and Jimmy Payne number 10 in action for Liverpool on 8 December 1951

In most, if not all of these matches, the numbers themselves represented a place on the pitch, not an individual, named player. Such an arrangement was possible, and widely accepted and understood, as long as the traditional way to line up – the 2-3-5 system - was maintained. The later, experimental systems like 4-4-2, or attacking full-backs and wing-backs, questioned the very basis of the old numbering. These new formations led to different use of numbers in different countries – in Sweden, for example, the 4-4-2 positions were numbered 2-5, 7, 6, 8, 9 and 10, 11.

One of the many little things lost by modernisation was recounted by Billy O’Donnell in Stephen Kelly’s ‘The Kop’. ‘We used to have a sweepstake for the first goal as well. Everybody put a shilling in, and you drew a piece of paper out of a hat. There were ten pieces of paper, each had a number on for the ten forwards from the two sides. So you’d have Liverpool 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 and then, say, Wolves 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11. And if your number and team scored the first goal you pocketed the ten shillings. Little sweepstakes like that were going on all over the Kop.’

In England, the FA (always a conservative body) tried to keep the 1-11 numbers on the players, and that became a problem. During 1992/93, the last season of the old regime, LFC’s #4 shirt (originally right-half) had already been worn by four different players even before September 1992 (Mike Marsh, Steve Nicol, Jan Molby, and Steve Harkness). As new formations became the norm, it made less and less sense to have, say, a number 6 acting in some teams like an old left-half, but in others in central defence, and there were descriptions like ‘point of the diamond’ or ‘false number 9’ or ‘flat back four’ or ‘sweeper’ which would have left earlier fans totally baffled as positions on the park. (A ‘pass right across the park’ could only mean Stanley Park.) To them, ‘holding midfielder’ described a bookable offence.

[Talking of which, by the way, we have referee Ken Aston to thank for the introduction of red and yellow cards following his embattled experience during Chile v. Italy in the 1962 World Cup. The idea came to him when traffic lights changed on Kensington High Street. They were introduced in England as late as 1976 as the FA resisted their use.]

Despite all the changes to formations, the old 1-11 numbering system lasted in England until the 1993 Cup Final and start of the 1993/94 season. (Even afterwards, the odd European game can be found with the 1-11 shirts.) Premier League clubs now had to give each squad player his own unique number which was to be kept throughout the season. By 1999/00 all EFL clubs had to follow suit. I believe, however, that LFC does not publish their allocations, which have to be gleaned from team sheets if we want to discover how the new system has developed since.

In 1993/94, Graeme Souness had to allocate numbers to his squad of 29, but did not transfer all those who had made up the last team sheet of the previous season (against Spurs) into the new 1-11 positions – Jamie Redknapp dropped to #15, and Steve Harkness to #22, their places filled by Nigel Clough (#7) and Paul Stewart (#8). No number from 1 to 11 was left vacant.

If a player left the club part way through the season, however, his squad number could be given to someone else – the first exchanges at LFC were on 17 September 1993. Julian Dicks signed on the day David Burrows left, and took over his #3 shirt. On exactly the same day, Mike Marsh left (part of the same swap-deal), handing his #21 slot to Dominic Matteo; both were midfielders.

Roy Evans left #3 vacant when Julian Dicks left thirteen months later, but gave the #19 shirt of a departing goalkeeper (Mark Prudhoe) to a midfielder (Mark Kennedy), the first real sign of the new, more fluid order. Rafa filled all 11 places in his first season with LFC, though he gave Djibril Cisse the #9 of El Hadji Diouf (who was out on loan to Bolton), and midfielder Luis Garcia took striker Michael Owen’s #10. The departures of Markus Babbel and Emile Heskey gave him the opportunity to ‘promote’ John Arne Riise (from #18 to #6) and Steven Gerrard (from #17 to #8).

Being England, our numbering has evolved rather than radically changed, in one obvious and another less obvious way. Any short-sighted old fan on the Kop in 2021 would not notice any departure from what went before. Since 1993, any LFC player with #1 on his back has been a goalkeeper; no player other than a defender has been #2 or #3 (except midfielder Fabinho who, rather ironically since the injury to Virgil van Dijk, has featured in the back line). The fan’s long-sighted friend would have noted that every #9, from Rush to Firmino, has been a striker. This is probably the same position in all Premiership clubs.

Less obvious is the way commentators have to get round the fact that the new squad numbers do not correspond to position on the pitch. One report of the Spurs match (28 Jan 2021) contained the following. ‘So far, Thiago has almost been exclusively at no. 6, but tonight, he roamed more as a no. 8, often actually appearing like he was playing in a Roberto Firmino-esque false-9 position, especially in the second-half.’ Thiago is numbered 6, Firmino 9, which begs the question, what is a number 8? A common remark by pundits is of someone ‘playing like a number 10’, by which I think they mean a pre-1993 inside left. What results, by default, is a mixture of the two systems until a more logical way of describing play can evolve.

All old numbers, from 4 to 11 (excluding #9), have been subjected to defenders creeping forward, strikers creeping backward, and midfielders going in both directions! Position 4 shirt, originally right-half, has been worn by four ‘defenders’ – Rigobert Song, Sami Hyypia, Kolo Toure and Virgil van Dijk. Shirt 5 (the old ‘centre-half’) has been worn by striker Milan Baros, and by only one midfielder (Gini Wijnaldum). Number 6 shirt (originally for left-halves) has been worn by only three midfielders (Don Hutchison, Luis Alberto, and now by Thiago Alcantara). All the other 5 and 6 occupiers have been defenders.

The traditional 7-11 forward line numbers, other than 9 as noted above, have been allocated to eleven strikers and twenty midfielders, which makes no sense in a 2-3-5 formation but perfect sense in a 4-4-2.
Another way in which the old system survives is the dying art of boasting a shirt number once worn by a Liverpool legend, of which there used to be only eleven. Before 1993 it meant more, of course, but being given the number 8 shirt which Gerrard had worn, unused for three seasons since his departure, was regarded as an honour by Naby Keita, made even more special when Gerrard himself handed it to him. Meanwhile, Curtis Jones has been promoted from #48 to #17, seen as significant because it was one of Gerrard’s former positions which had lain vacant for a couple of seasons.

Personal squad numbers, from the 1 to 99 allowed, are supposed to be held during any one season if the player remains on the club’s books, and I suppose, in one sense, it should make no difference to how well the bearer plays whatever number has been allocated. Yet, still, the old 1 to 11 numbers have a certain magnetism which is hard to resist because it is largely subconscious. For, the smaller the number, the more likely it is that the holder will be expected to be, and to be known as, a first choice, first team player. Numbers are re-assigned, and reported to FIFA, at the start of each season (each window since 2002/03), and club, players and fans alike regard a new, lower number as a promotion. Correspondingly, there is always the possibility of demotion – quitting at the top is not possible for most! However, it is very unusual for the same player to have promotion followed by demotion, the only example I can find being Tony Warner who, having risen from #30 to #13 over three seasons, fell back to #22 in 1997/98.

Further evidence of the continued desirability of #1-11 comes from the numbers first allocated when well-known, established players join the club. Thiago Alcantara went in straight to #6 vacated by the departing Dejan Lovren. Similarly, Fabinho entered at #3, which had been vacant for a season after Mamadou Sakho left. On the other hand, less established newcomers have to make do with higher vacancies – Stephen Warnock’s old #28, vacant since Danny Ings left, has been given to Ben Davies who arrived in the January window, with Ozan Kabak, who has #19, vacated by Mane a couple of seasons ago.

Normally, receiving a new, re-allocated larger number may be a mark of some dissatisfaction on the part of the club. It happened to Alberto Aquilani (#4 to #15), Alvaro Arbeloa #2 to #17, leaving #2 vacant), and Craig Bellamy (#17 to #39 for his second spell at LFC when #17 was vacant). Yossi Benayoun’s change (#11 to #15) might have been superstitious (see below).

A further complicating factor in trying to make sense of these numbers is the apparent element of choice given to players. #13 seems to have attracted goalkeepers hoping one day to reach #1 and clothed in bravado (six keepers having worn the #13 shirt since 1993, seven counting Rylee Foster), with the only outfield players Karl-Heinz Riedle, Danny Murphy and Anthony le Tallec apparently not superstitious. (#13 is currently vacant, Allison Becker having transferred to #1 when Loris Karius went on a second season loan to Besiktas!) Yossi Benayoun’s ‘lucky’ number’ is 15, which he was able to use at Liverpool but had to double it to 30 at Chelsea! Yakubu took #22 at Everton as his scoring target for the season! Numbers outside the 1-99 allowed are very rare. Gerrard (and James Beattie of Everton) chose to wear #08 instead of #8, to celebrate Liverpool being awarded the title ‘Capital of Culture 2008’.

The above examples should not give the impression that, even between seasons, there has been widespread change. Only fifteen per cent of all the players I can find, who have been given numbers for Premier League games since 1993, have changed from those originally allocated. Some, including Trent Alexander-Arnold (#66), have evidently resisted, preferring in his case to keep their Academy number as a mark of pride. Pepe Reina arrived in 2005/06, taking #25 from the departing Igor Biscan because Jerzy Dudek still wore the #1, but Reina kept #25 until he left in 2012 despite becoming our No 1 goalkeeper and, furthermore, when #1 remained vacant for five of those years. Similarly, Simon Mignolet kept #22 during his six years at the club, even when the #1 shirt was vacant.

In Premier League games, the highest number to appear on a first team LFC shirt is that of Neco Williams (76) during the current year, but many academy numbers have been used, up to 99, in Cup competitions. Thomas Hill, indeed, was the first player in the country to wear #99. See this page for Premier League matches only.

Vacant numbers are very common, especially above the twenties, according to squad size variations. Since 2014, they are also held for a player out on loan, with eleven having taken advantage of the facility – Divock Origi in 2017/18, Adam Bogdan (2016/17), Ryan Kent for two seasons (2016/17 to 2918/19), Mario Balotelli (2015/16), Andre Wisdom (2014/15 to 2015/16), Nathaniel Phillips (2019/20), Lloyd Jones (2015/16), Danny Ward (2016/17), Ben Woodburn (2018/19) and Pedro Chirivella (2017/18). The controversial Lazar Markovic benefited three times during his spell at LFC, from 2015/6 to 2018/19. In addition to the above, numbered players currently out on loan are Marko Grujic (16), Harry Wilson (59), and Kamil Grabara (73), the three numbers still held vacant in case they return. Sheyi Ojo’s number (54) was taken by Tony Gallacher in 2019/20 but is now vacant again.

Vacancies among the numbers 1-11 can help to assess the attitude of different managers towards number allocation. Until the arrival of Jurgen Klopp, no manager allowed more than one #1-11 to remain vacant for a whole season, with the exception of Benitez, who allowed three (#3, 6, and 7) in 2009/10. Klopp has been patient in recruiting exactly the players he was waiting for, and allowed three in 2015/16 (#1, 5 and 8, inherited from Brendan Rodgers), two in both 2016/17 (#4 and 8) and 2017/18 (#3 and 8). Once satisfied with his final squad, he has left none since. Until Loris Karius, no player numbered 1 to 11 had gone out on loan. His shirt remained allocated to him during his first season out (2018/19), but given to Alisson in 2019/20.

Yet another reminder of the eleven numbers representing pitch positions can be seen in games played by junior teams – e.g., LFC under-23s - who discard their official squad numbers in favour of the pre-1993 arrangement. The Premier League Youth Department confirms that it is up to each club to determine the numbers worn during junior matches. In accordance with the FA rules, LFC Women play with modern, post-1993 squad numbers, but in international tournaments, you can still find matches in which women’s teams operate on different systems.

Explanatory websites, and commentators waiting for a match to start, still try to relate numbers to positions on the pitch, in the belief that they help in predicting what tactics a manager will employ. Slowly, however, the change brought about in 1993 should force a reliance on the known attributes of the players themselves, no matter what number they are carrying on their shirts. It will require a reporter of some considerable skill to work out how to do it in such a way that we are no longer hung up on a system which died almost thirty years ago. However, that is not helped by the nostalgic delight shown when, by chance and very rarely, a team is fielded wearing numbers 1 to 11!

Written by Colin Rogers for LFChistory.net

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