In the course of a conversation with a friend (hard to believe, we accept, that running a blog like this is not a complete impediment to positive human interaction) last week, we came to a realisation that not everybody has a base understanding of why certain numbers belong in certain positions.
He has a Gaelic football background (where teams of 15 generally line out in five lines, numbered 2-15 in order) and cited as an example that he was confused why 2 and 3 are traditionally at the opposite sides of the field in football. As a result, we were inspired to compose this post, the first of a series on the history and evolution of shirt numbering in football.
While numbers were first used in English league football by Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday in 1928, that was a one-off experiment it wasn’t until the 1933 FA Cup final that they gained wider notice, Everton wearing 1-11 and Manchester City 12-22. They became permanent the following season, and ran logically, according to the 2-3-5, or pyramid, system in fashion then. Numbers 2 and 3 were the full-backs, a term which remains today.
By the 1930s, however, 2-3-5 was already dying out, with many teams switching to what was known as the W-M formation, dropping an extra player back to deal with changes in the offside laws. By and large in Britain, it was the central player of the three half-backs who was placed between the full-backs but kept the number 5. Like full-back, centre-half is a term which remains despite its meaning having changed.
While the 3-3-4 was briefly in vogue, with the number 8 playing alongside 4 and 6 in what was now known as midfield, Brazil’s winning of the 1958 World Cup with a 4-2-4 prompted others to try to ape that system. In Britain, it was usually the left-half who was withdrawn into central defence alongside 5.
While leading to attacking football, the 4-2-4 wasn’t the most defensively solid of formations and so, gradually, the wide forwards, 7 and 11, came to play deeper as well. This gave us the 4-4-2.