We never thought that we’d become one of those ‘everything were better in my day’ merchants, but the truth of it is that we have, especially when it comes to shirt numbering.
If it were up to us, we’d get rid of squad numbers and make everyone go 1-11, or at the very least limit the numbering to 1-25 and dispense with names on shirts (we are aware of the commercial realities which mean this will never happen). Every so often, though, it is good to get a reminder that the past shouldn’t always be viewed through rose-tined glasses either.
A game between Arsenal and Liverpool towards the end of the 1989-90 season provides a good example of this. Both sides had number 1 in goal (obvs) and 9 and 10 up front but, beyond that, there were a few discrepancies. Let’s look at Arsenal first:
Not a whole lot wrong, with David O’Leary wearing 8 at right-back the stand-out according to ITV’s pre-match graphics. That shows a 4-4-2, with Lee Dixon pushed up to midfield, but there is a chance that Arsenal actually played a sweeper system, which George Graham was fond of.
The presence of Perry Groves – more of a winger than a midfielder – would seem to endorse the 4-4-2 idea. In most of his Arsenal career, Paul Davis wore either 4 or 8, and 7 playing in the middle in Graham’s time wasn’t completely unheard of but it was something of a rarity. If Arsenal’s numbering was out of the ordinary, though, then Liverpool’s certainly raised an eyebrow:
Let’s be honest, it looks fairly incongruous, doesn’t it? And yet, it can be explained, kind of.
As our starting point, we have to accept Liverpool’s esoteric numbering of that time – Argentine-esque – as an article of faith. In that regard, 2 and 6 playing centre-back and 11 and 5 alongside each other in midfield are all present and correct, along with 3 and 9 in their the conventional spots.
Liverpool were trying to ward off Aston Villa in the title race and a forgotten quality of Kenny Dalglish was that he was well able to set up a side to get a draw (which they did here, 1-1). John Barnes playing off Ian Rush was a better MO than someone like Peter Beardsley or Ronny Rosenthal as Barnes could drop back into midfield. Therefore, it was logical that the extra centre-back – the late Gary Ablett in this case – would take the number 7 normally used by the support striker.
Steve Nicol was an outstanding right-back, but he was a real Swiss Army knife of a player and during his career with Liverpool he played in every outfield position. Not matter where he was sited, he had number 4 on his back, having kept it when he initially moved from centre-back to right-back.
In a game like this, his defensive qualities would come in handy in midfield as he could add extra heft to the back five when required. He played in midfield quite a bit in this season and the ‘proper’ right-back – Steve Staunton here, despite being left-footed, or Ablett or Gary Gillespie – would then take the number 8 which Ray Houghton generally wore.
That’s how you end up with a defence of 8-2-6-7-3. Seems simple now, doesn’t it?