Guilty pleasures at Christmas

Early in the life of this blog, we elaborated – or tried to, at any rate – on the things about squad numbers which got our goat. It’s not to suggest, by the way, that we’re perfect ourselves, as proven by the fact we once signed attacking midfielder Stefano Fiore for Roma in CM99-00 and gave him the vacant number 6 rather than 28.

It seems only fair, therefore, that we should welcome the upcoming festive season with a balancing article which looks at the things which don’t follow the ‘classic’ numbering pattern but for which we have a ‘grá’ [it’s an Irish word similar to ‘affection’, pronounced ‘graw’]. The fact that each example has a caveat helps to ease our conscience.

We’ll limit our own to three, but we’ll open the floor to suggestions:

1. Number 2 at centre-back (but only if 4 is right-back)

Ryan McGarrity entered my office. The Northern Irish youngster had performed well since breaking into the Cork City team, forming a strong partnership at centre-back with German international Jurgen Becker. I should point out at this stage in the story that it technically occurred in the setting of a game of Football Manager 2012.

Captain Nathan Todd was retiring. He only had the armband for a year and was only ever intended to be stopgap after the retirement of club stalwart Aiden Kelly, who had come up through the ranks and gone on to become the Republic of Ireland left-back as well as winning everything domestically and leading the club to the Champions League group stages.

As Todd was getting on in years, I decided to leave him in the number 13 shirt he had made his own in proving a highly dependable back-up for Kelly or else playing in front of him at midfield. That was fine, but McGarrity was going to be the new captain, hopefully for more than a decade, so he couldn’t keep 17. Becker wore 5 and Lars Larsson, a D/DM C of high quality, was still an important squad member despite getting on and I couldn’t just take 4 off him. There was another vacant number, though.

“You’re the new captain,” I told McGarrity, “and you’re also the new number 2.”

“Am I moving to right-back?” he asked, incredulously.

“No, you’re staying where you are but I can’t have my long-term captain wearing a number higher than 11. You’d end up riding team-mates’ former girlfriends, parking in spaces reserved for disabled drivers and getting up to no good in general.”

Kasado was the first-choice right-back and kept number 22 until Larsson left at the age of 35. The Brazilian was also capable of playing centre-back and so 4 was a good fit for him. Most of the rest of the first team wore the ‘right’ numbers though and so, in some European games, when Larsson would come on for Swiss playmaker Adolfo Cappelletti as we switched to 4-1-4-1, the right-back was nominally number 10. It was an occupational hazard.

Apart from fictional examples, Argentina haven’t done too badly with 4 at right-back and 2 in the middle, while it worked out okay too for Liverpool in the 1980s.

2. Number 9 in the hole behind a strikeforce of 8 and 10

The ‘three foreigners’ rule came against Barcelona in the 1994 Champions League final as Johan Cruyff had to drop Michael Laudrup to accommodate Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov and Romario. Without limitations, the Spanish side may have put up more of a fight against AC Milan, who beat them 4-0, but then maybe Milan might have had better foreigners too.

In La Liga, however, Barça played some lovely stuff. While they took the title based on their head-to-head record with Deportivo La Coruña, the sides were 10 clear of third-placed Real Zaragoza and this was with only two points for a win – had it been three then Cruyff’s side would have won the title.

With no restrictions on foreigners, Laudrup provided the bullets for Stoichkov and Romario, who had arrived from PSV Eindhoven. The Dane retained the number 9 he had worn in a more advanced role with Romario taking 10 and it just looked right – we wouldn’t have been as keen on, say, 8 and 11 or 7 and 10. Honourable mention for Arsenal in 1996-97, with Paul Merson playing behind Ian Wright and Denis Bergkamp.

3. Number 7 in central midfield but only if 8 or 10 plays on the right

Bryan Robson is mentioned a fair bit in this piece about Manchester United number 7s and he’s the first example of this trope who springs to mind.

We can’t exactly say why, but we like the look of a 7 being an all-round, domineering midfield, possibly more so than one in the playmaking role, though that fits fine too.

If 4 or 6 were moved to the right to accommodate this, then the OCD alarm might begin to sound, likewise 11 as it would mean another central number moving across to the left. A small amount of ‘wrong’ numbers is bearable, but don’t go too far with it.

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Alphabetical numbering systems at the World Cup

First off, a confession. Here at this blog, we’re awful snobs with an inflated sense of self-worth.

If you read any article about numbering in football, the chances are that it will include a reference to Ivan Zamorano putting a plus between the digits on his number 18 shirt at Inter as he was piqued at having to switch so that Ronaldo could wear 9. Mention will also be made about the the 1978 World Cup final being played between two teams who had alphabetical numbering (only half-right) and there’ll probably be some reference to Nicklas Bendtner’s number 52 as well (it’s the cover pic on the @squadnos Twitter account but that’s more taking the piss out of him than anything else).

We wanted to go further than the usual surface-scratching, to provide something different, something informative and also interesting. Some of the things always mentioned in the identikit articles on numbers are important, though, and, in the interests of fairness, they must be examined at some stage too. We will start with one of those now, viz. the alphabetical numbering, part of a wider examination of World Cup systems. It warrants special attention as, for so long, the Mundial was our only exposure to squad numbers.

Okay, let’s start with the first instance of a team numbered alphabetically at the World Cup. Not the Netherlands or Argentina, but rather Chile, France, Italy and Switzerland in 1966. France and Switzerland made concessions for goalkeepers, 1, 21 and 22 in the case of France while the Swiss had 1, 12 and 22. Chile attacker Pedro Araya had the distinction of being the first outfielder to wear 1 at a World Cup while Italy’s method may have gone unnoticed or misinterpreted.

At the time, many countries had their goalkeepers as the first two or three players numerically, and coincidentally Enrico Albertosi and Roberto Anzolin wore 1 and 2. The third keeper, Pierluigi Pizzaballa was 18. Of those four countries, only Italy were in Mexico in 1970 and this time they seemed to have no joined-up approach – 2, 3, 4, 5 and 10 were defenders, 6, 7, 8 and 9 were midfielders and 11 was an attacker. No other country went alphabetical but in 1974 that style was seen again.

Argentina gave their goalkeepers 1, 12 and 21 but everybody else was alphabetical – apparently, there had been disagreements about who’d wear what – and the Netherlands also tried it (insert clichéd line about it being appropriate that numbers didn’t represent positions in Total Football). Surnames with ‘van’ (which means ‘of’) or ‘de’ (‘the’) were considered as beginning with the first letter of the next word, so Wim van Hanegam was 3. Only one surname began with any of the first six letters of the alphabet but, as that was Johan Cruyff and he wanted 14, Ruud Geels wore 1. Captain Cruyff was the only exception.

In 1978, Argentina went the whole hog so midfielder Nolberto Alonso was 1, with goalkeepers Hector Baley and Ubaldo Fillol 3 and 5 respectively. First-choice goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed retained 8 for the Dutch but that was because the survivors from ’74 played in the same numbers but otherwise there was no pattern. Back-up goalkeeper Piet Schrijvers wore 1.

fillol5 fillol7

Alphabetical numbering would last for two more World Cups, but never again would it be practised in an undiluted form. England got in on the act for Spain ’82 (true to form, 16 years after the trend began) but 1, 13 and 22 were goalkeepers and captain Kevin Keegan was allowed to wear his favoured 7. Argentina didn’t make goalkeepers exempt – Fillol was 7 now – also allowed a key player to deviate as Diego Maradona would have been 12 but he was allowed to swap with Patricio Hernandez so that he could take 10. The very reason the country had introduced the system was being ignored.

england82

For Mexico ’86, the discrepancy was highlighted further, as Daniel Passarella demanded 6 and Jorge Valdano sought to wear 11. Maradona was again 10 but otherwise the rest of the squad – those who wouldn’t or couldn’t speak up for themselves, in other words – were done alphabetically. We suppose that it should be recorded that Argentina managed to win this World Cup despite the fraying of the fabric of their numbering.

If you look at the 1990 Argentinean squad, on first glance it might appear alphabetical but 2 was midfielder Sergio Batista and striker Abel Balbo was 3 with Jose Basualdo 4. There might be some logic there but we’ll have to examine that further.

Edit: The 1990 scheme was similar to the Netherlands in 1978, in that the survivors from ’86 retained their numbers, though, unlike the Dutch, everybody else was alphabetical. The exception to this was goalkeeper Nery Pumpido, who switched from 18 to 1 as the netminders were 1, 12 and 22. The players to buck the alphabetical trend were Batista, Jorge Burruchaga (7), Maradona, Ricardo Giusti (14) and Oscar Ruggeri (19).

The History of Numbers: Argentina

Recently, we examined how the ‘classic’ English numbering system came into being through a series of gradual changes. Different methods evolved in different countries, however, and we shall endeavour to show how this happened, if you can cope with the unfortunate jpeg compression that comes from having a rudimentary skill-level with graphics programs (MS Paint and Paint Shop Pro 7, in case you’re curious).

If you’re on this site, you probably have more than a passing interest in numbers and therefore it’s likely you have wondered more than once why South American teams tend to have the number 5 in midfield. For Argentina, for example, Fernando Redondo, Esteban Cambiasso, Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago have all been what is known as ‘el volante’ or ‘the rudder’.

To find out, we have to go back to the W-M. In the 2-3-5, everybody was numbered the same 2 and 3 in defence, 4,5 and 6 the half-backs and 7-11 across the forward line. With the change to three in defence, however, there was no set in formula. Where the number 5 dropped back between the full-backs in England, in Argentina it was the right-half who now operated as a right-back, with the other two shunted across.

W-MArg

When a four-man defence was adopted, as in Britain it was the number 6 who became a centre-back, but here he partnered the number 2 with 3 moving across to left-back. Number 8 became a midfielder while 10 withdrew slightly from the attack. Eventually, this would become a 4-3-3, with 5, 8 and 10 in midfield.

4-2-4Arg

Later, the number 11 became the left-midfielder with 7 partnering 9 up front, though playing in more of a withdrawn role. This is the numbering style that Argentina have used more or less to the present day. Incidentally, it’s not far off what Liverpool had in their pomp either, but’s for another blog.

 4-4-2Arg