Manchester United players quizzed on historical squad numbers

We expected more from Michael Carrick but he kind of redeemed himself with the David Beckham answer.

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1-11 at international level; vacant Premier League numbers

At the time of writing (lunchtime on Tuesday), there are still nine internationals to be played in what are now being referred to as the European Qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup.

By the end of the round of fixtures, it looks like we’ll be left with a total of three countries, of the 54 in action, to have begun the game with their team numbered 1-11 – England, the Netherlands and Scotland. Even Gibraltar and the newly-formed Kosovo had squad numbers.

England stick to the origins, and, while Scotland’s system isn’t the most perfect, they still deserve kudos for not buckling.

We have doffed our hats to the Netherlands in the past, of course, and while all the rest of Tuesday’s participants are listed by squad number on the UEFA site, the Dutch players have zeroes next to their names.

Of the other nations, Denmark and Wales (who have form, to be fair) came closest, starting with nine 1-11 players:

It was also interesting to note a reassignment of some numbers in the wake of retirements. Mesut Ozil is now the Germany number 10 after Lukas Podolski’s departure – apparently he wants it at Arsenal too – while the Republic of Ireland have replaced one Robbie with another at 10.

Robbie Keane signed off with a goal in the friendly against Oman last week and for the game with Serbia last night, Robbie Brady inherited it, having previously been associated with 19. Brady played in midfield in the 2-2 draw but has played most often at left-back in recent times. We have to say, we’re feeling a bit nervous.

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Elsewhere, all of the Premier League squad numbers have been finalised, following the closing of the transfer window.

Of the 220 available 1-11 numbers, 24 – or just under 11 percent – are empty.

Liverpool are the worst offenders, leaving 4, 8 and 9 vacant. Obviously, Steven Gerrard’s old number is still seen as a heavy burden which can’t be given to just anyone, but surely Ragnar Klavan – who wore 5 at Augsburg – could have taken the 4 freed up by Kolo Touré’s departure, rather than 17?

Daniel Sturridge was offered number 9 before Christian Benteke came but turned it down. Speaking of players who have left Liverpool on loan, Lazar Markovic isn’t wearing 50 anymore:

Bournemouth, Hull City, Leicester City, Middlesbrough and Southampton have allocated all of the numbers from 1-11. The most unused number is 2, which isn’t used at Everton, either of the Manchester clubs or Watford.

Séamus Coleman could have taken 2 – which he wears for Ireland – when Tony Hibbert retired but has stuck with 23, while Matteo Darmian opted for 36 upon arrival at Manchester United and remains there (he does wear 4 for Italy).

Man City have two right-backs – Bacary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta – in their numerical first 11 but they wear 3 and 5 respectively. John Stones picked 24 rather than taking 2.

Tottenham, whose first-choice team wasn’t far off 1-11 last season, have 6 and 8 free, with Eric Dier and Dele Alli opting to keep their 15 and 20 respectively. Moussa Sissoko wouldn’t have been a bad fit at 8 but will wear 17, having been 7 at Newcastle United.

Liverpool and Manchester United tidy up their squad numbers, 1996

We do enjoy when clubs ‘tidy up’ their numbers, i.e. the re-assignment of first-teamers with higher numbers. Arsenal giving Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey 7 and 8 respectively for the coming season is an example (though Granit Xhaka wearing 29 isn’t as nice), while Tottenham Hotspur’s re-jigging in the summer of 1999 was very pleasing.

As the days of 1-11 fade further, there is less of this re-allocation of numbers, with most one-off instances pushed by the player in question. In 1996, though, there was still a culture of wanting something close to the first XI in the lowest numbers and the two biggest clubs in England effected big alterations. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, given that Liverpool and Manchester United are already responsible for two of the widest-ranging articles on this site (here for Liverpool’s unique numbering system of the 70s-90s and here for the story of the United number 7).

In the spring of ’96, an Eric Cantona-inspired United were reeling in Newcastle United in the Premier League title race, while Liverpool – using what Johnny Giles had described as “a three-man back four” – were playing some exellent stuff, eventually winding up in third place in the table.

The clubs also made it to the FA Cup final, with Cantona’s goal giving United a 1-0 win to clinch the double. It is, to be fair, worth noting that that goal came in the 85th minute, and had more to do with David James’ uncertain goalkeeping than Liverpool’s choice of pre-match attire.

These are the way the sides lined out for the final (Liverpool wore a green-and-white quartered change kit but representing that would make the numbers harder to see, which is, after all, the point of the whole thing):

With both goalkeepers wearing 1, between them the sides had nine players numbered above 11, but, if the same two line-ups had met three months later, there would have been just two offenders:

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Let’s start with Liverpool. When Roy Evans decided to switch to a 3-5-2, it meant that Mark Wright (5) and Phil Babb (6) were joined by John Scales (12). Ideally, he would have taken 4 but Jason McAteer, playing right wing-back, had that, with number 2 Rob Jones switching to the left flank. Therefore, it made sense to give Scales 3, which had been vacant since Julian Dicks re-joined West Ham United during 1994-95.

In midfield, Jamie Redknapp, John Barnes and Steve McManaman somehow made an effective trio, despite the seeming lack of defending/attacking balance. Obviously, Barnes had been 10 since joining at the start of 1987-88, and 7 and 11 were empty after the departures of Nigel Clough and Mark Walters respectively. Looking at it objectively, Redknapp might have been a better fit for 7 but, given its mythology at Anfield, it made sense for McManaman to take that with Redknapp in 11.

The other switch was the most straightforward. Robbie Fowler had been 23 since his breakthrough in 1993-94, but with Ian Rush leaving after the final, Fowler to 9 was a no-brainer. More satisfying still was the re-tooling didn’t stop with the first XI, as Steve Harkness – whose brief loan spell with Hudderfield should have had more headline-love – moved from 22 to the 12 vacated by Scales, and Neil Ruddock swapped 25 for 14.

Sadly, the cup final side never played together again and we were robbed of seeing the 1-11 in action. Redknapp and Jones both suffered with injuries – the latter only made two appearances in 1996-97 – while Scales was sold to Tottenham. Incidentally, we have a clear memory of Liverpool trying something similar before 1994-95, with Ruddock moving to 6 and Fowler taking 12 among others, but we haven’t been able to locate the copy of Match magazine in which this news featured. If anyone out there has it, we’d be delighted if you got in touch.

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In the first three seasons in the squad-number era, none of the Manchester United 1-11 numbers had been worn by more than one player in the league. However, 8 and 10 lay idle for 95-96 after Paul Ince and Mark Hughes left, and in the summer of ’95 Alex Ferguson had a mini clean-up – Gary Neville moved from 27 to 20, Paul Scholes from 24 to 22 and David Beckham from 28 to 24. All three were key components of the double-winning side, though Neville and Scholes were on the bench in the cup final – Neville’s place taken by his brother Philip with Denis Irwin moving across to right-back.

Gary Neville was still a first-choice for England during Euro 96 and there was never any likelihood of his staying out of the United team for long, so when Paul Parker left that summer, he was the natural choice for the number 2 shirt. Club captain Steve Bruce also departed, so David May switched from 12 to Bruce’s 4, with Philip Neville taking 12. The younger Neville had previously been 23.

Nicky Butt, 19 for the previous three years, move to take Ince’s old number 8 shirt while Beckham was given 10. The only instance of a 1-11 player being moved to accommodate a change was Brian McClair switching from 9 to 13 to allow Andy Cole inherit it. He had previously been 17 and, perhaps strangely, this was now given to new reserve goalkeeper Raimond van der Gouw.

Scholes made another move, from 22 to 18, in a straight swap with Simon Davies (this one, not that one), indicating the contrasting directions they were heading. New signing Ronny Johnsen took over the number 19, but in the Champions League he wore 5, following Lee Sharpe’s transfer to Leeds United, and would take it over permanently from 1997-98 on. Also wearing different numbers in Europe were Scholes and Phil Neville, 12 and 28 respectively. Basically, it was to do with UEFA’s rules on ‘A’- and ‘B’-listed players.

Ben Thornley (29 to 23) and John O’Kane (30 to 24) completed the downward movements. The one notable exception was Roy Keane, who kept 16 when taking 5 on Sharpe’s exit would have seemed expected. Apparently, he was later offered 7 by Ferguson but declined as having a higher number kept him motivated to prove himself.

His status as one of the first names on the teamsheet, and the lack of a number 5 in the league, meant that opportunities for United to play 1-11 were limited. The closest they came was in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final at home to Porto when, with Keane absent, Ferguson went with a very adventurous side and was rewarded with a 4-0 victory.

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Another Manchester United inconsistency

Following on from our look at the numerical inaccuracies of Actua Soccer Club Edition, here’s a real-life deviation from the norm, one we can’t explain.

In the summer of 1996, Manchester United underwent a numbers ‘clean-up’, as vacant 1-11 digits were filled. You can read about that, and a similar operation by Liverpool, in a comprehensive analysis here.

Other players moving were Philip Neville (23 to 12) and Paul Scholes, continuing his series of gradual reductions, moving to 18 from 22, having previously been 24. New signing Ronny Johnsen took Butt’s former 19, but all three players – Neville, Scholes and Johnsen – would have alternative numbers in the Champions League.

As a centre-back, Johnsen’s move to 5 makes sense, the number freed up by Lee Sharpe’s transfer to Leeds United before the deadline for the naming of the CL squad. As a result, Chris Casper – 26 domestically – had 19 in Europe.

The switches of Phil Neville and Scholes leave us bemused, however – Neville had 28 for continental games and Scholes wore 12 (the lowest number he wore for United in games where 1-11 wasn’t used). Just a clerical error, or something else? We don’t know, so if you do, please let us know.

The makers of Actua Soccer Club Edition may have been high

Or else they just had no respect for squad numbers. Take a look at the Manchester United team here – if you were picking the numbers out of a hat you’d expect to get more right than the three that they managed (Peter Schmeichel, Denis Irwin and Paul Scholes).

It could be said that it’s kind of like the old Italian and French ‘block’ numbering by position but, even then, Roy Keane wearing 2 makes no sense. Even if it were done right, we’re genuinely stumped as to why this would be the case when the correct info was so readily to hand.

Actua

Update: It would appear, from looking at the Arsenal team, that the block system was what was used generally, but clearly the number 2 held some mystical powers which allowed it to buck the trend – Paul Merson was the player to have it for the Gunners. David Seaman has the right number and that’s because they did at least make sure to give the goalkeeper 1, with Remi Garde the only other correct one.

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And, while we’re at it – given the subject matter of our other sites – the game’s dealing with kit-clashes wasn’t up to much either:

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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.