History By Numbers: How Shirt Numbers Can Help Us Analyse Tactics
Before the First World War football in Britain was played in a specific way. Everyone used the same formation. The ‘pyramid’ (a 2-3-5) was the way that sides lined up, as sure as the goal was eight yards wide.
The full backs were the defenders. They didn’t venture too far up the field and were charged with tackling the opposition forwards. The half backs provided some cover for the defence, but were mainly there to get the ball down the pitch so that the forwards could score goals. The forwards attacked the goal. None were expected to track back and defend. The wingers ran up and down the touch lines, often by dribbling past defenders, and provided crosses to the centre forward. Meanwhile the inside forwards were creative types who fed passes in for the centre forward to score.
When shirt numbers were introduced to make it easier to identify players, the numbers reflected the times. Teams were usually announced in match-day programmes and in the press with the goalkeeper at the top and the forwards at the bottom. In this format it was logical to hand out the shirts based on the order one read them off the team sheet. 1 for the goalkeeper, 2 and 3 for the full backs, 4, 5 and 6 for the half backs, and 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 for the forwards. A simple system so that everyone knew what position they were playing and who they were supposed to mark.
With the introduction of squad numbers and a multitude of formations in the game today, the numbers have ceased to mean anything. William Gallas, for example, wore the number 10 shirt at Arsenal, but it would be a pretty brave man who tried to argue that he played as the inside left for Wenger’s team.
Go to any match below Blue Square Conference Premier level, though, and you will see a familiar numerical sequence in any side playing a 4-4-2. From top to bottom: 1-2-5-6-3-7-4-8-11-9-10.
So, why exactly have the numbers become scrambled? And what can this teach us about football tactics today?
1920s and W-M
In 1925 the Football Association changed the offside law so that only two players had to be between the attacker and the goal when the ball was played. In previous seasons, three players had been required. This was a major change to the law, and would not be amended again until 1990 when being “level” with the second-last defensive player was considered “on-side”.
On the diagram opposite, the number 11 has the ball for the red team, attacking the goal to the left.
|A||Ahead of the second-last defender||Offside||Offside||Offside|
|B||Level with the second-last defender||Offside||Offside||Onside|
|C||Ahead of the third-last defender||Offside||Onside||Onside|
|D||Level with the third-last defender||Offside||Onside||Onside|
The law allowed defending teams to play a very aggressive offside trap. The full backs would push high up the pitch just before the opponent made a pass. Because there needed to be three defenders behind the attacker, it only required one of the two full backs to be successful. When this was combined with the fact that being “level” with the last defender was also considered offside, the trap was incredibly easy to play.
It was also incredibly effective. The result was that football was played in a narrow band a few yards either side of the halfway line. Once the law was changed, playing the offside trap became a much riskier business. It required both full backs to time their runs perfectly. If one sagged back too much, acres of space would be opened up to the forwards. The amount of goals scored dramatically increased.
To compensate, Herbert Chapman invented the W-M formation, so-called because it looked like a W sitting atop an M on the pitch. The centre half was retired into the defensive line along with the full backs. This provided extra cover against the five opposition forwards. To help the remaining half backs cope with the pressure in the centre of the field, the inside forwards (the creative ball players) were dragged into the midfield.
This provided a new notation: 1-2-5-3-4-6-8-10-7-9-11.
Teams from different parts of the world arrived at 4-4-2 through a number of different routes. Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid provides an excellent history of the developments. It’s also worth mentioning that not all countries used 4-4-2, and they certainly didn’t use the same shirt numbers (which, as Wilson shows, caused major confusion when England played Hungary). But for the purposes of this article we will simplify the process.
As football developed and teams became more technically, tactically and physically adept, it became clear that only having one central defender was a massive drawback. Through the decades, teams pulled another half back into the defensive line. They also realised that wing forwards were a luxury no side could afford. Wingers needed to provide their fair share of defensive cover, and so they retired to positions more akin to the half back line than the forward line.
If this had been done in isolation, the remaining half back would have swamped in the centre of the field, so an inside forward was pulled even deeper to help out. This left one inside forward and one centre forward as the attacking outlets.
Our new layout, then, is 1-2-5-6-3-7-4-8-11-9-10. But what does this tell us about football in general – other than the fact that English football was so conservative that it wouldn’t formally recognise the death of the 2-3-5 system (the “only” system) decades after the last remaining sides abandoned it as archaic?
Well, let’s take apart the 4-4-2 as it is usually played. First, most teams make the distinction between the “full backs” (2 and 3) and the “centre backs” or “centre halves” (5 & 6). The full backs are wing defenders who push forward in the attacking phase to support the midfield. The centre backs, meanwhile, tend to be purely defensive players who concentrate first and foremost in denying space and opportunities to the opposition forwards.
Second, most teams make a distinction between the wingers and the central midfielders. The wingers are wide players who attack the opposition flanks, providing crosses to the forwards and generally dribbling with the ball to create space. The central midfielders are usually delineated as a “holding” midfielder and an “attacking” midfielder. The difference may not be entirely formal, but one will usually see a bigger, more defensive type who holds his position and a more creative passer who plays balls from the centre of the park and supports the forwards when necessary. This can be seen as the difference between the half back (4) and the inside forward (8).
Finally, the forwards are usually given different roles. In the classic British setup we would have the centre forward (often referred to as the “number 9”) who is the poacher-type player. The “out-and-out goalscorer” in the mould of Lineker or Shearer. Then there is the more creative player who makes the space and the passes. The “number 10” playmaker type forward in the mould of Beardsley or Sheringham.
How is this useful?
Most sides, at the highest level at least, do not use a 4-4-2 any more. Those that do are very often not playing the British 4-4-2 of the 1970s and 1980s. They certainly don’t confine their squad numbers to particular positions. Yet the legacy of the 2-3-5 can help us understand and describe what players do.
We can look at, for example, the 4-2-3-1. If we break it down by numbers we begin to see how it is supposed to work.
The back four is the same shape as the back four in a 4-4-2. 2-5-6-3. The central midfielders play deeper. One is the anchor man, the other a more creative deep-lying playmaker. A number 4 (half back in the old 2-3-5) and a number 8 (inside forward), perhaps? On the wings we have attacking players, numbers 7 and 11. Between them we have an advanced creative playmaker (10) and a centre forward (9).
Most teams will play with a more defensive midfielder whose role is to cover in the centre of the pitch. Most will also play with a more attacking, creative midfielder. Of course, there are myriad ways in which those roles might be executed; creative players can be deep like Pirlo or Modric; and defensive midfielders can harry from the front, as Park Ji-Sung has been known to do for Manchester United. But if we can identify these players (or a lack of them) we can begin to see why a team is (or isn’t) balanced in its whole setup.
For example, it’s often claimed that Manchester City at the beginning of the 2010/11 season were playing with three holding midfielders. If they were, can we really see three “number fours” on the field?
Perhaps not. Let’s look at their win against Chelsea earlier on in the season. Certainly Nigel de Jong played as a 4 – the enforcer in the centre. But Gareth Barry would get forward and play passes from time to time. He might be the 8. And Yaya Touré, the most advanced of the three, might be considered the number 10 (for a lack of better candidates).
However – the 8 (Barry) did not get forward that much, and he covered far more than he attacked. Touré was also not great at penetrating and supporting the forward. The lack of balance in the way the roles were performed made City look incredibly defensive. Given that Barry played “4” for England, and Yaya “4” for Barcelona, it is perhaps unsurprising that the myth that City played three holding midfielders persisted.
The legacy of numbers
We still use the old numbering system. It still helps us to understand the footballing world around us.
Whenever we talk about a forward playmaker, many will describe the role as “the number 10”. At lower levels, you may hear about the “nine-on-five battle” as the centre back duals with the centre forward to win the balls which arrive in the air. The number 9 shirts at many English clubs are iconic, worn as they were by the great goal scorers. We even have started talking about “false nines” – players who appear to be playing in the centre forward position but drop deep when the team gains possession in order to create space and confusion in the opposition’s defence.
Some of the key balancing issues in modern football revolve around the old numbers. The holding midfielder, the passing midfielder, the striker, the creative forward; they can be written in short hand as 4, 8, 9 and 10. They may perform in that numerical role in a multitude of ways, and their shirt back may read anything from 2 to 99. But it’s certainly worth looking out for.