It’s a bit of a trick question: when was the last time a team played in the Premier League numbered from 1 to 11?
Watching Arsenal away to Aston Villa recently got us thinking. When number 7 Tomas Rosicky, 9 Lukas Podolski and 10 Jack Wilshere came on for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (15), Danny Welbeck (23) and Aaron Ramsey (16), it meant that the Gunners had nine players on the pitch whose numbers were 11 or lower. Numbers 19 Santi Cazorla and 21 Calum Chambers were the two exceptions and had number 2 Mathieu Debuchy been fit then he would likely have been right-back instead of Chambers. Number 5 was the only one missing and that has been vacant since Thomas Vermaelen joined Barcelona.
The last time a team played 1-11 in the Premier League? The occasion was February 10, 2008, when Manchester United played Manchester City at Old Trafford, a game used to mark the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster. Paying homage, United wore a replica of the 1958 kit and wore 1-11. Naturally, Edwin van der Sar was 1 and Rio Ferdinand (5), Cristiano Ronaldo (7), Anderson (8) and Ryan Giggs (11) retained their squad numbers. Wes Brown was the first-choice right-back that season and wore 2 even though his squad number was 6. John O’Shea switched from 22 to 3, Nemanja Vidic from 15 to 4.
In midfield, Nani, normally 17, donned 6, and Paul Scholes got to wear 10 instead of 18 while up front Carlos Tevez swapped 32 for 9. That was an engineered situation, however, so when was the last time it happened ‘naturally’?
In the first year of squad numbers, 1993-94, Manchester United started their game away to Newcastle United 1-11, basically the first-choice team when winning the league in ’93 before Roy Keane arrived and made 16 one of the first numbers on the teamsheet. Also that season, Arsenal finished their game away to Oldham looking numerically neat when number 7 Kevin Campbell replaced 18 David Hillier. In the second half of the season, they did revert to playing 1-11 instead of squad numbers (players still wore names on shirts, meaning there could be five different number 4 shirts, for example) but this experiment was abandoned by the start of 94-95.
As far as we can see, Charlton Athletic’s opening two games of 1998-99 were the last time that the players in the squad numbers from 1 to 11 formed a starting team in the Premier League – presumably they felt the need to apologise for the alphabetical numbering of 1993-94. Once the Addicks started losing, panic buys ensued but, as there were no gaps in the squad, we were treated to the joys of seeing Martin Pringle wear 39 and Graham Stuart don 40.
If there has been a more recent example of this beautiful phenomenon in the Premier League (there are a few instances of it happening in the World Cup and European Championship in the last few years – they will form another piece), please let us know.