Every so often, we hear phrases about how numbers mean little these days in terms of positions, while articles on the subject will generally focus on egregious offences.
We felt that it was something which warranted a proper analysis, and so we trawled through the 23-man squads of the countries competing at Euro 2016, to see if historical patterns still prevailed and if any higher numbers had become heavily associated with particular positions.
By and large, transfermarkt.com and to a lesser extent Formation-x were used to verify players’ positions, though there were instances where we had to use our own judgment for those who line out in different roles for their countries compared to their clubs. You’ll probably never get it perfectly correct, but we’ve done our best. For example, ‘defensive midfielders’ takes in deep-lying playmakers, while someone like Cristiano Ronaldo is classed as a striker.
As always, opinions are just that, subjective and a bit irrational. Alternative views are always welcome. To start, an easy ‘one’:
It’s a rule that the number 1 shirt must be worn by one of the three goalkeepers in each squad, so no surprises here. Obviously, there is no number/position correlation as strong, but number 2 comes closer than most.
We like the cleanliness of this, 18 countries with a right-back wearing 2 and the other six giving it to a centre-back. It’s one of our guilty pleasures.
There isn’t as strong a connection between 3 and the left-back position, though – in fact, there are more centre-backs wearing it – understandably, given the historic links. We can just about put up with right-backs wearing it – more so than left-backs wearing 2 – but black marks against Northern Ireland’s Shane Ferguson and Ermir Lenjani, who play on the wing.
In Britain, 4 is primarily seen as the anchorman’s number, with centre-back running second, but you can see that that goes against the general trend. Ukraine captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is the only defensive midfielder to wear 4 (and that could be more due to his proclivity to wear 44 at club level than anything else), with England giving the number to James Milner while the best-suited player, Eric Dier, is wearing 17. Ivan Perišić of Croatia joins the Rogues’ Gallery of Badly-Numbered Left Wingers, while Matteo Darmian is one of three left-backs to wear it.
The centre-backiest of numbers in most of Europe, it matches 4’s tally of 15. There’s another Croatian oddity, with Šime Vrsaljko playing at right-back, while the South American practice of 5 as a midfielder is seen with Sergio Busquets – who has adopted it with Barcelona – and France’s N’Golo Kanté exponents of this, as is Ovidiu Hoban of Romania, where it is traditional.
Right-backs Michael Lang (Switzerland) and Albania’s Freddie Veseli are the sore thumbs, with Turkey attacking midfielder Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Italy right winger Antonio Candreva and left-midfielder Emil Forsberg of Sweden coming in for comment without being as offensive.
The lowest number to be worn by a striker, the extent of which surprises us – especially when attackers, central midfielders and left wingers outnumber the position with which it’s normally associated, the right flank. Hate mail to be directed to Turkey right-back Gökhan Gönül and Albania left-back Ansi Agolli.
Left-back David Limberský of the Czech Republic most certainly does not receive a pass just because he wears 8 for his club Viktoria Plzen.
The most clear-cut of the attacking numbers, as you might expect. For an odd reason, we’re more open to a right-winger wearing 9 than a left-winger, while the odd attacking midfielder is okay. The one defensive midfielder is Kim Källström, but it’s not a striker’s number there and also mitigating for him is the fact that he’s not a clogger.
The seven-eight split between attacking midfielders and strikers is fine. When Italy did their block-numbering thing, 10 could easily have been worn by a defensive midfielder but it’s odd to see it carried by Thiago Motta now. Switzerland’s Granit Xhaka – mentioned in two consecutive postings – is the other and he’s their best player so you can just about see some logic.
Another instance where the British system’s variance with a lot of Europe is displayed, as strikers wearing 11 are more plentiful than left wingers – though one of these on this occasion is England’s Jamie Vardy. Daniel Pudil of the Czech Republic’s crime of being a left-back would be heinous were it not for the decadent ways of RIGHT-BACKS Vierinha (Portugal) and Darijo Srna (Croatia) wearing the number which is historically the exact opposite of their position. Numbers, bloody hell. (Edit: Srna’s father died after Croatia’s game on Sunday so we’ll cut him some slack)
In the main, the 1-11 numbers continue to retain some of their heritages (plural, given that various systems developed in different parts of the world). Obviously, the higher numbers don’t have any such ties and so the dispersal isn’t as pronounced. Rather than going through each one (you can if you wish, though, click for larger versions), we’ll instead look at how each position is divided, further down the page.
The positional breakdowns:
The position spread across the fewest numbers – it’s not mandated that 2-11 can’t be worn but nobody has done so, and only 12, 13, 16, 21, 22 and 23 feature. While 13 is the traditional back-up number in England and Spain, the other three countries using it for a netminder have it coupled with 12.
In the days of 22-man squads, the last number was almost exclusive a goalkeeper’s number and, while 23 has outstripped it, it hasn’t fully disappeared. Similar to that, 16’s usage came about from giving it to the back-up on matchday when it was the last sub number; France, the Republic of Ireland, Russia and the Czech Republic continue to allocate it thus.
Why 13 and 14 are bereft of right-backs and 12, 20 and 22 don’t feature any left-backs, we’re not sure. Given the associations, it makes sense that 22 is the joint-second-highest number for right-backs.
The strong association between 15 and centre-backs came as a surprise – but, logically, 14 should be similar and isn’t. In our minds, 16 is a ‘normal’ central midfielder, but it features more on the backs of anchormen while 14 is oddly prominent with the all-rounders.
It’s a quirk of modern football and the change in formation that 41 players at the Euros can reasonably be identified as left midfielders but there are only 28 right midfielders. The maverick natures of some attacking midfielders can perhaps be linked with their usage of 23, while we would have expected 19 to be more popular with strikers than it is.
Rather than going through each country and shoehorning their 1-11 line-ups into ill-fitting formations, we will see who can acheive the closest to this as the games go on.
Of six European Championship finals competed in (1988 and 2012), the Republic of Ireland have started 1-11 in four (two at each tournament), but we’ll eat our hats if they do so again. England did it against Switzerland and Croatia in 2004, but their listing is just flawed enough to prevent similar.
Rest assured that we’ll keep you posted, though.