Lucky numbers

In football, a number is more than just a number

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Football transfers are about numbers. There are the EuroMillions-level headline fees and the eye-watering weekly salaries, both reflecting the insanely overheated yet entirely logical market of the one true global sport’s ruthless meritocracy. 

Call me weird, but the first figure I look for in a transfer is neither of the above

Call me weird, but the first figure I look for in a transfer is neither of the above. It’s the incoming player’s shirt number, for in that can be seen history, mythology, psychology, expectations and so much more: all vital parts of the mosaic which make the game endlessly fascinating. Former Fulham and US player Clint Dempsey said “the man makes the number: the number doesn’t make the man”, but often the relationship is more symbiotic and nuanced than that.

Before the Premiership introduced squad numbers for the 1993-4 season, players lined up for any given match as 1-11, which in a traditional 4-4-2 system saw the goalkeeper wearing 1, full-backs 2 and 3, centre-backs 5 and 6, wide midfielders 7 and 11, central midfielders 4 and 8, and strikers 9 and 10. 

Some of that still applies. It feels wrong to see defenders wearing attacking numbers, as João Cancelo (7), Khalid Boulahrouz (9) and William Gallas (10) did for Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal respectively. And if you know nothing about a team, look first for the 9 and 10: the former as designated target man, the latter having morphed over the years into the side’s most creative player. 

This was why James Maddison waited until mere hours before the start of this season to secure the Tottenham number 10 just vacated by Harry Kane: why, too, Kane himself was only ever going to be 9 at Bayern Munich, following in the footsteps of Gerd Müller and Robert Lewandowski, the two highest scorers in Bundesliga history.

At some clubs, a number is more than just a number. When Mason Mount moved from Chelsea to Manchester United this summer, the United manager Erik ten Hag not only offered him the 7 shirt but positively encouraged him to take it, to live up to its history, to add his own legacy to those of Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham, Eric Cantona, Bryan Robson and George Best. And at Newcastle, Callum Wilson knows that his 9 shirt invites inevitable comparisons with Alan Shearer, Andy Cole, Malcolm Macdonald and Jackie Milburn. “If I can emulate half of what they’ve done, I’d like to attempt that.”

it works the other way too, of course. Only two Premiership clubs began this season without a 9 in their squads: Wolves, who had just sold Raúl Jiménez to Fulham, and Chelsea, for whom the number has long been nothing but trouble. 

In recent years Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Romelu Lukaku, Álvaro Morata and Fernando Torres — all big-name players — have worn it without success: you have to go back 20 years to Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, the last man to do the shirt justice. “I understand players being superstitious,” says Mark Stein, one of Hasselbaink’s predecessors, “but if I was still playing I would want that No 9 shirt. It’s part of the tradition and the history of the club, and it should be an honour and a privilege to wear it.”

Although the iconography of 1-11 dies hard — in the close season Arsenal’s William Saliba moved from 12 to 2, and Liverpool’s Luis Díaz and Darwin Núñez from 23 to 7 and 27 to 9 respectively — there are also plenty of players who embrace higher numbers. 

Thierry Henry will always be linked with 14 at Arsenal (a number he was given rather than one chosen as a tribute to Johan Cruyff, though the comparison didn’t hurt). Roy Keane took the 16 shirt when joining Manchester United, and never let it go. “I think it might have kept me on my toes, being outside the 1-11.” (His successor in the shirt, Michael Carrick, was more phlegmatic. “[Sir Alex Ferguson] said, ‘What squad number do you want?’ I said, ‘I’m not fussed, to be honest.’ He said, ‘What about No 16?’ So I said, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ And literally, that was the conversation. I really didn’t give a monkey’s.”)

Jude Bellingham has donned 22 for Birmingham City, Borussia Dortmund and England because a coach told him he could be three midfielders in one: holding (4), box-to-box (8) and attacking (10). Total: 22. That number was already taken at Real Madrid, so he chose 5 instead, as once worn by Zinedine Zidane: both sweet homage to a boyhood hero and steely-eyed statement of intent, to prove himself worthy of the mantle.

declan rice and Trent Alexander-Arnold have more than 200 Premiership appearances apiece, but they still wear 41 and 66 respectively because those were the numbers they were originally assigned as youth players: an attachment to their roots, a reminder of where they started and how far they’ve come. 

But perhaps the most resonant story behind a top-flight number belongs to Manchester City’s Phil Foden. He wears 47 because that was the age at which Ronnie, his beloved grandfather and huge City fan, died. Behind every player, no matter how celebrated and successful, are those who helped, supported, loved and believed in him on the long way up. When offered the 10 shirt after Sergio Agüero left the Etihad, the Stockport Iniesta was having none of it. “[It’s] such a big number in the club, but I just have a thing with 47. I’d like to create my own legacy and keep that number.” 

With 15 major trophies at the age of only 23, he’s well on the way to doing just that. 

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