I Wanna Be In That Number

“11:15, restate my assumptions: 1. Mathematics is the language of nature. 2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. 3. If you graph these numbers, patterns emerge. Therefore: There are patterns everywhere in nature.”

That’s a quote from one of my favourite movies; Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, about a mathematician that hypothesises a pattern inherent in the stock market and so sets about finding it. In their hastily rearranged kit launch on Monday, Arsenal announced that Alexis Sánchez was to change his squad number to 7 for next season. Doing so served a dual purpose.

Firstly, it was marketing bait to persuade people not only to buy the new shirt, but to front up the extra cash to have the Chilean’s name and number printed on it. The move also set people’s mind to rest regarding his future, over which there has been some speculation. The allocation and reallocation of squad numbers always generates a lot of discussion amongst football fans. It seems an endearingly trivial thing that many of us hold a sustained and genuine interest in.

In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby theorised that the brain of the male football fan is especially predisposed to statistical recall. Anecdotally, he observed that male fans he knew were far more likely to recite any of the plethora of inconsequential data that whirs around the game than female fans he knew. Attendances, goal scorers, minutes in which goals were scored, appearances. Like the stock market in Aronofsky’s Pi, football is “a vast network, screaming with life. An organism. A natural organism.”

Hornby’s observation struck a chord with me. I am dyspraxic, which puts me in the curious position of possessing poor short term memory, yet simultaneously, I have a facility for long term recall comparable to people with autism. Whilst I am laughably hopeless at extrapolating statistical data, I can absorb numbers. In an idle moment a few months ago, I sat and wrote down the numbers 1-30, then noted the identities of every player that had been allotted those squad numbers since Arsene Wenger took over.

Whilst my personal example is somewhat extreme (though far from unique), shirt numbers hold our fascination for a number of reasons. They were originally the brainchild of Herbert Chapman, though he proposed a system whereby the home team were numbered from 1-11 and the away team 12-22. Nearly all of Chapman’s innovations had the paying public at their heart, because at their inception, shirt numbers were used to aid understanding.

As the influence of tactical rigour grew in the nascent game, shirt numbers denoted a player’s position. They were a way, not only of identifying players more easily, but of bringing order to the chaos of association football. When a Puskas inspired Hungary soundly defeated England at Wembley in 1953, commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme sounds agog as he learns that the innovative Hungarians have subverted shirt number convention. Indeed, some speculated that this was a deliberate tactic on the part of the Hungarians, designed to flummox the opposition.

The tactical connotations of shirt numbers largely remain in the 21st century, though the concept has relaxed slightly with the introduction of squad numbers. Some shirt numbers have mystical or iconic value. Brazil’s canary yellow number 10 shirt will forever be associated with Pele, just as Argentina’s will always be remembered as the intellectual property of Diego Maradona. A Netherlands shirt bearing the number 14 will forever be aligned with Johan Cruyff.

West Ham have retired their number 6 shirt in homage to Bobby Moore, just as Milan have their number 3 for Paolo Maldini. Milan insist that only Paolo’s son will be granted the honour of inheriting that number- fulfilling a kind of genetic destiny. Squad numbers have strengthened the extent to which shirt numbers form a strong visual part of a player’s individual ‘brand.’

Once absented, both Robin van Persie and Jack Wilshere made a grab for Arsenal’s number 10 shirt. This was largely, one assumes, a manifestation of how they saw themselves in the team. For Jack, it was probably a not so subtle hint about how high up he would like to play in the midfield. For van Persie, it was an expression of his true centre forward destiny, having spent a lot of his formative years shoehorned into the wide attacking positions that complement the number 11.

Squad numbers clearly have important connotations for players, as well as fans. Theo Walcott wanted Thierry Henry’s number 14 shirt, Kanu was Carl Jenkinson’s favourite Arsenal player, so he requested the number 25 upon arrival and even snubbed the number 2 shirt when Diaby vacated it in 2013- a far more traditional number for a right-back. Thierry Henry always had a preference for the number 12 shirt because he associated it with Marco van Basten.

Sometimes, players and managers actively avoid certain squad numbers in order to discourage comparison. A few years ago, Arsenal’s number configuration was enough to cause violent twitching for those with squad number OCD. Abou Diaby took the number 2 shirt upon arrival, even with the number 4 still free, because Arsene Wenger did not want him to be compared to Patrick Vieira. Right back Bacary Sagna wore number 3.

Wenger explained that he handed William Gallas the number 10 shirt as a deliberate ploy to protect the next offensive incumbent from juxtaposition with Dennis Bergkamp. (Bergkamp himself politely requested that Paul Merson to vacate the 10 for him upon arrival). The awkwardness of this allocation serves as a neat analogy for Gallas’ Arsenal career. It just didn’t seem to fit from the start. Indeed, he was originally assigned the number 3 shirt, but he turned it down in a fit of pique. His fallout with Chelsea began when his number 13 was reassigned to Michael Ballack, who had a strong personal preference for it.

The moody Frenchman was assigned number 3, much to his chagrin. Gallas was uncomfortable both with the perceived betrayal of having his shirt number recirculated and with the connotations that the number 3 held for him. Chelsea often used him as a left-back, which also caused him undue angst. For many players, shirt numbers are an important part of how they see themselves and how they wish to be perceived (though Gallas is atypically precious in this regard).

For fans, they help inform our perception of players and our relationship with them. I wouldn’t mind betting that Alexis’ move to number 7 will significantly increase the number of people that pay to have his particulars printed onto their new shirts next season. Squad numbers have become powerful branding tools- some players induct them into their signatures. Granit Xhaka has his preferred number tattooed on his back, David Beckham has the number 7 tattooed onto his arm.

Football offers a vast network of numbers, figures and statistics to appeal to the brains of the average football fan- individuals surely more given to partial OCD and a penchant for statistical rigour. They shape our understanding of the game tactically and, if nothing else, they give us a niche discussion point during the off season……

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto


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