As you may have seen over the last few days, Arsenal players are currently engaging in a rather long-winded game of numerical musical chairs.
Alexis Sanchez has ditched number 17 and claimed number 7. Aaron Ramsey has gotten rid of number 16 in order to wear number 8. Alex Iwobi has relinquished number 45 and taken Alexis’ old number 17. And then there’s the curious case of new signing Granit Xhaka, who initially chose number 16 before changing his mind and took number 29 instead.
This may all seem insignificant in the larger scheme of things, but shirt numbers have always held a unique significance in football, to both those wearing the number and to those watching someone playing with a number on their back.
A shirt number will invoke one of two notions in our heads; a specific player or a specific position. These numbers play a huge role in the way we watch football and the way we remember how it was played.
Take the striker position as an example. Strikers wear number 9. When we think of a good player who wears the number 9, we think of someone who is clinical in front of goal, someone who can lead the line and spearhead the team. Arsenal don’t have a number 9 at the club, both figuratively and literally, hence fans’ desire to see the club bring one in.
Of course, the ironic thing about Arsenal needing a ‘number 9’ is that our best strikers over the last fifty years didn’t wear the number 9. Charlie George wore 11 in the 1971 FA Cup Final. Ian Wright wore 8. Dennis Bergkamp wore 10. Thierry Henry wore 14. But there will always be a desire for a ‘number 9’ player at the club, because we associate that number with scoring goals.
Numbers are so strongly associated with a position that it takes being a truly great player to break that link. Mesut Özil may wear number 11 for his club and number eight for his country, but ask any Arsenal fan about how good he is and you’ll get the same response every time:
“He’s the best number 10 in the world.”
You need to be legendarily good for your club or country to break that link. It takes being as good as Thierry Henry to be able to remembered for the number you wore instead of the position you played in, yet he only wore 14 for his club and 12 for his country because Johan Cruyff did the same. That’s how high the bar is.
It’s why when we play football ourselves, we identify ourselves either by the number of the player we idolize or the number of the position we like to play in. Me, I’m a number 8, because my hero is Ian Wright. Any game in any sport I play in, I wear number 8, because I want to be like him. My twitter handle is @bradley08 for the same reason.
I should really play in a number 10 shirt, because I like to play behind a striker and create from deep (I’m also a lazy git and don’t like tracking back much) but I wear 8, because it’s part of who I am. Granit Xhaka has 34 tattooed on his back for similar reasons. Others prefer to define themselves as a good player at a certain position. We all know that one person on our team who loves tackling and defending, and calls himself a ‘proper number 6’.
There’s also the issue of superiority with shirt numbers. The concept of a starting XI includes having those players wearing the numbers 1-11. With the Premier League introducing unique squad numbers for players, having a number between 1-11 gave a player a sense of legitimacy. For example, you knew who a club thought was their senior goalkeeper by the fact they wore number 1, and so on.
As a result, something as simple as a shirt number can have a massive effect on how we view both a team’s and player’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s widely accepted that Arsenal need to build a stronger squad for next season, and here is a reason that a lot of folks think this; look at Arsenal’s 1-11 from last season.
- Not at club
- Not at club
- Started three league games all season
- Per Mertesacker
- Laurent Koscielny
- One substitute appearance all season
- Didn’t start a league game all season
- Not at club
- Started one league game all season
- Mesut Özil
It’s little things like this that play on fans’ mind, whether they realise it or not. They want to see their team play its strongest line-up, yet when they see players wearing 34 and 45 on the field, it doesn’t register as being strong because they’re accustomed to their best players wearing certain numbers.
That’s why what is currently happening at Arsenal is intriguing, because players are making a statement on who they want to be or what they think they should be. Alexis has always worn 7 whenever given the chance, and now that Tomas Rosicky has left the club, he took the number 7 shirt. Aaron Ramsey wanted a number that showed he’s good enough to be in the starting eleven, so he took the number 8 shirt.
We’ve often accused Arsenal players of lacking accountability and bottle during parts of the season, but little things like this can show which players are willing to accept the extra burden that comes with wearing a significant shirt number, and which players want to make a number their own, like what Xhaka is trying to do with 29.
If you think all of this is a load of nonsense, I’ll leave you with this. Remember when we found out that William Gallas was part of the Ashley Cole transfer? It was devastating to lose the best left back in the world, but at least we were getting a quality defender in return, someone who could play both centre-back and left-back. For a few hours, it wasn’t too worrying.
Then, we found out that Gallas wanted to wear number 10.
The second that it was announced, we knew it wasn’t going to work. We knew that defenders just don’t wear the number 10 shirt unless they were completely full of themselves. We knew exactly what sort of player William Gallas would be, just from what number he wanted to wear.
I’m just saying.