The Numbers Have it……..Or Do They?

Recently the Soccer Yoda came across an article about the USSF attempting to standardize the manner in which player positions are referred to in this country. After checking with an instructor for the USSF coaching courses I discovered that, yes, standard position references are preferred and are being used in class and that numbers are considered superior to position names in this regard. To understand the use of numbers for positions, one must be familiar with the history of soccer development, especially considering historical formations and substitution rules.

In the 1920’s and early 1930’s , the most popular formation in use was the 2-3-5.

As seen above , the formation has 2 defenders with 3 midfielders and 5 forwards. Sometimes, like in Italy, the 5 forwards were staggered to add depth. During this time, the use of numbers on the players jerseys began to become popular, not having been used during the first 50 years or so of the sports formal development. There is a reason that this custom, of such obvious need to modern sports fans, was slow to come into use. It was the substitution rules……or actually the lack of them. In most competitions there were no substitutions allowed until the mid 1960’s and not in the World Cup until 1970. The starting 11 players were the only 11 players to participate in a game, therefore there was no need to differentiate starting players from substitutes by using unique jersey numbers. In the 1930’s player numbers did finally became fashionable, but there was a need for only 11 of them. The numbers were used to indicate the players position for each game, not the individual player himself. So the number 2 (right fullback) might be worn by one individual in one match and different person in the next. Remember, the non-playing members of the team did not need numbers (or uniforms for that matter) since they weren’t going to participate at all in that game.

The numbers were labeled defense to offense, right to left, starting with the goalkeeper as #1 and going from there. So the numbers could be used to describe player positions just as well as the names of the positions.

During that decade (1930’s) Arsenal started using a variation of the 2-3-5, and since they had become one of the most winning clubs of the time, the formation was copied by many (of course).

The center halfback was moved back to increase the defensive strength of the formation and the insides were also moved back to increase depth on offense. Although the center half was no longer a “halfback” and the position became a primarily defensive one, the name stuck and even today some commentators refer to central defensive players as “center halves”. The insides job was to feed the outside players or the center forward. The formation became known as the WM from the letters which can made by drawing lines from one position to the next among the top half of the team and among the bottom half. Each position became associated with each number and the physical traits needed in each position became attached to the number describing the position. A #9 was a big player, very good with headers and possessing a powerful shot. #7’s and #11’s were fast, very good 1 on 1 dribblers and defense was not a needed skill for them. 8 and 10’s had excellent passing skills, great vision and the ability to construct offense moves and so on with the rest of the 11 players on the field. The number described the position in a quick easily understood manner.

Then in the late 1960’s, substitution became a part of the game.  Players needed numbers in excess of 2-11 and when a new player entered the game wearing a larger number than 11 he could go to whatever position for which  he was needed, unrestricted by the number on his shirt. As the game changed and players became more mobile in their duties on the field, their shirt numbers grew less and less attached to their starting positions. Larger squads required larger numbers and today it is not uncommon for players wearing numbers in the twenties or even higher to start games. However, as mentioned in earlier posts, soccer is a game with a deep attachment to tradition. Even today, many forwards have numbers 7-11, often defenders wear low numbers, etc. As for positions, the number attachment still remains to a large extent. When Messi started games for Barcelona in an advanced central position and then moved backwards towards the middle of the field, the system was called a “false 9”, in that Messi gave the appearance of a traditional center forward, but then moved back in a move designed to pull defenders out of the middle to open up space for other players. The fact that Messi wore #10 while playing a position known universally  as a “false nine” shows the lack of connection between shirt number and position number. But the use of the number 9, false or not, shows the long-standing attachment of number to position.

In modern times we have many formations and variations on those formations. As a result, the names used to describe various positions vary depending on the formation, the role of the player, the person describing the position and other variables. For instance, a defender playing in the back outside of a formation might be called a “wingback”, an “outside back” or a “fullback”. Given the multiple names for various positions, it seems logical for the USSF to attempt to establish some uniformity in our country’s soccer terminology. They are using the 4-3-3 as a basic formation and encouraging numbers to be used in place of names to refer to player roles.

Notice in the above , that the numbers used for each position are very similar to those used 80 years ago. 9 is still the center forward, 7 and 11 are still wings. The playmaking midfielder is 10, reminiscent of the “inside” who wore number 10 and fulfilled the same role in those days. 5 is still a central defender, now joined by 4 in the four back lineup. 2 and 3 have moved outside but are still defenders and referring to a player as a “3” certainly does reduce the variety of names that outside defenders have for their position at present.

However, the 4-3-3 is only one formation of play and there are others that don’t fit the USSF numbering system so well. The 4-4-2 diamond is one such formation. It has been used by many teams, including the USA men’s national team. While some of the numbers do fit the USSF designations, others do not. The back line’s 2 thru 5 numbers still describe their roles as does the defensive midfielder #6. And, there is a center forward that #9 can represent. But then we get problems.

There are two “center forwards” in this system, both interchangeable with each other, which is one of the attributes of formations that use two forwards…..they are difficult to defend against given the unpredictable movements of those forwards. Now, if numbers are supposed to represent roles as in #9 is an up-front forward…..then there are two 9’s in this formation (at least to the Soccer Yoda). Similarly if #8 is a central midfielder playing equal parts offense and defense…..then there are two 8’s as well. #10 is an attacking midfielder in the 4-3-3 and in the 4-4-2 diamond as well. So the numbers should look like this……simple:

As we can see, 9 is a still a central forward and 8 is still a central midfielder. As to 7 and 11, well they are wings who play wide and are largely attack oriented. And there aren’t any players in this system with those roles so there isn’t a 7 or an 11. But the USSF doesn’t see it that way. They want one player with each number, not multiples. So in the 4-4-2 formation this becomes the numbers used to describe the positions and roles:

This seems to contradict the concept that numbers describe roles on the field so that there is no confusion when discussing the players and their duties. Now a 10 is a central forward just like a 9. 7 and 11 are no longer right and left wings, they are central midfielders. and 8 has become an attacking midfielder instead of being balanced between offense and defense. The roles of the numbers have changed in order to fit the “one unique number for each player” mantra. Therefore, according to the USSF, when talking about roles on the team, we must also refer to the formation being referenced. “The 10 in the 4-4-2 diamond” becomes necessary because the “10 in the 4-3-3” has a distinctly different job. There are lots of formations with many differing roles for players and many do not fit the designated numbers of the USSF 4-3-3 outline. The necessity of referring to which system is being discussed seemingly contradicts the stated objective of simplifying and standardizing the position references. And, unless the USSF comes out with a chart of numbers for each and every formation, the use of which numbers for which position in each different system is left up to the individual and there is no standardization anyway.

“OK” the reader might ask, what’s the big deal? It’s just numbers. But there is an issue….at least to me. Recently I saw a tape of an excellent youth girls team. This team was very well coached, had a great possession game with loads of control, movement and a terrific combination of thoughtful and skillful play. They were good enough to win the national championship in their age group. They played a unique 4-1-4-1 system with a holding midfielder who controlled the game and a central forward who moved laterally as well as forward and set up her attacking midfielders (all 4 of them). But I was informed that actually, in reference to the USSF numbering system, the team used a 4-3-3 with very withdrawn wings and a deep holding midfielder. You see, there is no argument about numbers and roles if every team is using a 4-3-3. Now in this case the deference to the 4-3-3 doesn’t make much difference anyway. The numbers and roles fit the 4-1-4-1 fairly well compared to some other formations. But here is the problem: our youth system lacks in the development of short game mental and physical skills. Our kids can generally kick the heck out of the ball and can run like crazy to get to it, they can win 50-50 balls and can “be aggressive”. But when it comes to checking back, to providing short support for teammates, to running as a means of creating space for themselves AND for others, to making the simple possession-keeping pass……well, not so much. The USSF recognized this in their new youth rules. While the 4-3-3 can be a formation in which all these techniques are used, far too often in this country it is not. The insistence that numbers following the 4-3-3 are used in all discussions of the game could turn into a lack of variety in formations used by our already imagination-lacking coaches. It is a worry that the ease of using 4-3-3 numbers and the difficulty in transferring those numbers to other systems will stifle creativity in our youth coaches. Of course, for kids under the age of twelve ( under the new youth rules) there are not 11 players on the field and numbers might not be best for describing the roles of those players anyway. One thing is true, however. With standardization comes the risk of conformity and in a sport where imagination can be the best attribute, that is a worry.

6 Comments on “The Numbers Have it……..Or Do They?”

  1. Jweinkamjr says:

    Great history. I really didn’t know about the numbering. Thanks, Joe
    Sent from my iPhone


  2. julianfriend3 says:

    Well, it works for the back four, but after that, It looks to be a pointless exercise.


    • socceryoda says:

      Juian, well….I can see the reasoning for some agreement in numbers given the many names for similar positions. But…the effort needed to describe the formation and style of play in which the number is being used and with the many different formations possible…you may be right… makes it more work than it is worth.


  3. Tactics, formations, systems and numbers are a subjective analysis of the game. Systems don’t play the game. I am not saying organization is not important, but it is useless without technically skilled players on the ball.

    What is lacking is objectivity (Who, Why, When, Where & What). Soccer being an unpredictable sport, demands coaches to identify trends, patterns during play. These are very powerful tools.

    As per US Soccer coaching education pathway, coaches are exposed to systems other than the 4-3-3. I don’t think the federation is saying this is our only system and we should educate coaches solely on this organization. The courses provide a methodology, coaches need to adapt, adjust and apply when appropriate, to their environment.


    • socceryoda says:

      Malcolm, thanks for the comment! I agree….technical ball skills are all important in developing successful players and teams. Here in the US those skills are developed by youth coaches since our youth don’t play street soccer very much. And those coaches have generally failed to develop those skills in a system which emphasizes winning on large fields with 11 players from young ages. Therefore the USSF changed the youth rules.But now, more than ever, young players need to know where to position themselves and what to do with those developing skills. Thus…..tactics. Once those kids hit u-13 they will play with 11 and tactics become even more important. Exposing youth coaches to many formations in class is good but the insistence of 4-3-3 based position numbers may stifle coaches from exposing their players to different ideas. I have seen 14 yr old kids, many of them, who have been playing the same system in the same way since age 8. They are bored and lack those fine ball skills that imaginative play helps develop. My worry is that those “standard” numbers will continue this trend.


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