- Thanks to Jim Hearson for his assistance
With the old W-M formation having numbers 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 as the defensive players in a team, all modern formations featuring four-man defences became established with 80 percent of those numbers featuring and one – 4, 5 or 6 – moving into midfield.
There are ten possible central defensive combinations that can be made by pairing two of the five numbers and we decided to look at one possible example of each from around Europe.
Olympique de Marseille
It’s the tradition in Uruguay to have numbers 2 and 3 together in the middle of the defence but European examples are not plentiful.
For l’OM, William Saliba and Álvaro González have yet to feature together in the centre of a four-man defence, but they have formed two-thirds of a back three.
With right-back Hiroki Sakai having returned to Japan at the end of last season, the number 2 was free for Saliba to take upon his arrival on loan from Arsenal. He was allocated 4 by the Gunners last season but didn’t play a senior game and new signing Ben White now has that shirt.
González previously wore 3 for Villarreal, having switched from 12. In the past, he had number 4 for Real Zaragoza.
The duo of Dayot Upamecano – who wore 5 at RB Leipzig prior to his summer arrival – and Niklas Süle is Bayern’s first-choice central defensive pairing.
After Willy Sagnol wore the Bayern Munich number 2 shirt from 2001-09, he was succeeded by the Brazilian Breno Borges, whose stint was cut short for non-footballing reasons. From 2012-17, it was unoccupied before being taken by striker Sandro Wagner. Spanish right-back Álvaro Odriozola made just five appearances during a 2019-20 loan spell.
Süle has worn 4 since joining from Hoffenheim in 2017. He had worn 25 for them while he usually plays in number 15 for the German national team.
Victor Lindelöf wore 92 and then 14 for previous club Benfica, Prior to his 2017 arrival, Rafael da Silva was the last occupant, from 2012-15, having succeeded Gary Neville (1996-2011). The Swede wears number 3 for his country – it is a traditional centre-back’s number there.
Harry Maguire is England’s number 6 but has worn 5 at club level for Sheffield United and Hull City as well as 4 for Wigan Athletic. Prior to joining United, he was number 15 for Leicester City. The Old Trafford number 5 had spent 2018-19 empty after Marcos Rojo switched to number 16.
Lindelöf and Maguire have been the pairing of choice for most of the past few seasons – with number 3 Eric Bailly also an option – but the arrival of Raphaël Varane (number 19) could upscuttle that.
The usual Liverpool central defensive numbers of the late 1980s and early 1990s – also the historical Argentinian pairing – are a possibility at Stamford Bridge.
Antonio Rüdiger joined Chelsea from Roma in the summer of 2017 and was able to immediately assume the number 2 that he had had in Italy – Branislav Ivanović’s departure had freed it up. Rüdiger was Germany’s number 16 at the 2018 World Cup with Marvin Plattenhardt number 2, but he was able to wear 2 at Euro 2020.
Rüdiger is often part of a back three alongside number 4 Andreas Christensen and Thiago Silva, who joined at the start of last season. The Brazilian had previously worn 2 for Paris Saint-Germain but is generally number 3 for his country, as befits their numbering heritage. The last player to wear 6 for Chelsea before him was Danny Drinkwater – he is still registered to the club but is on his fourth loan spell since joining.
Appropriately, a Dutch-looking central defence for the Italian side when number 19 Leonardo Bonucci isn’t involved – Mathijs de Ligt had worn 4 for Ajax and it was free in Turn after Mehdi Benatia left. with Virgil van Dijk’s seniority allowing him to wear 4 for the Netherlands, de Ligt has number 3 for the national side while another centre-back, Internazionale’s Stefan de Vrij has 6 for club and country.
Giorgio Chiellini has worn 3 for Juventus since 2005-06 and owes his attachment to the number to his origins as a left-back. Before joining Juve, he wore 4 for Fiorentina, while at Livorno he moved from 3 to 19 and back again in successive seasons. At international level, he was Italy’s number 4 at Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010, with 3 worn by Fabio Grosso and Domenico Criscito respectively, but Chiellini has been 3 since.
Rúben Dias used to wear 6 for Benfica but Nathan Aké joined Manchester City a month before the Portuguese defender and took that shirt. Dias is number 4 for his national team but that digit has yet to be worn by any City player since the departure of Vincent Kompany. In Portugal, the tradition is 3 and 4 at centre-back (notwithstanding Fernando Couto preferring 5) and so he took the shirt that had been vacated by Danilo – three of the previous four City number 3s were right-backs, with Bacary Sagna and Maicon also wearing it.
John Stones initially wore 24 after arriving from Everton but he was able to move to his preferred number after the departure of Pablo Zabaleta – who was a rarity in wearing the shirt as a right-back.
Having numbers 3 and 5 as a centre-back pairing has some heritage in Eastern Europe, a tradition emanating from the great Hungarian side of the 1950s.
Real could have been used as the example for half of the ten combinations as numbers 3-6 inclusive can play at centre-back.
However, their new number 4 David Alaba tends to figure most often at left-back and number 5 Jesús Vallejo isn’t a first-choice so it’s usually Eder Militão and Nacho Fernández flanked by number 2 Dani Carvajal and Alaba.
As a Brazilian, number 3 is a logical choice for Militão, who succeeded Vallejo – he wore 3 for a couple of seasons after Pepe’s long stint. Fernandez moved from number 18 to 6 when Sami Khedira left in 2015.
After Georginio Wijnaldum revived memories of Liverpool’s golden era by wearing number 5 in midfield, the shirt is now back in defence after the arrival of Ibrahima Konaté, who used to wear 6 for RB Leipzig.
Virgil van Dijk did previously wear 4 for Groningen almost a decade ago, later donning number 5 for Celtic and 17 for Southampton.
While the pairing of 5 and 6 is the most common historically in England, there are quite a few notable examples of successful teams of the 1970s and 1980s with a 4 and 5 partnership, such as Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Everton. The coupling was also the popular choice in France, Germany and Spain in the days of 1-11.
This summer, Thomas Partey became the first non-centre-back to wear 5 for Arsenal in the squad numbers era and the Gunners now have a first-choice defensive pairing that is the same as those used by Liverpoool and Manchester United as they established domestic dominance in the 1970s and 1990s respectively.
Over the past three seasons, Ben White has worn 6, 5 and 3 for Peterborough United, Leeds United and Brighton & Hove Albion and he added another new one when he was given 4, freed by Saliba’s loan move. Incidentally, White has 6 in his Twitter handle while Gabriel Magalhães has 4 in his, having worn the shirt for Lille. While 6 is a left-back’s number in his native Brazil, it is firmly a centre-back’s digit at Arsenal, worn by Tony Adams, Philippe Senderos and Laurent Koscielny since squad numbers were introduced.
The most common centre-back pairing in England going back through the years can only be fielded by six Premier League sides at present – Crystal Palace, Leeds United, Manchester City, Newcastle United, Norwich City and squad-number royalty Burnley. What was extra-pleasing about the Clarets fielding 1-11 at Liverpool earlier in the season was the fact that the numbers were laid out in the ‘correct’ positions.
Club captain Ben Mee wore 36 in his first two seasons at Turf Moor, having also worn it for Leicester City, but he dropped down 30 spots in 2013 when Chris McCann left. James Tarkowski wore 6 early in his career at Oldham Athletic, then 26 at Brentford and in his first two years at Burnley, claiming 5 after it became available upon Michael Keane joining Everton.