João Cancelo’s move from number 27 to 7 in the wake of Raheem Sterling leaving Manchester City certainly generated a response – RIP my mentions, as they say.
First of all, it’s worth remembering that, by and large, football doesn’t throw up anything that’s properly new nowadays. A Latin ambi-capable full-back wearing number 7 for the champions of England – that’s Nelson Vivas of Arsenal and Argentina in 1998. He had to give up the number when Robert Pirès arrived in 2000 and perhaps knew he had no future at Highbury when he was given 23 rather than 3 that Nigel Winterburn’s departure had freed up.
Cancelo’s move comes as City are about to sell Oleksandr Zinchenko to Arsenal – the Ukrainian wore number 11 at left-back, as did his predecessor in the shirt, Aleksandar Kolarov, but there would appear to be greater acceptance levels for that. Maybe it’s because the left-hand side is associated with creativity and freedom and the right is linked to order and logic.
It’s funny how some numbering choices can attract more ire than others that would ostensibly seem to be of equivalent outrage-worthiness. Even in the pre-social media days, Khalid Boulahrouz and then Steven Sidwell as Chelsea’s number 9 and William Gallas in 10 for Arsenal drew more commentary than Paul Stalteri wearing 7 for Tottenham Hotspur or Marc Rieper donning 8 for West Ham United.
Fabinho wears number 3 in midfield for Liverpool and it doesn’t garner much opprobium; similarly, Ezgjan Alioski playing at left-back for Leeds United with number 10 on his back went under the radar to a degree. Now, don’t get us wrong – we wouldn’t put either full-back at number 7 when starting from a blank canvas – but is there all that much right with one of your best players, a guaranteed starter, wearing 27?
Cancelo is at least moving downwards. Contrast that with four different Manchester United players – Antonio Valencia, Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo and Edinson Cavani – moving from 1-11 numbers to higher ones over the past decade (even if there was some mitigation with the last one). Rightly or wrongly, it’s a number to which he has some attachment, having worn it at Internazionale and Valencia. In his own words:
It’s my mother’s birthday and it’s also her favourite number.
I decided to choose this number because I think it brings me luck and I hope it brings luck to the team too, so this year we can win many titles.
I know it’s a number that comes with a lot of responsibility for what Sterling has done for the club.
It comes down to whether you feel a ‘wrong’ low number is better or worse than a high number. Manchester United signed Aaron Wan-Bissaka to be their first-choice right-back and he chose number 29; Liverpool’s first-choice full-backs wear 66 and 26, even though 2 remains free and 3 was available before Fabinho came.
Questionable numbering generally comes about because better-suited players do nothing: Kevin de Bruyne or Phil Foden could have lodged their desire to take 7 upon Sterling’s exit, but preferred to stay with what they have. In the 1-11 days, there would have to be an equal and opposite reaction to number 7 in defence, but of course nowadays it is more of a free-for-all. It’s not as is Bernardo Silva has to wear number 3 or anything.
And, when it comes to Manchester City and Cancelo, ‘defence’ is half a misnomer. While we don’t fully agree with the writing style of this sentence in the article on City’s site announcing the change, the sentiment is correct.
It is also in keeping with Cancelo’s versatile attacking style that he has adopted a shirt usually given to a winger!
Cancelo could almost be described as a winger who is excellent at covering back. The image on the left is what some woe-begotten defence might be facing as part of a bombardment at Etihad Stadium next season – is the number 7 really the sore thumb there?
So, TL; DR: we’re not exactly fans, but it’s hardly as if it’s an isolated offence in a land of sacred and careful numbering.