By Ryan Quinn
The January transfer window saw Anthony Gordon join Newcastle United from Everton for £40m plus add-ons.
A winger by trade, Gordon – having previously worn number 10 for the Toffees – now, incongruously, wears 8 for the Magpies. Handing Gordon number 8 may suggest he is set to be a big part of Newcastle’s upcoming plans. But the number 8 shirt is not one you would likely associate with a wide player, especially if they are an out-and-out winger. Wearing number 8 is associated more so with central midfielders of varying systems; box-to-box types paired with a holding midfielder in a 4-4-2, or ‘needle’ players you may see as part of a midfield trio; these are the sorts of players you would subsequently profile, and then label as ‘8s’.
Though over the years, attackers stationed out wide have worn number 8. So as incongruous as it is, it is not a complete rarity. Past cases date back to before the times of registered squad numbers, and when typically, the traditional numbering system was adhered to. Sjaak Swart was a right-winger for Ajax in their side led by Johan Cruyff, and coach Rinus Michel, which popularised “totaalvoetbal”, or Total Football. Not only was the football astounding, but so was the numbering, as Swart wore number 8 during Ajax’s win against Greek side Panathanikos in the 1971 European Cup final, contested at Wembley.
The right-sided player of another European heavyweight, Manchester United, was also handed number 8 upon being signed from Aberdeen in 1984. Gordon Strachan replaced Steve Coppell – who was forced to retire at the age of 28 due to injury – on United’s right. But, as United captain Bryan Robson, a central midfielder, regularly wore and would become heavily associated with number 7, Strachan wore number 8, notably so as United defeated Everton to win the 1985 FA Cup Final.
As registered squad numbers were established in club football, the ambiguity of wingers wearing number 8 did not disappear. Part of Arsenal’s 2001-02 side which clinched the Premier League title at Old Trafford, and then the ‘Invincibles’ team which went unbeaten in securing the league title back from Manchester United in 2004, Freddie Ljungberg was a mainstay on Arsenal’s right wing until his departure in 2007.
A winger by trade, though keen to make late runs into the opposing sides penalty area, rather than flamboyantly outwitting a left-back one-against-one, Ljungberg – number 9 for Sweden – was handed number 8 upon being singed in September 1998. Argentinian full-back Nelson Vivas had arrived at the club during the summer and was given 7, while part of Wenger’s logic was to avoid giving Ian Wright’s 8 to a striker who might have felt under pressure.
Nevertheless, Ljungberg was a scorer of crucial goals, and his style complemented that of Robert Pires, the inverted left-winger who instead wore number 7, but did wear number 8 himself too, during a loan spell with Aston Villa in the twilight of his career. Pires’ fellow Frenchman, Ludovic Giuly, was a clever right-winger, and wore number 8 for FC Barcleona, following his transfer from Monaco in 2004. Giuly was a scorer of crucial goals, and in 2006, played in the Champions League final, against an Arsenal side including both Pires and Ljungberg, and won with Barcelona.
The Catalan club’s rivals, Real Madrid, signed Liverpool’s Steve McManaman more than half a decade prior, in 1999. McManaman wore number 7 for Liverpool, but enjoyed even more trophy-laden success following his move to Real Madrid, where he wore number 8, with number 7 already donned by Madrid legend Raul Gonzales.
McManaman was a brilliant dribbler, and not only played on both right and left flanks for Los Blancos, but also in a midfield three. Amidst this, McManaman played an important role in two Champions League title victories, including that in 2000, where he scored a sensational volley against Valencia to seal things.
In Italy, Mauro Camoranesi spent most of his time at Juventus wearing number 16, much like he did as part of Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning side. But the winger made a surprise switch to number 8, as Juventus returned to Serie A via automatic promotion from Serie B in 2007, which they were relegated to the year prior, following an infamous match fixing scandal. Whilst for Roma, Diego Perotti wore number 8 during his four-and-a-half seasons with the capital club. Perotti, much like Camoranesi, was a hard-working, yet technical winger, though in his case from the left, rather than the right.
The unconventional match-up of wingers and wearing number 8 has also been notable at international level. Chris Waddle, a tall, graceful winger who was comfortable on either flank, wore number 8 more regularly than many listed here. He did so for Marseille and Sheffield Wednesday, and for England, as Bobby Robson’s side reached the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup.
Six years later, and Germany, who had knocked out England in the World Cup, beat the Czech Republic to win the European Championships. That Czech side included Karel Poborsky, who also wore number 8. The right-winger was a key member of the aforementioned Czech side, and is fondly remembered for what is now known as the “Poborsky lob”, scored against Portugal. His displays, including a man-of-the-match performance in the final earned Poborsky a move to Manchester United. Poborsky offered directness, pace, and even won a Premier League medal in the season-and-a-half he spent in Manchester. But the presence of the important David Beckham, whose style contrasted Poborsky’s, on the right, meant that Poborský didn’t get as fixed a place in the starting 11 as he would have liked.
However, Poborsky was still wearing the same number and still had his place in the Czech team which impressed with its attack-minded football at Euro 2004. Set up in a 4-1-3-2, Poborsky occupied the right flank, and was part of an industrious and creative midfield alongside Tomas Rosický, and Pavel Nedved. The Czech Republic’s 3-2 win against The Netherlands provided one of the great games of the competition. Poborsky finished his career at České Budějovice, the club at which he started his career, which also retired the number 8 shirt in his honour. The aforementioned Euro 2004 boasted another case on top of Poborsky, as Greece’s shock win at Euro 2004, starred winger Stelios Giannakopoulos. He may have worn number 7, as traditionally a winger should for Bolton Wanderers, at the time managed by Sam Allardyce, but Stelios wore number 8 for his nation.
In addition, a series of wide players have worn number 8 in the past decade or so for France. Another right-sided attacker, Matthieu Valbuena, who is small in stature, but nippy, and comes with a low centre of gravity, was a mainstay of the France national side during three international competitions, wearing number 8 at both Euro 2012, and the 2014 World Cup. Valbuena would be succeeded by Dimitri Payet, who played on the opposing side, and was France’s star player alongside Antoine Griezmann, as the hosts of Euro 2016 reached its final, before succumbing to a defensive-minded Portugal side.
But even when he had been in good form for club side Marseille, Payet was excluded from the France squad that went on to win the nation’s second World Cup, twenty years on from their first. Instead, then Monaco left-winger Thomas Lemar wore number 8. Lemar did not feature too prominently, however, as Didier Deschamps opted for a lop-sided system, with Kylian Mbappe towards the right side, and Blaise Matuidi occupying a withdrawn, disciplined role on the left.
Perhaps you can make an argument that the situation is, even if only slightly, more befitting when the player in question is a player that is very versatile, or playing out of position. Even then it is still out of place to see a player on the flank wearing number 8, but in the case of Juan Mata, it was a mixed bag. Mata is not a winger by trade, but a playmaker who spent much of his spell with Manchester United filling in on the right side of attack, whilst wearing number 8.
Given that Mata was already known to be a number 10, the idea of Mata wearing 8 whilst on the right was strange; he was wearing the wrong number, and was playing out of position. Yet in the knowledge that Mata is not a winger, a ’10’ wearing 8 does not seem as strange.
Wide players may wear the number 8 shirt if (a) other numbers are unavailable, or (b) if they have a personal connection. Regardless of this, considering the traditional numbering system, it always seems incongruous when a winger wears number 8. But sometimes, central midfielders, who already wear number 8, are deployed out wide to benefit their teams system. At Liverpool, Rafael Benitez notably moved Steven Gerrard to the right flank during the 2005-06 campaign. And as Atletico Madrid clinched their first league title in 18 years, Diego Simeone’s 4-4-2 oversaw Raul Garcia, who was by no means an out-and-out winger, stationed on the right side.
To conclude, the case of wingers wearing number 8 will never feel truly fitting, even if historically it is not a rarity. Not only does Gordon wear number 8, but so do Fulham’s Harry Wilson, West Ham United’s Pablo Fornals, and Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes, who amidst Erik ten Hags’s rotations in attacking positions, has seen Fernandes play a number 10’s role, but on the right wing.