- See here for a similar piece on how Brazil’s numbering developed, written by Gabriel Vogas
- In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Liverpool often had a defence numbered 4-2-6-3 as well – see here for Simon Treanor’s series on how that evolved
With Arsenal centre-back William Saliba switching from number 12 to 2 for 2023-24, we noted how the Gunners could conceivably field an ‘Argentinian-looking’ back line during the coming season.
On first glance, it doesn’t look like a very logical layout but, of course, it has deep historical roots, the same way that Brazil’s numbering progressed in such a way that the number 6 became inextricably linked with the left-back.
In Brazil, the influence of the successful Flamengo side was strong in promoting that, while in Argentina it was La Máquina (‘The Machine’) of River Plate that set the pattern for others to follow.
As noted by Jonathan Wilson in Inverting The Pyramid, the energy of outside-left Félix Loustau allowed him to patrol the whole of the left flank, with the half-backs ‘sliding’ to the right and right-half (number 4) Norberto Yácono dropping into what was now a three-man defence.
So, whereas in the W-M formation an English backline would be 2-5-3 and a Brazilian on 2-3-6, the Argentinian way was 4-2-3.
With the country not taking part in the 1950 or 1954 World Cups, the first time they played in numbered shirts at a World Cup was in 1958 against West Germany in Malmö.
Having lost the toss for colours and with no second set available, they borrowed jerseys from the local club.
With the W-M morphing into the 4-2-4 formation, as in England it was the left-half – number 6 – who moved deeper to create the back four.
While Argentina’s team for their 1962 World Cup opener against Bulgaria included two players with numbers above 11, it’s easy to see where the missing 2 and 8 fit in.
Of course, for Argentina’s first two World Cup wins, in 1978 and 1986, the country used alphabetical numbering – with no exceptions in the first instance while some key players were allowed their favoured digits for the latter. Trying to #1to11ify them was a challenge for Jim Hearson.
After one last half-flirtation with alphabetical numbering in 1990 – though with the survivors from 1986 keeping their numbers and the goalkeepers given 1, 12 and 22 – Argentina reverted to a more conventional approach for 1994 tournament.
When they lost to the Netherlands in the 1998 quarter-final, they were just one number away from a perfect 1-11 – and quite why reserve left-back Mauricio Pineda was given number 4 when Javier Zanetti had it at club level for Internazionale is anyone’s guess.
At least 22 was a good substitute in that it was a Zamorano-ing, the summer before the Chilean would actually execute such a tactic at Inter.
Four years later, three-man defences were popular. However, whereas Brazil dropped their number 5 Edmílson straight back, Argentina’s numering was not unlike how the Netherlands would do it in 2014.
Zanetti was the right wing-back and he wore what was usually the midfielder’s 8. As the right-sided centre-back Mauricio Pochettino wore 4, while Juan Pablo Sorín had 3 at left wing-back.
Four at the back returned though and even up to the present day, one can still see the roots shining through – take central defender Fabricio Coloccini wearing number 2 as an example.
Argentina’s starting side for the World Cup final against France didn’t have as many of the traditional digits we might have liked but, given that Enzo Fernández took number 5 upon his arrival at Chelsea last January, it shows there is some hope for the future.