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Tactics 101: Explaining soccer’s fascination with kit numbers by position

What is a flying 8?

Italy v USA - International Friendly Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

The use of numbers to refer to positions is back in vogue. Maybe it never went away, but its use has definitely increased in the U.S. and in MLS discussions. I did not grow up using this naming system, I remember playing fullback, halfback, and stopper as a kid. With its use increasing, now is a good time to dig deeper into it and specifically where it applies to Tata Martino’s tactics at Atlanta United.

In American football, you expect certain positions to wear a certain range of numbers. It’s the same in soccer, but the way that it has evolved is different. Arsenal’s Herbert Chapman added numbers to the Gunners’ jerseys in 1928, partly so his players would be able to maintain their shape.

The numbers corresponded to positions going from the back to the front, that’s why goalkeepers traditionally wear #1. Players would wear different numbers based on their position in that match. The positions that the numbers would correspond to also evolved over time as the game’s tactics changed.

Argentina did things a little differently for their 1974, 1978, and 1982 World Cup appearances, assigning jersey numbers to the squad in alphabetical order. Osvaldo Ardiles, one of the game’s greatest midfielders, wore #1. In 1982, they broke with this system slightly by allowing Diego Maradona to choose what number he wanted. He took the iconic #10 shirt and the rest were handed out in alphabetical order.

The #10 shirt has always been special and has seen many of the game’s greats wear it. As the numbering system and positions evolved, the #10 shirt was often given to the more creative of the forwards while the #9 was given to the out-and-out striker. In the 4-3-3 system, the #10 has been pushed back into midfield and plays behind the center forward.

As clubs shifted from assigning numbers on a game-by-game basis to players wearing the same number throughout the season in 1990’s, associating squad numbers with positions began to fall out of favor.

Jurgen Klinsmann went retro early in his USMNT tenure and brought the numbering system based on position. Players wore different numbers than usual and did not have their names on their back of their jerseys. It did not last for long, but it was an interesting approach to beginning his time with the national team.

Getting into which numbers correspond to which positions is not exactly an easy task. It varies a bit from country to country. We will stick to the positional names and numbers used by the U.S. Soccer Federation since 2015 in their coaching education program. With the USSF moving towards having its youth coaches utilize a 4-3-3 system, the names and numbers will work for explaining Tata Martino’s system as well.

1- Goalkeeper
2- Right outside back
3- Left outside back
4- Right center back
5- Left center back
6- Defensive center midfielder
7- Right winger
8- Center midfielder
9- Center forward
10- Attacking center midfielder
11- Left winger

In terms of explaining how Tata Martino’s teams play, the most important part is the midfield. The personality of the team changes depending on how Martino deploys his center midfielders. It is not a lock that you will see a defined #6, #8, and #10 at all times.

Let’s get into the characteristics of the central midfielders.

#6- The defensive midfielder in Martino’s system will sit deep and protect the 4-man backline. He will be tasked with providing an outlet when the defense is in possession. He will also be asked to slide back between the two center backs when the outside backs get forward into the attack. At times in the game, it will look like the team is playing five in the back due to how deep the #6 will play. Many think that the #6 is the most important player in achieving success with Martino’s system.

#8- Think of the #8 as a mix midfielder. They will be asked to play both sides of the ball, helping the #6 defensively, but also getting forward to help the #10 in the attack. Many call this role a box-to-box midfielder. Frank Lampard is one of the greatest #8’s in recent times. He was not a defensive midfielder, and he was not the creative #10. He was a central midfielder who would get into scoring positions out of deeper positions through well-timed runs.

#10- This is the playmaker. Your #10 often has the keys to the attack who creates chances for others, while also scoring goals himself. Not every team will play with a defined #10. Some use other tactics to make up for the lack of this special type of player.

Now that you know the characteristics, get ready to see lots of variables in Atlanta United’s tactical setup. You will see times where Atlanta will play with two #6’s to be more defensive. Sometimes, they will have a #6 and two #8’s. With a player like Miguel Almirón who has traditionally played as an attacking minded #8, described as a “flying 8”, the system could often look like a #6 with two #10’s. Fluidity is key in Martino’s system and the same player could appear to fill different roles as the game develops.