I hear TV announcers talking about a player being in the number 8 position, but on the back of the jersey he has number 23. What does that number position refer to?
Soccer numbers were originally created to identify certain positions in a tactical formation. The player holding that position was assigned the corresponding jersey with the correct number. There were no player names on jerseys so it was fairly simple. Also, with 11 players on the field, numbers went from 1 – 11, substitutes started at number 12. Considering a very traditional 4-3-3 system, a formation looked like this.
1-Goalkeeper, 2-Right Defender, 3-Left Defender, 4-Stopper, 5- Sweeper/Libero, 6-Right Midfielder, 8-Left Midfielder, 10-Center Midfielder/Play-maker, 9-Center Forward/Striker. Midfielders 6/8 had more defensive roles.
So over time numbers got associated with certain key roles AND players. For the most part, goalkeepers have remained #1, I think to indicate who is the number 1 goalie on the team. Numbers 6 and 8 have remained to indicate more defensive or holding midfield roles. Number 10 remains the play-maker, witness Messi. Number 9 remains the striker or key goalscorer. So if we look at the common 4-2-3-1 formation, this is how it plays out today:
Numbers 6 and 8 are used to describe holding midfielder positions, regardless what number is on the back of a player’s shirt. So when an announcer says Xabi Alonso is playing the number 8 position, then he is in a holding midfield role, even if the back of his jersey has # 3 on it. Number 10 is still the offensive play-maker role, the creator of scoring opportunities. Number 9 is the lone central striker role.
So hopefully the next time someone says player X is in the number 10 role, you know what the job of that player is, regardless of the number on his back.