The Lost Art Of The Sweeper

We are constantly told that the Premier League is the most exciting league in the world, and with some of the results recently who could disagree?

It’s only a couple of months into the New Year and already we are averaging about three goals a game in England’s top flight, with only Manchester United doing their best to buck the national trend.

The once rock-solid Chelsea are now shipping goals at an alarming rate while the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool are conceding almost as regularly as they are finding the net themselves – which is pretty hard to.

So why is this?

Well. It can probably be put down to the fact that teams increasingly favour over-loading on attacking, creative players while turning a blind eye to their defensive ineptitude.

Something that is often reflected in the transfer market, as attacking-midfielders and forwards are bought by the bucket-load, while defenders are usually seen as something of an afterthought.

We all know that goals win games so we shouldn’t be shocked that those who can score them are in greater demand – flair players who excite the fans and therefore get more exposure while also commanding the greater transfer fee.

But this hasn’t always been the case.

There was a time when some of the most successful sides in the world got to the top by stopping other teams from scoring against them. An era when being defensive was most definitely de rigueur.

Go back some three or four decades and a healthy portion of teams, particularly on the continent, would have a player that has become something of a lost art in the modern game – rather like the goal poacher, the super-sub and the player manager.

This was more-often-than-not an elegant defender who would sit just behind the defensive line, and would feast on stray through balls, effortlessly bringing them under his control, before storming forward and moving into the midfield zone, distributing it to his play-maker colleagues with the intention of mounting a counter attack – at least that was the plan.

He was a modern day deep-lying playmaker who would initiate the play and – although paid to defend – would also play a key role when the time came to attack.

This was a player known as the sweeper.

The sweeper system was once one of the most coveted formations in global football and it seemed most of the great teams around Europe were conquering all before them while using it – the flat back-four was most definitely yesterday’s news.

First thought to be introduced by Karl Rappan in the 1930s and revolutionised by Helenio Herrera for his defensive “Catenaccio” system at Inter – which was widely seen as the earliest form of parking the bus – the sweeper, or libero, evolved into a position where the extra defender would continue his role as the deepest man, but also join the attacks.

Barcelona midfielder Xavi lifts the Champions League after beating Juventus in the final

It could be said that the sweeper paved the way for the all-conquering ball-playing defender, something much more common today, and ironically may have caused the ultimate extinction of this once highly skilled role as attack became the new defence.

Players like Ronald Koeman would calmly run rings around their opponents with ease, while always having one eye on developments further up the field, waiting for their moment to pull the trigger, and everybody wanted to find someone similar for their team.

Even players like Bryan Robson and Des Walker were touted around as England’s next sweeper in the 80s and 90s as the nation clamoured to emulate what they were seeing from their European neighbours rather than the more crude “British” style that had produced so little.

Probably the ultimate example of the sweeper was Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, a creative player who was a great passer, could also dribble, was quick and with bags of stamina.

For this position a player was required that was happy to do all the running, both with and without the ball and Beckenbauer made it look easy.

Sure, there have been plenty of players who could have performed this role in recent years and it might be slightly patronising to suggest that it is something of a novelty for a defensive player to be comfortable on the ball and willing to pick a pass .

But to find out the real reason why the sweeper is no longer en vogue it’s probably easier to focus on the way sides now attack rather than looking at the way they defend.

The sweeper system evolved as a way of allowing defences to combat the dual threat of two strikers while enabling a third centre back to dictate the play from the back, cleaning up potential threats and orchestrating attacks when the opponent is at their most vulnerable.

Ironically it was a nation who always championed the use of the sweeper system that would ultimately be behind its demise when Arrigo Sacchi took charge as manager of AC Milan in the late 1980s and favoured a more attacking 4-4-2 formation.

Reverting from the favoured three at the back system with two man markers and a free covering sweeper that most clubs had adopted since the 60s and 70s, Sacchi yearned for the development of a team of players who could all be the playmaker when required.

There was no longer a place for a designated sweeper and Sacchi looked to Franco Baresi to take the responsibility of being ball-playing centre back as part of a more “conventional” back four.

Then there’s the way in which the game is played at the moment. Does the popularity of pressing for example mean that a sweeper in the modern game simply wouldn’t have the time to pick out passes in the way Franz Beckenbauer did so brilliantly?

Another criticism of the sweeper system was the inability to play a functioning off-side system when there is a defender sitting so deep and pretty much being independent of the back four. But how many teams would this affect in today’s game?

It also needs to be taken into consideration that teams now often favour the playmaker coming from the middle of the park, rather than building from the back.

A point proven by many of the most successful sides of the past decade or so who have included a player who likes to control the play from deep, whether it be Xavi, Carrick, Scholes, Xabi Alonso or Pirlo.

Nobody has epitomised this more than Barcelona, who have dominated the game thanks to a midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta and Ivan Rakitić, all of whom thrive on the opportunity to play from deep – a role which would have once been carried out by the sweeper.

Manuel Neuer

If anything, the role that was once carried out by the sweeper is now the responsibility of the goalkeeper, or sweeper-keeper, who is looked-upon to get the ball under control and distribute it to the play-makers as quickly as possible – a role very much made his own by Manuel Neuer.

But the real reason we probably no longer see the use of a sweeper, particularly in the modern game, is teams’ reluctance to attack with two strikers, instead favouring a lone striker up-top on his own, with a so called “number 10” playing off the front man.

Whereas when teams played a more conventional 4-4-2 formation, the sweeper was seen as an extra man, able to pick up the pieces, control the tempo of the game and allow his fellow central defenders to stick to their man.

With only one striker teams often have the luxury of this extra man without the need for a third centre back.

But as the saying goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” and it might just be that we are witnessing something of a rejuvenation of the sweeper system – in everything but name.

Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Manchester United have all dabbled when it comes to reverting to a back three recently.

Bayern have tried using Xabi Alonso as something of a sweeper while on a number of occasions Liverpool have experimented with Emre Can in the middle of the three centre-backs.

And it’s not as if the players aren’t there to embrace the role. Allowing a defender the license to step up into midfield when in possession would be music to the ears of a player like David Luiz for example.

But as with anything revolutionary, it needs someone with pioneering vision to make it work. Someone who is willing to make the inconceivable seem conceivable. A manager of the greatest tactical nuance who is prepared to try something different in true, “risk and reward,” fashion.

So who’s to say that with the abundance of new, fresh, forward thinking managers who are now making their living in Europe’s top leagues we won’t once again see a time when the best form of attack is defence?

Matthew Crist

Gavin is a full-time copywriter based in the UK and has developed in-depth knowledge of the igaming world by working in the betting industry for over five years. During this time, he has written thousands of articles covering various topics, including bookmaker reviews, ‘how to’ guides, bonus comparisons and much more.