The primary positions in soccer are relatively easy to glean… you have your goalkeeper, your defensive line, your midfielders, and your strikers — simple, right?
Well, where things get a little more complex is the multitude of sub-roles within these ranks, perhaps the most confusing of which is the sweeper position.
In simple terms, a sweeper is the last man, by which I mean they sit behind all of their teammates (except the keeper) in order to “clean up” any dribs and drabs that make it past the primary defensive line.
However, the sweeper position is a storied and adaptable role that has changed throughout the decades in order to serve a number of different, crucial purposes.
What Is The Traditional Role Of Sweeper In Soccer?
As established, the primary duty of the sweeper is to stand back from their defensive line so they can sweep up any mess that makes its way past the fullbacks and wingbacks.
Some might say the main function of a sweeper is to clear the ball in dangerous situations, and while that is certainly true to some extent, especially in a traditional context, even back then, the position was a lot more nuanced than people often give it credit.
When you’re the last defensive player, you don’t only deal with the odd stray ball, you have to go head-to-head with the fastest and most aggressive strikers and midfielders in order to quell their offensive.
In these situations, everything rests on the sweeper’s shoulders, as any player worth their salt will capitalize on a 1-on-1 opportunity with the goalkeeper, meaning the sweeper has to be an exceedingly talented athlete and a remarkably skilled soccer player.
A Brief History Of The Sweeper Position
The sweeper system was the brainchild of Karl Rappan, the Austrian coach of the Swiss national team during the 30s and 40s, but Italian coach Giuseppe Viana is credited with the system’s proliferation and early success.
Rappan’s sweeper was referred to as the “verrouilleur”, meaning “lock on” or “bolt”. This player would stand ahead of the goalkeeper rounding out a 1-3-3-3 formation.
Playing this system, Rappan and his club team, Servette, were able to defeat much stronger teams simply by sitting deep and defending until an opportunity for a counterattack arose.
The Italian variation of the verrou system was named “Catenaccio”, which literally translates as “door bolt” referring to the shape and strength of the defensive formation.
The Catenaccio became a popular tactic amongst many top-performing Italian teams, including Triestina and Inter Milan.
Although Italian teams utilized a more diverse range of formations in their version of the sweeper system, i.e. 1-4-4-1 and 1-4-3-2, the main adaptation was that the sweeper sat closer to the defensive line than the keeper.
This may seem like a relatively small amendment, but it had a huge impact on the game.
Instead of a purely defensive fail-safe, the sweeper was now a deep-lying playmaker in charge of establishing counter-offensives with sharp passing and adept dribbling — The “libero” was born!
Libero is simply a term that referred to the newly developed sweeper position and was perhaps first embodied by German defender Franz Beckenbauer, who swept his way to World Cup victory in 1990.
Sweepers In The Modern Game
The role of the sweeper is inextricably linked to the evolution of the offside rule.
As the subtleties of the offside rule changed in favor of the attacking player, it no longer made sense to utilize a sweeper, as this deep defensive player would only ensure the attacking party was always onside, giving them a distinct advantage.
A well-organized sweeper system can still work in the modern game if the player shifts from last in formation to full-back whenever the team advances up-field, but this complex strategy isn’t often employed at the professional level.
That said, although some might consider sweepers a dying breed, the truth of the matter is that they’re more prominent than ever. Once again, they just moved to a different area of the pitch.
A common strategy in the modern game is to appoint a deep central midfielder to act as both a defensive stalwart and a playmaker, just as the traditional sweeper did.
The only difference is that the sweeping now takes place in front of the defensive line rather than behind it.
What Does It Take To Be A Successful Sweeper?
Whether you have your hopes set on playing a traditional defensive position or a more modern midfield sweeping position, here are the attributes you’ll need to succeed.
A good sweeper needs to be the fastest person on the pitch or at least in the top three. Without pace, they stand no chance of making enough ground to gain possession of or clear balls lofted over the primary defensive or midfield line.
As attacking players already have momentum and can manipulate your positioning, you also need speed to keep up with them when they make their dash on goal, but pace isn’t everything when it comes to these pulse-raising encounters.
Midfielders and strikers are often very physical players with the ability to contest the ball in the air and shoulder their way through the opposition to reach and control the ball on the ground. In light of this, the ideal sweeper will also be sturdy and resolute.
Timing is another absolute must, as you’ll be making the majority of your tackles deep into your own half, often in your own area, so a careless challenge can award your opponent with a penalty or a free kick in an incredibly dangerous position (see also ‘What Is A Free Kick In Soccer?‘).
Thankfully, sweepers get a pretty good view of the game, as they can see most players, but they still need to be able to read the game well in order to position themselves correctly.
Think about it; typical defensive and midfield lines are usually made up of at least three players, but the sweeper is all on their own covering the entire width of the pitch, meaning they have a much larger zone of operation, and to rule this expanse, they need to be in the right place at the right time.
When played, many people believe the sweeper to be the most important player on the field, as they add an essential fail-safe element to the defensive line, increasing the chances of a clean sheet, and if a team doesn’t concede, they cannot lose.
The traditional role may have fallen out of favor in the professional game due to the offside rule, but being that it inspired the defensive midfielder, a crucial position in modern soccer, the influence of the sweeper endures and likely always will.