What is a soccer sweeper?

The sweeper soccer position is one that has existed since the games very existence. Though the sweeper soccer position is not attributed with having been invented by one individual player in particular, some of the finest names in the game have been classed as absolute masters of the game in this position. One soccer player in particular however – Franz Beckenbauer is usually credited with being the finest exponent of the sweeper soccer role. We will go on to look at his impact on the sweeper soccer role in due course along with some other fantastic players adaptations of the role, but for now let us first understand it.

Sweeper soccer a basic definition.

In its most basic traditional form the sweeper soccer player is the the last defense before the goal besides the goalkeeper. He is the player that ‘sweeps’ around the back of the whole team in front of him and ‘mops up’ any through balls that penetrate the central back line whilst also dealing with or cutting out intricate ‘one-two’s’ that can send a player clear through on goal. Similarly he also cuts out the opposition’s playmakers most incisive defense splitting passes, directly or through the channels.

How did sweeper soccer begin?

In order to appreciate how sweeper soccer came to prominence it is best to first establish exactly where the traditional sweeper usually positions himself: 

From the sweepers position he can see how the whole team will play. Usually he drops five to ten yards behind his fellow defenders and then cuts out anything that penetrates those in front of him. From history it was often the smartest defenders or indeed the best soccer player in the team who simply used his initiative to do this, rather than something that was coached.

Bobby Moore (world cup winning Captain of England in 1966) was a classic example of a player who just did this naturally as part of his game. From the position illustrated it can be seen how a gifted player can read the game, marshal his team and indeed shape and control the match in general.  

Sweeper soccer in effect – defensive and attack minded.

Predominantly used in European continental football, the Italians and the Germans at certain times in history (when they have had the sublimely gifted players to do so) have turned the sweeper soccer system into an art form. 

The Italians refer to a sweeper in soccer as the “libero” and have employed it via some of their finest players of all time like Gaetano Sicrea, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro to ensure they are one of the most difficult nations to break down or score against in world soccer or even at club level. The mentioned players are all ‘out and out’ leaders on the pitch who form almost a one man backbone for the entire side. 

The Germans through three especially gifted players Franz Beckenbauer, Lothar Matthaus and Mattias Sammer have at times also made a traditionally defensive system beautifully offensive. The two former soccer players even inspiring their respective national sides to World Cup glory.

Trying to describe how they played and effected this would not do them the justice they deserve, so let us just have a look at some moments of them in motion. For then it is much easier to see how the supposedly most defensive player on the pitch can actually build and link attacks, before becoming one of the most attacking players on the field. Often surprisingly scoring some stunning goals in the process!

Take a look at this goal from Lothar Matthaus for example in the 1990 World Cup (which Germany won) and how deeply he picks up the ball

A long but brilliantly informative you tube video of the best sweeper soccer players ever to play the game throughout soccer history can be viewed as follows and includes several of the names already mentioned in this article.  

Viewing the video, you can see what complete all round players these guys were, for it beautifully illustrates how they could do absolutely everything in the game from anywhere on the pitch. Moreover, take a look at their respective records – not bad eh?

Sweeper soccer is outdated?

There is an increasing school of thought that argues that traditional sweeper soccer is no longer a practical system to employ in the modern era and is largely a product of a by-gone era. Mainly for the following reasons;

  1. The changes to the offside rule have meant that strikers have got cleverer and now would more often than not play off the last man (the sweeper) or in the hole between the soccer sweeper and his other defenders. So they make sweeper soccer players redundant.
  2. The advent of ‘sweeper keepers’ such as Alisson Becker at Liverpool and Ederson at Manchester City has had a similar effect.

To be honest this writer has little time for the argument that the brilliant players illustrated in the previous video would have no place in today’s game and sweeper soccer is dead. Today’s game simply just does not have the caliber of player to play sweeper soccer. Such a system needs players who can adapt in the fashion seen and at a high enough level to base your team round. Looking at the players mentioned it is very apparent that such players just do not come around that often. Maybe even just once a decade or so.

Soccer sweeper

Franco Baresi of AC Milan and Italy for example was the absolute master of dropping very deep off the central striker to give that striker confidence he was no threat. Baresi would then read the game and time his ‘step up’ exactly right to catch the center forward literally a mile offside. Prior to doing so he would give himself the time and space to cut out any through balls.

Baresi was also a master (as were all the others mentioned) of adapting his style of play to each and every game. Thereby if the striker changed tactics so would Baresi. Often moving himself into a flat back four or five and letting a tricky center forward know ‘he was there’ shall we say!  

Others like Beckenbauer would more often than not step into midfield and be so imposing that the opposition was more concerned with stopping him/them than mounting their own attacks. Bobby Moore equally could just adapt as needed in each and every game and make it look so simple (see him stopping the great Jarzinho in full flow here) that argument number 1) can be seen to be a total falsehood. If you have such a player, I simply cannot believe a manager would not play him and let him dictate how sweeper soccer can be so effective in influencing the direction of a game.

Regarding argument 2) the natural counter to this argument is that whilst Alisson and Ederson are great sweeper soccer keepers, they developed out of necessity, for truly great ‘out and out’ sweepers appear in soccer so infrequently. Great additions that they are sweeper soccer keepers’ do not preclude playing with a center back/come sweeper as well. Just take a look at Liverpool where Virgil Van Dijk probably the best example of the current modern day version of a sweeper and Alisson have a great understanding and complement each other massively to the overall benefit of the team.

What has changed then regarding sweeper soccer in the modern game?

Well though this writer would still build his side around a sweeper of the caliber mentioned, if available. The advent of both the ‘box to box’ soccer player who could do it all as well as the defensive, holding midfielder has lessened the need for such a talented player. 

Regarding the box to box player, this started with the likes of Roy Keane (Manchester United & Ireland), Patrick Viera (Arsenal and France) and Steven Gerrard (Liverpool and England) literally controlling and winning games largely by themselves. And between those three players, literally every medal in the game has been won. 

Defensive midfielders augmented this further with the likes of Fabinho (LFC), Fernandinho (Man City), Declan Rice (West Ham), and Kalvin Phillips (Leeds) in the English Premier league playing such pivotal stable holding roles, that they provide a platform for the rest of the team to express themselves. In effect they play the role of the sweeper but from in front of the defense rather than from behind it.

So where does that leave us?

The game is constantly evolving and cyclical. The soccer sweeper will continue to evolve in one form or another and from one system to another. Just because it is not currently being utilized by many sides in its traditional form does not mean it is finished or is not actually in effect just under another manifestation.

Nor does it mean it will not return in its traditional form. For now holding midfielders, wing-backs, and the ‘high press’ are all the rage. But what do they all have in common? They seek to control possession for their side, neutralize the opposition and form a platform to attack from. Exactly what a great soccer sweeper does! Just when they are good enough they can instigate all that on their own.

I’ll leave you with the following question applicable for whichever team you support. Out of those 10 players shown in the video would you honestly not have any one of them in your side? Great teams are built around great players be it the sweeper or the striker.

By the way just in case you are in doubt or missed it; amongst other, all of them had won their respective domestic leagues multiple times; 8 out of 10 of them had won at least the European Cup/Champions league at least once; whilst every one of the top 5 had won the World Cup! 

So…..?