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Football 101: Lesson 2 - Sweeper Keepers

by Meagan Wiper

Welcome to Lesson 2 of Footy 101! Last time we looked at the numbering system and its relationship to various positions. This week we are tackling a specific type of player, the Sweeper Keeper! So considering that your first question is likely what is the difference between a sweeper-keeper and a more "conventional" keeper, let's cut to the chase.

The classic keeper traditionally stays in his penalty area & sometimes approaches the attacker to mess with the scoring angle or stays behind to get a hand on the ball. The sweeper-keeper is different in that he pushes up the pitch to stay close to the defense (essentially as another defender) instead of having the defense hit the ball long and potentially losing it to the opposition. A sweeper-keeper, by moving up the defensive line, leaves the comfort zone of the goal by passing the ball to other players, allowing them to adjust their play or run forward to get a pass.

If the attacking team presses, the keeper has to find a free defender to pass the ball towards. That way, enough time has passed to start a rapid passing move with the midfield & move through the defensive third. In short, confidence in using feet instead of the keeper's hand is essential. Good passing and ball distribution skills are also key. A keeper can still be a deadly part of the team's attack, even if hand skill is sub-par.

While the position has brought huge innovation to the sport tactically, it's a big risk for the keeper to push high up the pitch, knowing they do not have the luxury of using their hands. It can be a useful tactic for teams who specialize in possession-based football, but it has to be effectively and carefully utilized. If executed properly, it is good for teams who are not reliant on the build-up, as the goals scored on counter-attacks can decrease rapidly. The time taken to restart the attack also decreases, and players save energy by not having to track back and run forward again.

So a sweeper-keeper helps in improving smaller things, but many would prefer to be on the safer side. We’ve all blamed keepers, including Atletico Ottawa’s, when conceding due to their presence up the pitch rather than in a 1v1 situation in their own penalty area. In some cases, it could go quite sideways, as it did for Claudio Bravo against Barcelona in 2016.

Now here’s something that you probably wouldn’t have guessed in a million years. The sweeper-keeper isn’t a recent phenomenon; it started in the 1800s. The very first sweeper-keeper was, who played for Everton, Stoke City, and Sunderland in what is now called the English Premier League. He took advantage of the FA’s (English Football Association) rule 8, which stated that: the goalkeeper is allowed to handle the ball inside his own half, provided he does not carry it. Roose often bounced the ball till the halfway line before launching attacks.

The rule was later restricted in 1912 by stating that a keeper can only handle the ball in the penalty area, and Roose promptly retired. Sweeper keepers intermittently appeared afterward, namely Lev Yashin, the only keeper ever to win the Ballon d’Or. Another was Hungarian Gyula Grosics, but both men were good with their feet.

Surprisingly, Gianluigi Buffon, widely considered to be the greatest keeper ever, actually started out as a sweeper-keeper during his first stint with Parma However, he’s now more known for his consistency and especially his longevity over the years.

But if the sweeper-keeper isn’t a recent phenomenon, you ask, why are there more around now than at any point in football history? For one, you can thank FIFA. Following a 1990 World Cup that saw record low goal scoring, the laws of the game were changed in the hope of eliminating certain defensive tactics. No longer were keepers allowed to pick the ball up on passes into their own 18-yard box. This forced keepers to become a more active part of distribution, particularly to try and break presses. Being good with your feet no longer became a luxury; it became a necessity.

But from a tactical perspective, you can cast your eyes back to 20 or so years prior to Johan Cruyff, one of the greatest to ever play football and one of the biggest proponents of Total Football. In this system, players will move out of position, and another player will take up their role while they shift places on the field. To Cruyff, “a goalkeeper is the first attacker, and the striker is the first defender.” In Cruyff's ideology of Total Football, the goalkeeper is the 11th outfield player of the team and should provide passing options to teammates.

Who was Cruyff’s protege? None other than Pep Guardiola, a former Barcelona FC player under Cruyff and current Manchester City manager. Guardiola was a big proponent of the Tiki-Taka style of football that is a descendant of sorts of Total Football. In laypeople’s terms, Tiki-Taka can be referred to in short words as “pass, pass, and pass until the opponent begs for someone to shoot.” It differs from Total Football in that one doesn’t have to be as physically strong or tall to play. As well, players changed positions in total football to confuse opponents; now, in Tiki-Taka, the ball does all the work.

So who is the GOAT of sweeper-keepers? If you ask a footy fan to name a sweeper-keeper, nine times out of ten, it’ll be Manuel Neuer. His play was so out there that in Bayern Munich matches, he’d constantly position himself close to the halfway line, sometimes even venturing past it. Marc-Andre Ter Steigen, a fellow German, also excelled in the sweeper-keeper role. Current sweeper-keepers include Alisson Becker of Liverpool and Hugo Lloris of Tottenham Hotspurs.

In the CPL, it can be said that keepers in the league are sweeper-keepers by default, though some are more involved in their defensive duties than others. Vancouver FC’s Callum Irving is the one who plays the most like a sweeper-keeper, as he is well known for going off his line to receive passes and defend.

In conclusion, using a sweeper-keeper is a high-risk tactic, and its success depends heavily on the personnel available to the manager as well as its relevance to the rest of the tactical setup of the team. However, it can also be a high-reward approach, especially for teams that like to have total control of the ball or teams that like to hit the opponent on the counter often.

Now that we’ve covered Sweeper Keepers, stay tuned for Lesson Three, where we will see what a sweeper looks like when they aren’t in net.

About Meagan

Meagan Wiper fell in love with the beautiful game by complete accident by randomly watching the 2005 Champions League final between Liverpool and AC Milan. While she does support her beloved FC St. Pauli, she has also supported local football since 2016, starting with the Ottawa Fury and culminating with Atletico Ottawa. A member of the Capital City Supporters Group since 2021, she can be seen drumming in the Dub and occasionally eating her own fist out of anxiety at matches and watch parties.

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