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Football 101: Lesson 3 - The Sweeper

by Meagan Wiper

Welcome to Lesson 3 of Footy 101! Last time we looked at the Sweeper Keeper and how it has helped the evolution of keepers in the game. This week we are tackling what that position looks like when it isn't a keeper, simply called a Sweeper.

So what is a Sweeper? Also called the “libero” (literally the Italian word for “free”), the sweeper is a more fluid centre-back. While it’s not a position that is used all that often now, if at all, it’s had a tremendous influence on current ones, especially the defensive midfielder and sweeper keeper.

Say an opposing forward has the ball. The sweeper adds defensive muscle and “sweep up” any balls that get by their teammates by moving behind or even in front of the other defenders into the midfield when needed.

The position originated in the 1930s by Austrian coach Karl Rappan, who practically revolutionized the sport by developing the “security bolt” formation. Said formation had four defenders, with one of them stationed between the goalkeeper and other defenders.

Karl Rappan

This system reached its peak in Italy in the 1960s, where it was called the “chain”, or “catenaccio” under famed Inter Milan coach Helenio Herrera. Weaker teams used it to have more strength defensively by counter-attacking. So yeah, if you were wondering where the defensive “park the bus” football came from, blame these guys (just kidding).

Over time, the defensive evolution to a back three kept the sweeper behind two defenders, who marked the opposing forwards. The sweeper would then either move back and forth behind the defenders, pass the ball to the wingbacks, or even vertically in a long pass.

Two players come to mind who were the best at playing the game in the sweeper position, both being centre-backs. One is Franz Beckenbauer (aka “der Kaiser”), the famed Bayern Munich and West Germany defender and occasional midfielder. An elegant but also extremely intelligent player, it’s no small wonder he became the first footballer to win the World as a player, and a manager in 1974 and 1990, respectively, using sweepers as part of his own defensive strategy. Another is Franco Baresi, along with Paolo Maldini, who is one of AC Milan’s most celebrated players and spent his entire 20-year career with the team. While not the biggest or tallest defender that existed, he was still known for his strength, stamina, concentration, pace, and tenacity, which added to his effectiveness in the air.

He was also a major influence on Maldini, and it’s not for nothing that AC Milan is known for having some of the best defenders of all time. Fun fact: he was later nicknamed "Kaiser Franz", referencing the aforementioned Franz Beckenbauer.

So why is the sweeper position not as prominent as before? Well, if you go on internet forums, you’ll find all sorts of answers and heated debates. To be fair, Antonio Conte used sweepers when he was the Chelsea boss, so they still exist. But formations like 4-4-2, 4-3-3, and even 4-2-3-1 are dominant to the point that they changed the game. The job of the sweeper is now done within these formations by a central defensive midfielder or, more rarely, a traditional centre-back. Teams are more favorable to playing with a lone striker these days as well, with another player linking the midfield with the attack. There are even discussions on Reddit threads about whether sweepers have truly disappeared or whether the pendulum will swing again and they’ll make a comeback.

Regardless, the level of influence the position has had on the beautiful game is indisputable. For a start, there’d be no Andrea Pirlo in the deep-lying playmaker midfield role. It could be said that the sweeper paved the way for the all-conquering ball-playing defender, something much more common today. Above all, the role that the sweeper once carried out 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. So, without the pioneering vision of the sweepers and the managers who employed them, keepers and midfielders wouldn’t have evolved into what they are today.

Now that we’ve covered Sweepers in a few forms, stay tuned for Lesson Four, where we will see .

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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