If you’re learning more about soccer, you might have heard of the position of sweeper. While more or less extinct today, the sweeper was at one time a much more prominent position in the sport.
So what happened to it? In this article, we’ll look at the history of the sweeper position including its rise, the height of its popularity, its decline, and some of the greatest players ever to play in the position. But, first, what is a sweeper?
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What Is A Sweeper?
The sweeper role doesn’t fit neatly into our modern ideas of the game of soccer. In times gone by, the sweeper was a player who would sit just behind their team’s defensive line (typically 4 players).
In this position, they’d collect any balls that happened to make it past their defenders and provide an extra body as part of a last line of defense against opponents’ attacks – particularly useful in an era when most teams used two strikers instead of one.
However, this wasn’t all they did. In attack, sweepers moved up into the midfield, to start attacking movements. Arguably the greatest sweeper (and one of the greatest players overall) of all time was Franz Beckenbauer.
Who most famously played for Bayern Munich and Germany. He was celebrated for his ability to pick out amazing passes from deep, as well as to dribble, and his stamina and speed.
As I’ve said, this role is essentially obsolete in the modern game – and we’ll get into the reasons for that later – but even if it’s not around anymore, you could argue that it has left descendants.
Ball-playing center backs are everywhere in the modern game, at least at the top level, as are technical holding midfielders that block off opposition attacks and start ones of their own.
Both of these positions have a fair bit of the same DNA as the old sweepers by combining attacking and defensive responsibilities in roles that require good technical ability.
The Origins Of The Sweeper
It’s generally agreed that the position of sweeper has its origin in the 1930s and 40s in the system called verrou that was created by Karl Rappan, the Austrian manager of the Swiss national team.
The word verrou means “door bolt” in French and implies a strong, organized defense. Verrou used only one central defender with a sweeper behind (using only one central defender is more or less unthinkable in the modern game, but was much less so at the time).
This system and several others that came slightly later, were all large influences on the system that made the sweeper famous – catenaccio.
Like its grandfather, verrou, catenaccio also means “door-bolt” (this time in Italian) with the same implication of strong, organized defense. Sides using this tactic, or variations on it.
Were dominant in Italy and Spain during the 1950s and 60s, most notably Helenio Herrera’s Inter Milan team that won three league titles, two European Cups and two Intercontinental cups.
They weren’t just a defensive team, though – they combined a solid defense with quick, lethal counter-attacks that often stunned their opponents. The sweeper was typically an important element in both attack and defense.
Total Football And the Decline Of Catenaccio
The late 60s and early 70s saw the development of a new tactical style known as total football. This approach emphasized fluidity, with players changing roles from attack, to midfield, to defense, as necessary.
This made it difficult for teams playing catenaccio which required each player to mark a specific opposition player to remain effective, and its days were numbered.
The decline of catenaccio didn’t automatically mean the end of sweepers as a position – sweepers like Beckenbauer and Ronald Koeman still had great success well after this.
In modified systems, but it can be considered one of the beginning points of a long term trend that eventually saw sweepers leave the game entirely.
Why Did The Sweeper Position Die Out?
There are several reasons why sweepers don’t exist in the modern game, and I’ll go through them here.
Very little stays in fashion forever, and sweepers are no exception to the rule. One of the reasons that the sweeper position went into decline was that the system that they were designed for went out of fashion in itself.
One of the main agents of this change in fashion was the visionary manager Arrigo Sacchi. When he took over at AC Milan in the late 1980s, he transformed them into one of the best soccer teams of his era, and arguably of any era.
However, he did it without a sweeper. Saachi didn’t favor the defensive formations that sweepers had flourished in, and instead preferred a more attacking 4-4-2 structure.
The huge success of Saachi’s team earned them many imitators, and more and more teams began to play without sweepers. The speed of this change was only increased by the next reason on the list.
The Offside Rule
Have you ever wondered why strikers don’t just hang around the opposition’s goalmouth and wait for a long pass to tap into the goal? The reason they can’t do this is the offside rule.
The rule means that if there are not two defensive players level with or ahead of (i.e., closer to the defending goal line) of an attacking player when the ball is passed to that attacking player, the attacking player is in an illegal position.
Play will be stopped and free-kick will be given to the defending team. There are a few other details, exceptions, and qualifications, but that’s the general idea.
But what does this have to do with sweepers? Well, back in the heyday of the sweeper, the offside rule did exist but was substantially different.
Instead of the attacker only having to be level with the second to last defender when they received the ball, they had to be behind them – being merely level would put them in an offside position.
This older version of the rule hugely benefited the defenders, because it was much easier for attackers to be caught offside. In 1990, this changed.
Sweepers now became quite a liability, because, sitting behind the main defensive line, they would always make sure that the attacker was onside.
Having a sweeper made it very hard for a team to play an “offside trap” (i.e., a system where defenders try to move at just the right time to make sure that attackers are caught offside and so are unable to score). This is one of the big reasons that sweepers aren’t seen in the modern game.
The Decline Of Two Striker Systems
I mentioned before that Arrigo Saachi’s AC Milan team succeeded in changing the fashions of soccer, and they did. However, the system Saachi introduced was no more immune to change than the one it replaced.
It was standard for most teams to play with two strikers for most of the 90s and 2000s, but this began to change in the 2010s. In today’s game, most teams at the top level line up with only one striker, usually supported by more advanced wide players.
Why does this matter for sweepers? Well, one of the main benefits of having a sweeper is that they provided an extra defender in addition to the usual two center-backs.
This meant that the center-backs could outnumber the opposition strikers three to two, giving them an obvious advantage.
This is no longer necessary in an era when two center-backs already have this advantage over the lone strikers that are now commonplace. That extra player could now be much better used in midfield, meaning that a revival of the sweeper position isn’t likely any time soon.
Changing Styles Of Play
I’ve already mentioned that the systems that favored sweepers are now long out of fashion, but that’s not all. Another reason that sweepers might not be so effective in the modern game, even if a manager did want to try using the position, is the advent of pressing.
At the top level of the sport, pressing is now a fundamental part of the game. If you don’t know what that means, pressing is the tactic of constantly surrounding opposition players when they have the ball to deny them the time and space to make any effective use of their position.
Teams like Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool side now apply so much pressure to their opponents that a sweeper like Franz Beckenbauer would be much less effective today because they’d have so much less time and space to make their brilliant passes than they did in the past.
What Has Replaced The Sweeper?
In some ways, it might be more accurate to say that the sweeper position evolved rather than that it died out. It doesn’t exist in its traditional form anymore, but there are traces of it in several other positions.
The first of these is the so-called “sweeper-keeper” role which combines the traditional goalkeeper role with the sweeper role.
Instead of staying between the goalposts at all times, modern goalkeepers now have to rush out to meet attacks from opponents, win balls, and make clearances.
Some sweeper-keepers are even important attacking outlets for their teams like the greatest classical sweepers were. One of the best examples of this new style of keeper is Manuel Neuer, another great player for Bayern Munich and Germany.
For an example of how he plays, check out his highlights from Germany’s game against Algeria at the 2014 World Cup.
Ball-playing defenders are another way that the role of sweeper has evolved. Like sweeper-keepers, they are now common at the highest level of the sport.
They differ from traditional center-backs by being more technically skillful, particularly when it comes to passing and starting attacks with the ball. Combined with their defensive responsibilities, their origins in the sweeper position aren’t hard to see.
The last position that can reasonably claim to be the sweeper’s successor is the holding midfielder. This kind of defensive midfielder rose to prominence around the end of the 2000s and is now a firm fixture of the game.
These players are more technical variants of traditional, hard-tackling defensive midfielders who rely more on their technical abilities and reading of the game to stop attacks. They then start counterattacks themselves, recalling the profile of the sweeper.
So, there you have it – the story of the sweeper in soccer. Some people mourn the loss of the sweepers, missing the dynamism of those swashbuckling stars who were heroes both in defense and attack.
However, as we’ve seen, even if true sweepers are no longer part of the game, their descendants are still with us – they’ve just branched out and created new positions and roles.