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There has been mention of a role in defense of football called "Sweeper". Wikipedia gives the following explanation.

The sweeper or libero (Italian: free) is a more versatile type of Centre back that, as the name suggests, "sweeps up" the ball if the opponent manages to breach the defensive line. Their position is rather more fluid than other defenders who mark their designated opponents. The sweeper's ability to read the game is even more vital than for a Centre-back. The catenaccio system of play, used in Italian football in the 1960s, notably employed a defensive libero.

My question relates to the diagram of field positions shown below. If the sweeper is played, there will be 5 in defense. But from reading the wiki page, it seems that the sweeper's role is to read the game so that he wins the ball by tackling the opposition attackers, and also to make the forward run to start the counter attack.

In that case isn't the role of the sweeper same as the defensive midfielder (DM) now, except that DM will be in front of the defenders?

Can we say now since the sweeper's responsibility is shared now by both the defensive midfielders and the Centre backs, the sweeper's position has become obsolete?

football field with showing defender positions
(click for full-size image)

15 Answers 15

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To me, there is still a difference between a Defensive Midfielder, and a Sweeper. Mainly in that a DM (has also been called a Stopper in some instances) is supposed to "stop" the fast flow of an attack before it totally breaches the back line. Where as the Sweeper will/can roam the back line and pick up the loose ends of the (hopefully) thwarted attack. For example, if a through-ball is issued, the Sweeper should be on top of that every time -- yes that's in a perfect world, but that is the idea.

I guess, yes, they can perform the same conceptual roles but it's done at different points on the pitch. The DM prevents the offense from gaining too much momentum through the midfield, and the Sweeper acts as the last line of defense in the back. I wouldn't say the Sweeper position is obsolete though -- but it does all depend on your formation -- as the Sweeper has the ability to run more free throughout the back, where as the back line is either man-marking or is responsible for a specific zone on the pitch. Obviously you don't see the Sweeper played in top-flight leagues much anymore because of the offside trap, but you definitely see it a lot in youth leagues because they haven't completely figured out the chemistry needed for the trap :) The place where I've seen Sweeper being used the most are in recreational leagues where they only have 1 referee, and the offside trap is almost impossible to rely on.

  • Absolutely. I once played on a team that relied heavily on a sweeper and, fortunately, he was fantastic. No one got past him without a cross. – Matthew Read Mar 3 '12 at 18:33
  • The reason i asked this question is because, i didn't see anyone playing the role of sweeper. – kartshan Mar 4 '12 at 9:26
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I'd say that the sweeper role IS somewhat obsolete, partially because what has been already taken up by others but also because defense mentality has changed quite a bit with the development of the game, and the training that goes with it.

Consider this scenario, would you like your last defender to be behind your main line of defense? Obviously the schematic you have is just sketch but in truth if your sweeper is the last security in defense he would need to be behind everybody else, in case the team mates mess up. So a long diagonal cross, or a well placed through ball, would tear that defense to shreds without the problem of off-side call.

Just as the attackers become more intelligent and fluid in their movement, so did the center backs ("DC" for manager fans :)) Most teams have their DCs seeing over the game, cutting any attempts to penetrate the line. Depending on the number of strikers the opponent team has the DCs might even alternate the responsibility of sweeping the line through out the game. Especially with the now popular 4-3-3 layout, there's usually one strong attacker which plays "pivot" while two fast and technically skilled wingers use the width. In that scenario the one DC would mark closely while the other would keep distance and orchestrate the defense.

The DM is a whole different story though by the way...

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I believe that the sweeper position is becoming obsolete as a great deal of teams (at least most of the soccer teams I've played on and watched) rely on the offside trap as a defensive strategy. Needless to say, the offside trap only works with straight back line, so unless the sweeper plays more like a CB, you cannot have both a sweeper and operate the offside trap.

I personally would go with the offside trap over the sweeper, but I guess its just preference. I'm not sure when the last time I've watched a team in the EPL (or any top league for that matter) play with a sweeper.

However, in youth leagues, you see the sweeper played all the time. I'm taking a guess here but I imagine it is because at younger ages and lower skill levels, players are not able to organize their back lines efficiently. In this case, a sweeper can help out greatly as it adds that extra line of defense.

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I haven't seen a pro team use a sweeper in YEARS. It's not about man-to-man marking, it's about pressuring the ball, getting the team compact behind the ball and blocking all the dangerous/penetrating passing lanes. You will always see the 4 at the back in a straight line when defending and staggered on possession. Any smart forward will play in line With a sweeper making the position completely useless anyways.

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Nothing is ever obsolete in football, it always works in cycles. At the moment the defensive midfielder (a sole one as opposed to a two) has a prominent role in intercepting and conducting attacks however that may change when they begin to get exploited down in the space located to the sides of the position they cover.

Another potential reasoning for it's current none-existence may be that there just simply isn't the players about with the correct skillset to play in such a specialist role. You look at the great sweepers in the past in Beckenbauer,Baresi,Scirea and Sammer amongst others. They all had a very strong core game. Mobility, mentality, positionally aware and also very accomplished on the ball they covered all basis. I have a feeling that players who do show such a skillset are getting caught up in positions higher up the pitch or as fullbacks rather than in a position that could truly highlight their natural talent.

It'll be back though, hopefully sooner rather than later.

PS. Whilst I agree with Reid it is not obsolete I think he is making a fundamental misjudgement of the role. The core aspect is to sweep up attacks that penetrate past your two central defensive partners however it is also fundamental that a sweeper can orchestrate from the back and be able to step out of the defence when necessary to influence play from midfield into the final third. It's a defining aspect of any sweeper to not only be a good defender but to be the first attacker on the pitch.

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If your question is whether the sweeper position is obsolete; then the answer is no. For example Sam Allardyce's West Ham United currently play a sweeper in James Tomkins. It can be observed in the MLS as well where Thorsten Frings occupies this position for Toronto (the first playing more behind the defense and the second playing behind the midfield). Also, a 'keeper can occupy this position, if not in the traditional sense. However, whether or not this is an effective system is another matter!

  • A defensive midfielder (Frings exemple) is not a sweeper, by definition. – posdef Mar 31 '14 at 9:12
  • @posdef I agree with you in that a sweeper is generally regarded as occupying that position in the defence, but player operating in a deep-midfield role are referred to as sweepers. This article refers to Frings as being a sweeper: theguardian.com/football/blog/2012/mar/23/… – Danger Fourpence Apr 5 '14 at 12:33
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I play sweeper. And I'm a senior in high school. My job is pretty clear but very hard to actually do. The sweep we'd job is to coach. I feel like I've had my best game when the other three defenders have played well. With that said, I am NOT obsolete. The sweeper ideally shouldn't have to touch the ball. However people screw up sometimes. The sweeper should simply clean up the garbage and continue to provide knowledge and instruction through his vision. The sweeper doesn't mean that the other defenders don't develop. But it does mean that they don't necessarily get punished on the scoreboard when they make a mistake.

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Even in the modern era you could find teams playing with a sweeper. Its not obsolete. But is considered heavily defensive. When you play a sweeper the formation followed is mostly 1-4-4-1 or 1-4-3-2. You can see this followed when two teams off very different calibers meet and its usually the weaker team that employs a sweeper. The modern and better reputed teams do not employ sweeper because they don't become a part in total football. in total football as the question poster mentioned the role of sweeper is shared by the two central defenders. I don't think the defensive mid has anything to do with SW becoming obsolete.

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If you pushed your centre forward on to my sweeper, who happens to be my most tactically aware player, I'd tell him to play you offside. The way to beat the sweeper system is to be fluid and attack with width and numbers,but at youth level, most teams are more rigid so it is surprising it isn't used more.

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Very rare in pro ranks, but I play it on my men's competitive league and my college team (division 3) used it about a decade ago. I'm not making the argument that Pros and D1 colleges should be using sweeper. My point is that it's not just a young youth formation, it works quite well in men's league where most of us are former college players.

The argument that a sweeper hinders the offside trap is curious to me, as we ruthlessly run the trap with great success. As above commenters said, offensively you try to expose the sweeper system by putting your center striker on the sweeper to open the field up. But my 3 backs are in somewhat of a line ahead of me so as soon as I anticipate the pass to the center striker I "jump" forward and get in a line with my backs. Their best goal scorer is then in a terribly obvious offside position, probably with the ball on its way to his feet. At a minimum, he's running away from my goal to get back in onside position and the timing of his run is screwed up and their offense is forced to reset.

Of course, I pull that a few times and the striker thinks "so this is how it's going to be? The sweeper runs up to the back line when we attack." When I see this lightbulb turn on I then put myself with the line, basically transitioning from the sweeper system to a flat 4. But I'm still not marking much and am directing. As soon as the striker loses awareness of my positioning I drop and provide depth. As soon as he tries to approach me I may jump back up to be even with my defenders.

I keep playing mindgames and switch from sweeper formation to flatback 4 but my responsibilities remain the same. Direct the defense, prevent through balls and bail my backs out if they get beat 1 on 1.

  • HI and welcome to Sports.SE. You have provided a really interesting, first hand experience on how the role works. However I am not sure if it actually answers the question; "Is the sweeper role obsolete with modern formations?" – posdef Apr 24 '15 at 9:15
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The last post about the guy in the men's league is one of the first people that knows what he's talking about. You can run an offsides trap effectively with a sweeper. Second, if a forward stays with a sweeper then he's gonna be in for a ride and he's never gonna be open for a pass. I've won a state championship and I've also coached a state championship team both had stoppers and sweepers. Also its false to believe using a sweeper is for highly defensive teams. I took my team to the state tournament. We played three games and scored 11,goals. We were number one in goals made. The number two team had 6 goals. We were one of the only teams to have a sweeper but we dominated the scoreboard out of 12 teams. Its all about having the players make the right set of moves when they get the ball. Specially the players without the ball. I always spread the field out on attacks and beef up the middle on defense. I would be open to running anything that worked though. I love soccer and sometimes you need backup formations to be successful, specially when you play a team twice in one tournament. We also used a sweeper in high school, our record was 21-1 for the year. We beat every team except the last one by at least two points. We scored tons of goals again proving that its not a defensive may minded thing.

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I use a sweeper because my team is not Barcelona. Usually your sweeper is your fastest, strongest and knowledgable player. On a slow attack i have him as secondary defender while stopper takes over his position. If a fast attack is in progress and the winger is flying, the stopper comes down and we transition to a traditional 4 man line. I think the sweeper has been diminished at higher levels because all players are strong, fast and intellegent. But for teams with players with different skill sets...a sweeper wins championships.

Coach al

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The sweeper is pretty much obsolete in top leagues, youth and above, because it's easy to exploit. If the opposing team plays a sweeper, then I would tell my center forward too push up to the sweeper. It stretches the game and allows the opposing team to push more players forward. It invites constant pressure from a team that can possess the ball. In lower levels, it works great, especially if playing against a kick and run team.

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I find myself as a free center midfielder (libero) that I end up sweeping when we are ahead late in the game and are trying to preserve a lead as the opposing team pushes forward hard. I think to be a truly free player in the game is to know where to position yourself where you can have the most influence on the game. Attack more than defend to get ahead, then defend more than attack to stay ahead dropping back as far as necessary, and attacking only when good opportunities present themselves usually on the counter.

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In professional leagues, where roster depth is important (compared with youth, college, men's league or lower division play), the use of a formation that trains itself to count on a sweeper is avoided because the team's success relies too much on the health/suspension status of a single player. Usually, the sweeper is an elite player that can not easily be substituted in and out of the lineup, without detriment to the entire team. If a pro team could ever acquire two (tall) natural sweepers, you'd see them both play as centre back, but they'd play it with one forward (the push) and one back (the sweep). The push sweeps the midfield and joins the attack, but also must double back and collapse behind sweeper when necessary. The sweep plays the offside trap, and directs the three other backs, getting them to push and collapse according to vision of attacking threats, challenging any through ball. I once played sweep where we lost our number one goalie, and my coach asked me to no longer allow a single shot on net. Finally becoming a true libero, the position became easier to play, and we dominated other teams, but only the push played an offensive attacking role, never the sweep.

protected by user527 Mar 28 '16 at 15:24

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