The Evolution of the Sweeper: One of Football’s Greatest Inventions

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The tactical evolution of football is something that continues at pace, as formations, attitudes, and systems adapt to contemporary thinking. This evolution has seen multiple phases throughout the ages, and while some tactical innovations have stood the test of time others have been consigned to history. The notion of playing a ‘sweeper’ appears to belong to the former category, although it has featured in multiple leagues and cultures since the 1960’s.

What is a sweeper and when did the position originate?

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In simple terms, a sweeper is withdrawn centre back, who plays behind the defensive unit and provides coverage in instances when attackers break the line. Also known as Libero, sweepers are required to have an innate understanding of the game and the ability to read attacking plays, while also showcasing excellent quality on the ball. Arguably the most exponent of this art was the Juventus defender Gaetano Scirea, who pioneered the role and led the Italians to seven league championships.

German star Franz Beckenbauer and AC Milan defender Franco Baresi also became synonymous with the role, with Lothar Matthaus and Mathias Sammer continuing the trend into the next generation. Despite this progression, Romanian coach Alexandru Apolzan is credited with creating the sweeper system in the early 1960’s, as a response to the popular 4-2-4 Brazilian formation of the time. Inter Milan’s Helenio Herrera then used the system to win two consecutive European Cups later in the decade, and this quickly became known as the ‘Catenaccio’ style of play.

The Evolution of the sweeper System

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The 1970’s saw a premature end for the sweeper system, as the fluidity and mobility of total football overwhelmed the sweeper’s positional dominance and triggered the rise of zonal marking. It remerged again at the start of the 1990’s, with German stars such as Lothar Matthaus and Mathias Summer popularising the role across Europe. It even made a brief appearance as the Premier League commenced, before fading out amid a swathe of aggressive, counter-attacking football.

While the sweeper system continues to reemerge from time to time, it is dormant at present and not deployed across any of the top five European leagues. Despite this, many teams continue to deploy an evolution of this system, with a central player based in front of the defensive line whose remit is to intercept attacks (think of Sergio Busquets, for example). This makes perfect sense, especially when you consider that sweepers gradually evolved from being centre backs to defensive-minded midfielders.