Every sport evolves with time and soccer is no exception. One such evolution is that of the “sweeper” position. What used to be a fairly straightforward role, has evolved to stay relevant in today’s game. Now, you might be wondering…
What is a sweeper in soccer?
A sweeper or “libero” in some languages, is a defender that sits behind the defensive line and is tasked with cleaning up any balls that get by their teammates. Sweepers can also serve as deep-lying playmakers. The position has evolved throughout history and see’s mixed-use in today’s game.
Regardless of the language, the positions are essentially the same. However, at different times and in various systems how a team interprets the role has changed to fit their needs.
Now we might consider a sweeper to be more defensive and a libero as more of a playmaker from a deep position. In any case, there’s a lot that goes into the position and we invite you to continue reading.
What Is a Sweeper in Soccer?
In reality, the sweeper has been a lot of things to the teams that have deployed them but traditionally the sweeper acts as a free man behind the defensive line to “sweep up.”
The sweeper sits behind their line of defenders and marks the opposing forwards. They are also tasked with gaining possession or clearing any ball that squeaks through the defensive line.
The sweeper was and is used by teams who need additional help defensively, especially against better opponents.
History of the Sweeper Position in Soccer
The origins of the sweeper date back to two systems: The Austrian Karl Rappan and his Swiss side Servette during the 1930s and in the Italian side Salernitana coached by Giuseppe Viani.
While Rappan founded the system and had great success with it as the Swiss national team coach in the 30s and 40s, it was the Italians that brought it to prominence.
The system is famously known as “Catenaccio” or “The Chain.” It referred to the movement of the defensive line (the chain) and the sweeper shifting as needed (the bolt) which resembles an old-fashioned chain bolt on a door (like those in a hotel room).
Traditionally you have two “full backs” (modern-day center-backs) and wingbacks (modern-day full-backs) but in this system, the wingbacks dropped deep to give what resembled a back four on defense.
Then one of the fullbacks would drop deeper to “sweep”, forming the chain. Maybe the greatest example of the sweeper or libero position is that of the German World Cup winner, Franz Beckenbauer.
Beckenbauer played the position to perfection at Bayern Munich and with the German national team. Beckenbauer also used the libero role as a coach for West Germany which won the World Cup in 1990.
Beckenbauer transformed the position from being that of cleaning up and hoofing the ball down the field to being a more graceful position full of adept passing and skilled dribbling.
It was Beckenbaur that took the position from “sweeper” to “libero” by transforming it from a primarily defensive job to that of a deep-lying playmaker.
Other famous examples of this sweeper role were Italians Franco Baresi and Armando Picchi and famed Englishman Sir Bobby Moore.
What Is a Stopper in Soccer?
The role of the stopper is primarily attributed to a defensive midfielder whose primary job is to shield the backline and stop anything from getting by them.
They are the physically dominant force in the middle of the field that absorbs the bulk of the ball-winning responsibility. This means they challenge 50-50 balls, fight for balls in the air, put in touches and punishing tackles, and can drop into the defensive line if needed to provide cover.
While the role of stopper still exists in the game today you will rarely see them referred to as “stoppers.” In the modern game, they are more often referred to as “destroyers” or as a “6” because of their ability to disrupt and destroy opposition passages of play.
Their primary responsibility is to disrupt and make life miserable for the attacking midfielders and strikers on the other team.
In the Dutch numbering system, these players usually play in the #6 role and do not join in the attack but sit back shielding the back four.
Sweeper vs Stopper
So you might be asking yourself, “What is the difference here?” As with anything, there is a lot of nuance involved. Depending on the country or the coach there can often be different meanings for these terms and positions but there is a lot of overlap.
For example, one of the best “stoppers” in the modern game is Frenchman N’golo Kante. Kante is not exactly a physically imposing presence on the field standing at only 5’6 but he lives up to the bill of the stopper by destroying opposition attacks before they get started.
His intellect and stamina allow him to cover the field and do the work of two men. He reads plays so well that he can cut off passing lanes, put in tough challenges, and play the ball to more creative players quickly.
He is by definition a #6 or “stopper” but a new interpretation of the role.
In many ways, Kante is the perfect player to describe both. While there are differences in the theoretical roles in practice they operate in much the same way in the modern game.
Kante is good with the ball and can create opportunities from deep while also intimidating players with his physical style of play. He is doing the work of a stopper in putting in tough tackles while also playing as a modern sweeper just higher up the field.
Sweepers in the Modern Game
As you can see, the position evolved from purely a position of defensive cover to one that was central to a team’s attack. As time went on the game changed and tactical philosophies began to shift to accommodate rule changes, such as the infamous and infuriating “Offside” rule.
In 1925 the offside rule was changed so that an attacker could be considered onside as long as there were two opposing defenders in front of him (including the keeper).
This means if a deep defender was back (as was the case with a sweeper) and his goalkeeper was in goal, then an attacking player was onside so long as both defenders were in front of him.
This meant “Catenaccio” worked perfectly because you could man-mark two attacking players and have a free man to play the ball when they were dispossessed.
Then everything changed in 1990 when the offside rule changed once again, stating attacking players were considered “onside” so long as they were even to the last defender (not including the keeper) when the ball was played.
This meant it no longer made sense to have a deep defender because they kept everyone onside and wide players would pull the sweeper to and fro while allowing teammates to slip in behind from other parts of the field.
This eliminated the role of the deep defender. However, teams still saw the benefit of having a player who could defend but also be a deep-lying playmaker that could move the ball forward, rather than just completely get rid of it.
Now, rather than play behind the backline, they sat in front of it. They did their defensive work by shielding the backline and attacking the ball so that the defenders behind them could “sweep up.”
When the backline won the ball they would play it back to the deep-lying player maker who would pass the ball around and start attacks.
Today the famous liberos, which became the preferred vernacular, started playing the midfield position like Barcelona star Sergio Busquets, Spaniard Xabi Alonso, and German Phillipp Lahm.
These players were still primarily defensive in their responsibility but played further up the field than previous generations.
This position would transform again into less defensively-minded playmakers such as Andrea Pirlo or Michael Carrick and the position would be called a “Regista.”
Over time soccer evolved into a more pressing game with the team’s primary goal being to win the ball as high as possible and suffocate teams in their half, leading to turnovers and counter-attacking opportunities.
Since teams are playing so much higher up the pitch, defensive lines are often pushed near the half-way line to trap attacking players offside.
This new evolution led to a lot of space between the backline and the goal. So what would happen if teams timed their attacking runs perfectly and played lofted balls over the top of these high defensive lines into space?
Goals…that’s what would happen!
So today the role of the sweeper has come full circle. It has returned to its roots as a deep defender but now goalkeepers are carrying the mantle. This new role of “sweeper-keeper” has become perhaps the most important position of the last 20 years.
Pioneered by German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, the role of sweeper-keeper meant that teams like Bayern Munich could play their defenders near the half-way line and still have cover if teams tried to lob balls over the top.
Neuer and Frenchman Hugo Lloris are the archetypes of this new position. They have what anyone desiring to play as a sweeper-keeper needs: quickness, decisiveness, and fearlessness.
These modern sweepers stand often on the edge of their box (or sometimes higher) and attack lobbed balls and then recycle them back to their teams. This job is not for the faint of heart!
Check out some highlights of these guys playing as sweepers and you’ll see flying headers and acrobatic saves from way out of their goal. It’s pretty incredible.
Summary of Sweepers in Soccer
Soccer is a global game and the terms and titles for everything within the game changes depending on where you’re located! The sweeper position is a perfect example of this phenomenon throughout history.
As tactics evolve so do the positions played within the systems, often adding to and/or removing responsibilities from a given position. I hope you have found this positional guide to be a helpful aid in your understanding of the game.