What is a Sweeper in Soccer and How to Play it?

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Goalkeeper, defender, midfielder, and forward are the four basic soccer positions. However, these four positions can further be divided into 11 others; one for each player on the field. One of the key roles on the soccer field is played by the sweeper. Where is this player located on the field and what is their job?

A sweeper in soccer is the last line of a team’s defense. Sweeper’s job is to counter any attackers that might get through the rest of the defense. The term sweeper has been in use ever since the late 19th century when it was first use to denote the job of sweeping up any potential mistakes and clearing out the ball and attackers that manage to get through.

The role that the sweepers play in soccer is one of the crucial roles on the field: In addition to being the last line of defense, their duties include various other responsibilities. In today’s text, we’ll learn what is that the sweeper does on the field, as well as share some interesting information about this important position. Enjoy the reading!

What is a Sweeper in Soccer

As explained above, a sweeper in soccer is the last line of defense for any team. At first, the only duty that the team’s sweeper had to do was to clear any balls that had the potential to end up in the net. With time, however, the sweeper role has evolved to account for the modern soccer playstyle. In addition to being the last defensive player, a sweeper also serves as a playmaker for the team. In some languages, sweepers are referred to as libero, which can be translated to the leader. When did this change occur?

There were a few major shifts in the sweeper position and both of them occurred with the introduction of new offside rules. The first one occurred in 1925 and made sweepers almost obsolete. The second change to the offside rule happened in 1990, stating that attacking players were not in an offside position as long as they remain even with the last defender, not including the keeper, when the ball is played. 

What this meant is that having a player sit behind the defensive line and clear any balls was no longer a viable strategy, as they’d always keep the attackers onside. So, instead of placing the sweeper back like in the good old days, soccer teams around the world adopted the strategy of moving the sweepers forward. This allowed the sweepers to perform their defensive task by protecting the backline and attacking the ball, while the defenders behind them sweep up.

This is how sweepers became so relevant; they are the connection between the defensive and the attacking end of the field whose job is not only to ensure that their team doesn’t receive a goal but also to organize the attack.

What does a sweeper do in soccer?

A sweeper in soccer has multiple duties which are much more complex than what we commonly assume. We tend to think of the sweeper as a person on the field whose only purpose is to clear out the ball and send it down the field. As evident from the text above, sweepers in soccer have a much more convoluted job:

Over time, sweepers had a really simple job which consisted of standing behind their team’s backline and clearing any ball or removing any threat that makes it through that line. However, as soccer evolved, this position went through multiple changes in its job description. During the last few decades, sweepers have turned into midfielders instead of defensive players.

The sweeper’s main job has moved from clearing out potential dangers to organizing the attack and assisting on the defensive end of things. The evolution of this position is still ongoing, as the game of soccer keeps changing. Following the most recent trends, we can notice the role of sweeper moving back to its roots, in some way:

As soccer became a more pressing game and the entire game started to be based on winning the ball as high up the field as possible, the defensive line had to be moved towards the middle of the field. This meant that sweepers needed to return to their original job of being the last line of defense. However, due to the danger of keeping the attacking team onside at all times, goalkeepers are those who are starting to take on the responsibilities of the sweeper roles.

The sweeper-keeper role is what allows teams that run this strategy to play the defenders closer to the middle of the field while having their back end covered. Risky, but it does come with its benefits.

What number is a sweeper in soccer?

Depending on their position, a sweeper can wear a variety of numbers. Here is a shortlist of potential numbers that a sweeper can have in soccer:

  • Number 1

A sweeper can wear the number 1 jersey if they are also in charge of goalkeeping. The sweeper-keeper is what we call this position.

  • Number 4

Number 4 is the jersey number traditionally reserved for sweepers in soccer. However, not many players are wearing it these days.

  • Number 5

If the center-back is in charge of sweeping the balls and organizing the attack from the back, then the sweeper is likely to wear the number 5 jersey.

While likely to wear one of them, it should be kept in mind that sweepers aren’t limited to these three numbers. Depending on the strategy that the team is running, sweepers can also be midfielders, which means that they can also be the number 6 or 8, or even others.

How to play sweeper position in soccer?

Sweeper position in soccer can be played in various ways. The playstyle depends on multiple things, most notably – the sweeper’s position on the field. Depending on whether they’re a goalkeeper, a center-back, or even a midfielder, sweepers play looks like this:

In their traditional role, sweepers were the last line of defense between the goalkeeper and the attacking team. Their job was to clear out any ball that made it through the backline and remove all threats to their goal. This is a playstyle that is no longer viable, as the game has moved up the field. This has led to the shift to midfielder sweeper.

Sweepers who are playing from in front of the defensive line have a much more responsible role in the team. They are in charge of mitigating the dangers from the attacking team, as well as organizing the attack once they get a hold of the ball. This means that these players need to be constantly aware of their surroundings and the situation on the field. Here’s what all good sweepers need to keep in mind and how this position is played:

Move laterally

Sweepers need to be present on both sides of the field, but they need to remain in their position. Whether that position is in front of behind the defensive line is not relevant. Not staying too close to the sidelines and moving between them is mandatory.

Close any gaps immediately

Any gaps that are left by other defenders should be closed by the sweeper. It’s the sweeper’s job to anticipate where these defensive gaps will be created, as well as anticipating any other defensive mishaps.

You can move forward as a sweeper

Sweepers need to remember that they don’t have players to mark like others on the field. Therefore, they should move forward when the situation calls for it, for example, when corner kicks are called.

Be aware of the entire field

As playmakers, sweepers need to be aware of the entire field at all times. This includes the time when they are in possession of the ball, as well as when they’re not.

Be confident and encourage communication

The sweeper should be the most confident player on the field, both with and without the ball. When they have the ball, sweepers need to move it quickly and effectively. Off the ball, keeping an eye on the field at all times, they should encourage communication among the teammates, ensuring that they create opportunities on the other end of the field.

There’s one final sweeper position that we haven’t mentioned in this section; the sweeper-keeper. While all of the tips above are applicable to this position, there’s plenty to be added. This is, by far, the position that comes with the most responsibility, as these players are not only in charge of keeping the net safe but also in clearing out any mistakes that the defense makes.

A goalkeeper who is also performing the duty of the sweeper allows their team’s defense to move closer to the middle of the field and create opportunities on the attacking end. This means that they are spending most of the game further up the field than a regular keeper. Staying closer to the last line of defense, the goalkeeper becomes responsible for remedying all mistakes made by the defensive line. Staying so far up the pitch, of course, represents a major danger for their own goal, which is why so many teams are still hesitant to use the sweeper-keeper tactics.

Sweeper-keepers need to be confident, daring, and decisive while also remaining cautious and restraining from taking unnecessary risks. Not many goalkeepers are capable of taking on this role, and this is the main reason why there’s still plenty of soccer teams who still choose to go for the old-fashioned sweeper playstyles or even play without a sweeper.

Best sweeper positions in soccer

After briefly going through the sweeper positions and how they’ve played, the time has come to determine which one of the three typically used sweeper tactics is the best to use. We’ve learned that the standard backline sweeper is no longer usable in soccer, as the rules of the game have made it easy to beat. This leaves us with two viable options.

The first option is the sweeper that plays from the middle of the field. There are various benefits to utilizing this strategy, with the major one being the fact that running this strategy allows for more momentum on the attacking end of the game. Instead of purely focusing on defense, midfield sweepers are meant to take on the playmaker role which should lead to more scoring opportunities. The drawback of running the midfield sweeper strategy shows on the defensive end of the game.

The sweeper-keeper strategy, on the other hand, deals with the defensive issue that the previously listed strategy has. Acting as the last line of defense, the goalkeeper steps forward on the pitch, dealing with any plays that make it through the defense. This means that the drawback is exposing their own goal, as well as the lack of the playmaking aspect that exists with the midfield sweeper.

So, the question of which strategy is the best still remains. Should soccer teams even be using a sweeper? 

Even when all of the drawbacks and risks of using a sweeper are taken into account, this strategy remains viable in soccer today. Some teams in Bundesliga and Serie A have proved that using a sweeper can be the one element that gets you the wins, or even the title. While every sweeper position comes with its positive and negative sides, the sweeper-keeper is the one that is the best option for modern soccer. However, this strategy requires a highly organized and well-practiced team, as well as an extremely talented goalkeeper who can not only take on the role of the sweeper but also handle the pressure of becoming the playmaker.

Best sweepers in history

In more than one way, the sweeper position combines the best attributes of a defender and a midfielder into one player. There aren’t many players who can handle the pressure and demands that this position requires, and this is one of the reasons why the sweeper position is slowly disappearing from modern soccer. Still, we can always remember the great players that have marked the sweeper role. Here’s a shortlist of the most notable sweepers in soccer history:

1. Franz Beckenbauer

This former soccer player from Germany is one of the main reasons why sweepers became so popular; his leadership, ability, and versatility in the game are what helped shape the sweeper’s role and determine what kind of a player it takes to take on the role.

2. Bobby Moore

One of the English soccer icons, Bobby Moore was the captain of his national team for an entire decade. With over 600 games played for West Ham United, he is widely recognized as one of the best sweepers of all time.

3. Alessandro Nesta

This Italian player has been the favorite for generations; with over 400 games in Serie A during his 20-year career, Nesta earned a spot on the list of the all-time greatest sweepers with his playmaking abilities, elegant and controlled tackles, as well as with his extraordinary technical skills and ability.

4. Fabio Cannavaro

Another Italian on the list, Fabio Cannavaro has been in retirement since 2010. He is not only known as one of the best sweepers in the game but also as one of the best soccer players to have ever played the game. This legendary player has appeared in 136 games for the senior Italian national team, which is an impressive number.

5. Manuel Neuer

Manuel Neuer is a German soccer player and probably the best sweeper in the world today. What sets Neuer apart from others on the list is the fact that his main position is – the goalkeeper. He is the person responsible for popularizing the sweeper-keeper playstyle, and it should come as no surprise that he’s the best in the world at it.

There are millions of soccer players out there, both in the amateur and professional sense of the term. With so many of them living and breathing soccer, we shouldn’t be surprised by the constant innovations that are introduced to the game. These constant innovations and changes need to be followed by those who wish to be successful and effective at the game. For this reason, we hope you keep following our writing. Who knows what’s in store for the sweepers next season?