Sweeper (association football)

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The sweeper is a defensive position in football, so called because their job is to 'sweep up' any attacking moves which pass other defenders. It was most commonly used by football teams in Europe until the 1990s.[1] While the position usually has solely defensive duties, Franz Beckenbauer, one of the most famous sweepers, became famous for adding an offensive component of the ball playing defender. Other notable sweepers include Ivano Blason, Gaetano Scirea, Bobby Moore, Franco Baresi and Elias Figueroa.

It is generally considered a highly specialized position. The sweeper is usually placed between the goalkeeper and the defensive line.[2]

The sweeper is sometimes also called 'libero' from the Italian name "battitore libero" meaning "free hitter", which describes players freedom to make clearances instead of dribbling the ball.

Sweeper (libero)[edit]

The 5-3-2 formation with a sweeper

The sweeper (or libero) is a more versatile type of centre-back who "sweeps up" the ball if an opponent manages to breach the defensive line. His position is rather more fluid than other defenders who man-mark their designated opponents. Though the sweeper may be expected to build counter-attacking moves, and as such requires better ball control and passing ability than a typical centre-back, his talents are often confined to the defensive realm. For example, the catenaccio system of play, used in Italian football in the 1950s, employed a purely defensive sweeper who only "roamed" around the back line. The more modern libero possesses the defensive qualities of the typical libero whilst being able to expose the opposition during counterattacks. Whilst rarely seen in professional football the position has been extensively used in lower leagues. Modern libero sits behind centre backs as a sweeper before charging through the team to join in the attack.[3]

Some sweepers move forward and distribute the ball up-field, while others intercept passes and get the ball off the opposition without needing to hurl themselves into tackles. In modern football, its usage has been fairly restricted, with few clubs in the biggest leagues using the position.

The position is most commonly incorrectly associated to have been pioneered by Franz Beckenbauer and Gaetano Scirea, and later by Franco Baresi and Matthias Sammer in the 1990s era, although they were not the first players to play this position, with earlier proponents such as Alexandru Apolzan, Ivano Blason, Velibor Vasović and Ján Popluhár.[4][5][6][7] Though it is rarely used in modern football, it remains a highly respected and demanding position.

Recent and successful use of the sweeper was made by Otto Rehhagel, Greece's manager, in the 2004 European Championship. Rehhagel utilized Traianos Dellas as Greece's sweeper to great success, as Greece surprisingly became European champions.

More recently, Manuel Neuer has been described as a sweeper-keeper because of his unique style of play that includes him sometimes coming out and play as a sweeper. He confesses himself that he could play in the German third division as a centre-back if he wanted to.

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