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 the 'libero', from the Italian name "battitore libero" meaning "free hitter", or the Italian expression "libero da marcatura", which means that the player is free from having to mark a particular opponent, and is also at liberty to play or advance with the ball out of the defence, or to make clearances instead of dribbling or playing the ball.[3][4]

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. The 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 or her talents are often confined to the defensive realm. For example, the catenaccio system of play, used in Italian football in the 1950s and 1960s, employed a purely defensive sweeper, who was free from having to mark an opposing player and primarily "roamed" around the back line as a last man looking to sweep up loose balls; Armando Picchi who was a leading exponent of the more traditional variant of this role in Helenio Herrera's Grande Inter side.[5][6] 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.[7]

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 modern 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.[8][9][10][11] Though it is rarely used in modern football, due to the prevalence of the offside trap (which precludes anyone but the goalkeeper from playing behind the back line) 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.

Although this position has become largely obsolete in modern football formations, due to the use of zonal marking, certain defenders, such as Leonardo Bonucci, David Luiz, and Daniele De Rossi, have played a similar role as a ball-playing central defender in a 3–5–2 formation:[12] in addition to their defensive skills, their technique and ball-playing ability allowed them to advance into midfield after winning back possession, and function as a secondary playmaker for their teams.[12][13]


Gyula Grosics from the Hungary "Golden Team" of the 1950s was thought to be the first goalkeeper to play as the sweeper-keeper.[14] The rushing playing style used by Liverpool legend Bruce Grobbelaar seen during the 1980s-90s makes him one of the original sweeper-keepers of the modern era.[15] As of 2011, Manuel Neuer has been described as a sweeper-keeper due to his speed and unique style of play which occasionally includes him acting as a sweeper for his team by rushing off his line to anticipate opposing forwards who have beaten the offside trap.[16][17] With his excellent ball control and distribution,[16][17] he has said he could play in the German third division as a centre-back if he wanted to.[18][19] Hugo Lloris of Tottenham Hotspur and France has also been described as a sweeper-keeper.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ BBC Sports Academy
  2. ^ Evolution of the Sweeper
  3. ^ "DIZIONARIO DI ITALIANO DALLA A ALLA Z: Battitore" (in Italian). La Repubblica. Retrieved 21 April 2016. 
  4. ^ Damele, Fulvio (1998). Calcio da manuale. Demetra. p. 104. 
  5. ^ "La leggenda della Grande Inter" [The legend of the Grande Inter] (in Italian). Inter.it. Archived from the original on 19 October 2012. Retrieved 10 September 2014. 
  6. ^ Mario Sconcerti (23 November 2016). "Il volo di Bonucci e la classifica degli 8 migliori difensori italiani di sempre" (in Italian). Il Corriere della Sera. Retrieved 27 December 2016. 
  7. ^ "Positions guide: Sweeper". London: BBC Sport. 1 September 2005. Retrieved 21 June 2008. 
  8. ^ Rotting fruit, dying flowers The Guardian
  9. ^ Czechoslovakia World Cup Hero Jan Popluhar Dies Aged 75 Goal.com
  10. ^ VELIBOR VASOVIC The Independent
  11. ^ Evolution of the Sweeper
  12. ^ a b "Daniele De Rossi and the strange story of the Libero". forzaitalianfootball. Retrieved 5 January 2015. 
  13. ^ "L'ANGOLO TATTICO di Juventus-Lazio - Due gol subiti su due lanci di Bonucci: il simbolo di una notte da horror" (in Italian). Retrieved 5 January 2015. 
  14. ^ "The 50 Greatest Goalkeepers in History". Bleacher Report. 27 September 2013. Retrieved 28 September 2015. 
  15. ^ http://www.thinkfootball.co.uk/was-bruce-grobbelaar-the-original-sweeper-keeper/
  16. ^ a b "Manuel Neuer and the evolution of the goalkeeper". FourFourTwo. Retrieved 9 January 2015. 
  17. ^ a b "Why Manuel Neuer should not win the Ballon d'Or". The Score. Retrieved 9 January 2015. 
  18. ^ "Why Manuel Neuer was the best player at the 2014 World Cup". The42. 14 July 2014. Retrieved 16 July 2014. 
  19. ^ Vipond, Paddy (16 July 2014). "How Manuel Neuer, Germany's 11th man, is revolutionising goalkeeping". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 July 2014. 
  20. ^ Wilson, Jonathan (13 February 2014). "Tottenham's Hugo Lloris is Premier League's supreme sweeper-keeper". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 May 2017. 

External links[edit]