The sweeper position is one that isn’t often used in football these days. However, the sweeper position has morphed in a hybrid position. Modern the centre-backs often play a sweeper-role making it unnecessary for the traditional position that was made famous in the 1970s and 1980s.
Understanding the sweeper position
The position is a versatile one in which the player must fill multiple roles. The original name for the position harkened back to the idea that the player “swept” up the ball and stopped attackers once the ball got past them. The sweeper role is more of a free role in the defence. Once sweeping up the ball and stopping the attacker from getting to the goalkeeper, the sweeper begins the attack pushing up the field.
Traditionally, the sweeper’s role was to read the game and intercept passes or make tackles, preventing goalscoring chances. Modern football does not rely on a sweeper as the traditional position is no longer needed for a few reasons.
For one, teams moved to a flat back four in the early 1990s. Sweepers became defensive midfielders and began playing in front of the centre-backs rather than behind them. In addition, changes to the offside rule allowed teams to focus on playing the offside trap rather than having a defender behind the centre-backs.
Attacking teams tend to play with one striker rather than two these days. Some football pundits have cited the one-striker formation as a reason for sweepers not being necessary.
The true reason for no more sweepers
As previously noted, teams have stopped using sweepers as the importance of a defensive midfielder has risen. The sweeper has simply become the defensive midfielder, sweeping up play in front of the centre-backs instead of in front of the goalkeeper. The difference is quite massive as it prevents the “the last-ditch tackle” scenario a sweeper presented. Now, if the ball gets past the sweeper, two centre-backs can stop the attacker. In addition, playing the sweeper in front of the centre-backs (as a defensive midfielder) means the offside trap can be sprung on attacking players.