Is the sweeper set for a return to prominence?

April 22, 2010

Jonathan Wilson recently wrote in his excellent ‘The Question’ series about the possibility of the return of the sweeper to football. The sweeper prospered as the ’spare man’ in a three-man central defence up against a two-man attack, so now we have two-man central defences up against one-man attacks, should one centre-back not become a sweeper?

Matthias Sammer, a classic sweeper

The idea is music to the ears of anyone who fondly remembers Euro 96. The player of the tournament was Matthias Sammer, the sweeper in the German 3-4-1-2 system that went onto win the tournament. As well as being the most important player in defence, clearing up behind the two markers, he also had license to go forward and launch attacks, and found himself scoring (in open play) on more than one occasion.

Perhaps the German success at Euro 96 was what sparked the brief mid-late 90s obsession with three-man defences in England, but they are currently a thing of the past across most of Europe, and certainly in the Premiership.

So, against a lone striker, one of the centre-backs in theory has a license to attack. This has been the case at Arsenal this season, where William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen often charge forward. It was also demonstrated in the first leg of the Bayern Munich v Manchester United tie, where centre-back Martin Demichelis stepped forward into the midfield. Sir Alex Ferguson’s introduction of Dimitar Berbatov was thought by some to be primarily to prevent the Argentine doing so.

But the reality is that it is suicidal to leave your defence equipped with just one centre-back (see Vermaelen’s error in Arsenal’s defeat to Manchester United earlier this year), particularly if the opposing striker is faster than him and able to move wide before outpacing his marker to the ball. Considering how popular one-striker formations are today, it is still extremely rare to see a centre-back constantly looking to power forward to bolster the midfield – it is simply too risky.

And so it is likely that the equivalent of a sweeper in future years will be a defensive midfielder dropping into the backline – with the centre-backs moving wide – rather than a centre-back pushing forward into the midfield. On this site, we have referred to this player as a centre-half (see Carsten Ramelow at Bayer Leverkusen, for example), such is the similarity in its nature to the ‘original’ centre-half, who permanently moved from the centre of midfield to the centre of defence.

The advantages? It widens the active playing area at both ends of the pitch, making it easier to keep possession, and tougher for the opposition to cover the space. It also creates a difficult situation for the opposition in terms of picking up players.

There are two interesting modern examples of this in action – and tellingly, they involve the best club side in the world, and (possibly) the best international side in the world.

Barcelona have played a system for the past two seasons where the deepest midfield player (either Yaya Toure or Sergio Busquets) drops into the centre of defence, with the centre-backs, Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol, spreading into extremely wide positions whilst Barcelona are in possession, almost on the touchlines. This allows Dani Alves and Eric Abidal/Maxwell, the full-backs, to bomb forward without fear of leaving the defence completely exposed.

Similarly, Brazil’s shape sees Gilberto Silva dropping into the defence (either in the centre of the two centre-backs, or to the right), allowing Maicon and Michel Bastos forward.

How a four-man defence evolves into a three-man defence

This diagram on the right shows how a switch from a four to a three-man defence when in possession can outwit the opposition. The problem with attacking full-backs at the moment is that they are never completely free to attack, they are always concerned about their defensive responsibilities, especially with the tendency for sides to deploy their most creative players as wingers. With a more reliable three-man defence, they can get to the opposition byline without leaving a huge hole at the back.

A big part of the switch is the role of the wide players on the Yellow side. Rather than stay wide (which would hamper the ability of the full-backs to get forward), they narrow and become almost a conventional front three. This has the effect of narrowing the opposition defence, as their natural markers (the White full-backs) follow them into the centre.

Of course, this opens up a huge amount of space on the flanks, which the full-backs can exploit. This presents a further problem for the Whites, as their wide midfield players are suddenly charged with almost a solely defensive job. If the Yellow full-backs get to the byline and the White wide midfielders track them all the way, the Whites will end up with something approaching a flat back six.

Furthermore, the evolved shape makes it relatively easy for the Yellows to keep possession – the three defenders and holding midfielder should be able to play their way around the two White strikers at the back.

So the advantages can be summarized as:

a) It allows the full-backs freedom to join the attack knowing the defence is covered

b) It makes keeping possession in defence easier

c) It stretches the play high up the pitch

d) If the opposition are playing creative players in wide areas, the centre-backs will be in a position to pick them up immediately.

e) It results in a system with three central forwards, an obvious goal threat

f) The opposition will be confused about who to pick up in wide areas

So, in theory, this system should work extremely well against a two-man attack, although it might face similar problems as the traditional three-man defence against one-man/three-man attacks. But the difference comes because the traditional three-man defence is a completely different system to the traditional four-man defence, which necessitates a different way of defending, and most likely a different selection of players. These shifts, as shown here by Brazil and Barcelona, are more flexible, and happen within games, rather than them lining up specifically like this. The system doesn’t have to shift against one- or three-man attacks, and therefore is free to adapt into a three-man defence when required, and stay as a four-man defence when that is more appropriate.

Alex Song, a future centre-half?

So what qualities would this modern sweeper, or modern centre-half, need? They would have to be a good reader of the game, an excellent passer (especially over long distances), a decent tackler and competent in the air, so they were not targeted when up against a tall striker. In other words, exactly the same as the old-style sweeper, and it is no coincidence that many of the more prominent examples of sweepers – Sammer, Lothar Matthuas, Ruud Gullit – were central midfielders earlier in their career.

Perhaps the most convincing case for their imminent reintroduction is the fact that most top Premiership clubs already have players who match the above description. Arsenal have Alex Song, Manchester United have Michael Carrick, Chelsea have Jon Obi Mikel, Manchester City have Gareth Barry or Vincent Kompany, Tottenham have Tom Huddlestone – all of whom would be comfortable dropping back to allow the full-backs to venture forward.

Of course, you also need certain types of players in other positions on the pitch. Your centre-backs must be good on the ball, your full-backs must have both pace and stamina, and your wide players must be comfortable drifting into the centre. Not all top-level clubs can boast these players, but football is certainly heading this way on all three counts.

If Brazil use this system on their way to winning the World Cup, expect it to feature more and more across European football in the next few years.

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