Soccer sweepers: What is the role of sweepers in soccer?

Soccer sweepers: What is the role of sweepers in soccer?

Lenah Ann
February 10, 2024 at 3:03 PM

In the past years, soccer sweepers were the masters of the game and ensured that a win was guaranteed. However, with the emergence of modern football, the position has been largely left out, and as a result, it is hard to find a great sweeper in today's games. Nowadays, most coaches use a flat-back four with defensive players who can take up roles in the midfield and offer tactical assistance to the strikers.

Kevin Davies(Centre) is surrounded by Spurs defenders during a Premier League match
Soccer sweepers are defensive players who serve as the last line defence by clearing the ball after it has slipped away. Photo: Craig Prentis (Modified by author)
Source: Getty Images

As much as the sweeper position days are gone, their qualities, attributes, and traits are still significant, especially to the defenders. They created chances by passing the ball to the strikers or midfielders. In many nations, they are referred to as a libero.

Soccer sweeper definition

What are sweepers in soccer? They are defensive players who serve as the last line of defence by clearing the ball after it has slipped past the other defenders. Together with the goalkeeper, they offer an extra layer of protection by ensuring the ball does not go past them.

Is there a sweeper in soccer?

Sweepers are rarely used with the current football formations since their roles have greatly diminished. However, most clubs in Germany still use them to minimize the chances of the opponents scoring in case the ball gets past the defenders and the goalkeeper.

What is the role of sweepers in soccer?

In football, liberos play a variety of essential responsibilities. In addition to being the final line of defence, they also need to be competent and have the ability to create opportunities for other players to pass through.

So, what does a sweeper do in soccer? Here is a detailed look at the essential duties of an efficient libero in both the attacking and defensive positions.

The Japan squad poses for a group photo ahead of a training session for FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022
The Japan squad poses for a group photo ahead of a training session for FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 at the Al Sadd SC training grounds on 19 November 2022 in Doha, Qatar. Photo: Wu Zhizhao
Source: Getty Images

Defensive roles

To cover spaces behind the defensive line. They do this by ensuring they do not leave a space behind the defenders and thus serve as a safety net to close up any openings the opponent could try to take advantage of.

To anticipate goal-threatening runs from the strikers. Since they can move anywhere in the field, sweepers anticipate passes and run due to their impressive abilities to read the game and position themselves in the way of any forward runners.

To be a last-ditch interceptor and tackler. Although they run the risk of being sent off with every tackle, they have to live with the consequences. They are the last man standing that an attacker meets before taking his goal-scoring shot and thus should be patient and disciplined.

To lead in defensive communication and organisation. Liberos are expected to be good communicators who can arrange the other defenders in place while they are pressed toward their goal. They must keep their heads swivel the entire time they are on the pitch.

Attacking roles

They recycle possession since they are primarily free and thus can avail themselves to receive passes, especially from the goalkeeper and centre-backs, and relieve pressure from them. Their technical skills can lead to counter-attacking with long diagonal passes to strikers.

Juventus players celebrate after scoring during the Coppa Italia
Juventus players celebrate after scoring during the Coppa Italia round of 16 football match on 1 January 2000 at the Allianz Stadium in Turin, Piedmont, Italy. Photo: Matteo Bottanelli
Source: Getty Images

To be a deep player maker. Taking up roles such as that of a central midfielder is advantageous for a libero since, with their vision and ability to change the game, they can do wonders with the ball.

To make surging runs. With their freedom, effective timing, and element of surprise, they can make long runs with the ball and instigate instant attacks, drawing the opponents towards them and creating spaces for the attackers to score.

What happened to sweepers in soccer?

The responsibilities of soccer liberos have become outdated due to zonal marking, player adaptability, and game changes. Currently, the position is distributed among players rather than having one specialised player take the mantle.

How are sweepers used as a defensive strategy in soccer?

They are being deployed to cover up gaps behind the defensive line and ensure no space is left behind the defenders. They also act as a safety net to block any openings the opponent may attempt to exploit.

Qualities of a good sweeper

While a libero is technically a defender, the position is extraordinarily subtle and demands great expertise. Here are the qualities they should possess to dominate the game and secure wins.

  • They should possess excellent technical skills such as ball control, tackling, marking, intercepting, accurate passes, and dribbling and should be involved in repeated attacks and playmaking. The best liberos are determined by how accurate their passes are.
Soccer players battle for the ball during a match
Soccer players battle for the ball during the German first division Bundesliga match between RB Leipzig and Union Berlin in Leipzig, Germany, on 4 February 2024. Photo: Ronny Hartmann
Source: Getty Images
  • They should be good at reading the game. Since they mostly rely on their instincts, their goal reading skills are critical to their success. They must anticipate the opponent's runs and passes and detect other possibilities of anticipation.
  • They should be excellent in positioning themselves and thus increase their chances of success during interceptions. Furthermore, since a libero is given a free role, they must know what is going on to be in the right place at the right time.
  • They should be quick in decision-making and thinking since their decision will impact the team's performance. If they decide to go or stay, take or touch, punt, clear the ball, or keep it, they should commit to the decision since a hesitation can lead to unnecessary pressure.
  • They should possess good communication skills to organise the other on-field defenders and players when the opponents have the ball. Their instructions must be clear and straightforward to ensure the task is done.
  • They should possess great speed and stamina to provide the necessary cover at the backline. Often, they chase pacey and strong strikers with good acceleration, so they must be up to the task.
  • They should have good timing, which to them is not a light task since wrong timing could lead to a goal or being sent off the field.

Greatest sweepers of all time

Since the libero position has been rendered obsolete in modern football, most of its great legends are from the past. Here is a list of the all-time legends who have made history playing in the position.

  • Bobby Moore
  • Franz Beckenbauer
  • Franco Baresi
  • Ronald Koeman
  • Gaetano Scirea
  • Daniel Passarella
  • Lothar Matthäus
  • Matthias Sammer
  • Armando Picchi
  • Alessandro Nesta
Toulouse players celebrate during a French L1 match
Toulouse players celebrate during the French L1 football match against Stade de Reims at the Stade Auguste-Delaune in Reims, France, on 4 February 2024. Photo: Sameer Al Doumy
Source: Getty Images

Frequently asked questions

Without a doubt, modern football players such as centre-backs and central defensive midfielders can benefit from the skill sets of a libero. Here are the frequently asked questions about the liberos in soccer.

Do football teams still use sweepers?

The libero's role has diminished since the instruction of formations such as 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, and 4-3-3. These days, a conventional centre-back or a central defensive midfielder moves back to defend, collect and pass the ball and thus takes up the role of a libero.

Why don't teams play with a sweeper?

One significant reason is that the offside trap is mainly used these days. The offside trap will not be successful if a libero is used since there is always one player who will keep the opponent's attacker onside, and thus, the goalie is the only exception.

What is the difference between a sweeper and a defensive midfielder?

Although a libero plays like a centre-back and thinks like a defensive midfielder, they perform almost the same role. They are distinguished by initiating and creating forward moves often and making medium to long-range passes during counterattacks.

How do you beat a team with a sweeper?

The best strategy for getting past a libero defence is by movement. Launch a broad assault that will drive him to attack the firm side, then move the attack point to the exposed weak side.

Soccer players in action
Soccer players in action during the Division 2 Play-Off Final on 28 May 2000 at Wembley Stadium, London, England. Photo: Ben Radford
Source: Getty Images

Where does the sweeper stand in soccer?

A libero stands behind the defenders and in front of the goalkeeper. Usually, they form a diamond formation with defenders and can go far back as their goal line and past the midfield to help in ball possession and create chances for attackers.

Who was the first sweeper keeper?

Most sports pundits have credited Gyula Grosics, a former Hungary professional goalkeeper who played in the Golden Team of the 1950s, as the first sweeper-keeper in the sport's history. Additionally, Tommy Lawrence is recognised for revolutionising the goalie position.

Final word

Although soccer sweepers are rarely used in modern football, most central defenders and goalkeepers utilise most of their skills. To properly counter this technique, most teams now concentrate on gaining numerical advantage in the half of the opponents. The position, however, has become obsolete, which is a testament to how the game has changed regarding player characteristics, strategy, and rules.

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Lenah Ann
Lenah Ann is a Kenyan-based content creator with 2 years of experience. She graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Mass Media and Communication from Dedan Kimathi, Kenya in 2021.