Playing just behind the other center backs, the sweeper in soccer is the last line of defence in front of the keeper.
This position relies a great deal on a player’s ability to read the game and their technical skills, although the position is no longer as popular in the modern game.
You will rarely see a designated sweeper in a squad for the entirety of a season anymore.
7 Traits of a Great Soccer Sweeper
While the sweeper in soccer is technically a defender, it’s a niche position that requires some particular skills for a player to truly dominate in it.
We’ve narrowed them down to these 7 essentials…
1. Great Technical Ability
The sweeper is no average defender…
While on paper it’s a defensive position, a sweeper must be a player who has sound technique skills and is very comfortable in possession.
A sweeper essentially “sweeps up” the ball off opponents who are unmarked, or have escaped their markers behind your defensive line.
This requires very good technical defensive skills in terms of reading the game, tackling, and intercepting the ball.
After retrieving the ball, the sweeper also must be comfortable enough with the ball to play a safe pass to a teammate without making a mistake.
2. Ability to Read the Game Well
As someone who needs to spot opposition moves quickly in order to provide immediate backup, this is a very important trait for a sweeper.
Besides acting as a free-ranging defender, sweepers also need to set up play from the back. This requires them to know the right move to make when they receive the ball.
By reading the positioning of the other players, a sweeper must immediately know whether to clear the ball to safety or pass it.
They must also know whether to slow the game down or press forward to pressure the other team.
Basically, a great sweeper has the ability to read the game at an expert level when defending and also when attacking.
3. Knowing When and Where to be at Any Given Time
Positioning is key, because as a ‘libero’ (as the sweeper is also known), you have free reign to pop up where you think you’re needed most.
This could mean:
- Moving across the backline to snuff out danger.
- Advancing upfield to help out in the midfield.
- Rampage forward with the ball on a speedy counter.
Your ability to anticipate and read the game will be key to nail your positioning for any of these moves.
4. Able to Make Split-Second Decisions
A sweeper is required to make instant decisions on the pitch.
And more often than not, these decisions (good or bad) will start some key passages of play for your team.
Whether to stay or go, take a touch, keep the ball, or punt it clear…
In the fast-paced game of soccer, sweepers only have a split second to react.
And as they are the last line of defense, it’s important that they’re able to make the correct decision — every time.
5. Fantastic Communication with Teammates
As sweepers are constantly moving about the pitch and taking up different positions, great communication is crucial.
You need to be constantly communicating your position to teammates around you as you sprint around the pitch.
This will ensure that players don’t get in each other’s way and accidentally leave gaps for the opposition to exploit.
Since a sweeper will have to be running around yelling at teammates to correct their positions, they will need to tap deep into their ability to lead.
You should be able to instil calmness and confidence in the rest of the defence through your play and presence.
6. Fitness and Speed
The player filling the sweeper position would ideally have exceptional speed as they must provide cover to the rest of the defence.
They’re role consists of shooting around the defensive third, making tackles and clearing the ball away when necessary.
They also need to have a turn of pace to power past the opposition’s strikers when heading upfield or to get back in time to prevent them from having a shot on goal.
As you can see, a sweeper must cover a large area of the pitch.
And the quicker they can do that, the better.
7. Timing and Strength in Tackles
As the last player on defence, the sweeper is the team’s the get-out-of-jail card when an opponent is able to escape their defender.
This is a huge responsibility.
The sweeper must judge situations perfectly and use their knowledge of the game to either delay the opposition until their teammates arrive, or intervene themselves.
When they do choose to take on an opposition player, timing is key.
If a sweeper misreads the opposition and gets their tackle timing wrong, it could result in a goal or a red card.
The Roles and Responsibilities of a Soccer Sweeper
The sweeper in soccer plays a dual role – they defend as well as in attack.
So to make better sense of their responsibilities on the pitch, let’s split them up.
From a defensive perspective, there are a number of things for players to do when they’re playing the sweeper position…
- Organise and direct the other outfield players on their positioning.
- Manage the space available to the opposition by calling out to your peers to plug the gaps (or fill in yourself).
- Alert teammates to the danger of impending attacks and direct them to mark opponents that need it.
- A sweeper doesn’t normally mark a particular striker, but is available to clean up in case a striker gets through the other centre backs.
Remember that your defensive responsibilities always outweigh your attacking ones when playing the sweeper position in soccer.
This could change depending on the situation your team is in…
But normally, that should be the order of your priorities.
In attack, a sweeper again usually plays a supporting role.
Here are some of the things a sweeper should look to do when the team is attacking:
- Fill into the midfield to outnumber the opposition while your team attacks.
- Spray the ball out quickly to teammates who are free or are making runs to initiate the attack.
- Carry the ball into space to catch out the opposition on your counters.
- Act as a node at the base of midfield to switch the play, buy time, or regroup as a team.
- Provide a real added threat in terms of providing through balls, crosses, or being able to shoot and score from distance.
- Providing quick and smooth transitions from defence to attack.
Look at the sheer variety of things a sweeper gets to do during games…
It sounds like a great position to have on the team, right?
So, why has the popularity of the position waned over the decades?
And are we seeing a comeback in recent tactical approaches to the game?
The Sweeper’s Decline in Popularity (and possible comeback)
In many ways the position of sweeper combines the best of both defenders and midfielders into one specialised player.
It is in part this combination that has resulted in many teams instead preferring to play a defensive midfielder rather than a sweeper.
The evolution of tactics, as well as the offside rule, has also played a big part in the decline of the sweeper in the modern game.
The Offside Trap
With the gradual relaxation of the offside rule in favour of attackers, the sweeper became more of a liability than insurance for defences.
Where normally sweepers hung back behind the center backs to provide support when needed, they found themselves playing opposition strikers onside with the rule changes.
An offside trap requires fellow defenders to step in or out in coordinated fashion in a single line…
That made the sweeper just another center back, instead of a more mobile defender for teams playing the trap.
And so the sweeper gradually became redundant in defence for many teams.
While in the past defenders could get away with winning their battles and keeping clean sheets, it is now expected that they are comfortable on the ball as well.
With teams now often playing one striker, it is no longer necessary to have an extra person at the back in the shape of a sweeper.
You will also often hear one center back described as the ball-player and the other as the destroyer. When one challenges for the ball, the other drops off to provide cover.
And, in many ways, this is similar to what is expected of a sweeper.
Nowadays, keepers are also expected to be competent in possession.
They will act in part as a sweeper when they’re quick to sprint off their line to clear the ball away.
As you can see…
The roles and responsibilities of a sweeper have largely been absorbed into the surrounding players at the back.
But with the recent explosion of teams playing with three at the back, this has meant the popularity of the position has been somewhat revived in recent years.
Chelsea’s most recent title triumph for instance had David Luiz playing as a sweeper.
Many of his defensive responsibilities were taken on by the defenders on either side of him while he pushed up into the midfield to spray passes around the pitch.
Soccer goes in cycles, tactically speaking…
So the return to a regular use of a sweeper may just be around the corner.
5 Tips for a Soccer Sweeper
You now have some idea of what the position of a sweeper in soccer demands of a player and which traits you need to excel in the role.
While your first touch, passing range, tackling and other techniques will improve with time and practice, here are some tips on how you can see an immediate improvement in your game
1. Stay Focused
With the number of duties assigned to you as the sweeper in soccer, you’re going to need to pay close attention through the duration of the match.
Reading the game all the time requires intense focus…
And keeping your focus is easier said than done.
Constantly be aware of the positioning of all players on the pitch and think about how their movements and actions relate to the play.
- Will those opponent wingers make a run in behind?
- Is number 10 looking to thread a pass through?
- Is their full-back looking for an overlap?
- Is their goalkeeper drifting off his line?
This mindset will help you anticipate situations before they arrive.
Which will allow you to get to the ball first and make the crucial, game-saving tackles.
2. Communication is Key
Similarly, make sure to keep talking to your teammates throughout the game.
Make this a permanent habit.
As the whole match is played out in front of you, it is up to you to alert your teammates to any danger and dictate the positions that they take up.
By speaking to the players around you, you can improve the shape of the team, instil confidence in your teammates, and prevent gaps from opening up.
It will also help to keep you focused by being in close contact with the players around you.
3. Play With Both Patience and Confidence
Whether on the ball or facing a striker one-on-one, timing and patience is key.
By having faith in your own abilities, you can stand off the striker and force them to play the ball on, or you can lunge in and make the perfect tackle.
As the last line of defence, you must be disciplined and not make any rash challenges that could result in a red card or allowing a goal.
This also applies when you have the ball…
If an opportunity to pass forward does not arise, simply pass the ball back to the keeper and start again.
Don’t force it.
Be patient and wait for the perfect moment to drive up the pitch.
4. Improve Your Fitness, Speed, and Agility
Sweepers in soccer need a high level of endurance and pace.
As you need to be mobile and athletic, you must work on these aspects in your training to stay effective throughout games.
Incorporating a variety of speed and agility drills can do wonders for your game.
Doing so will ensure you feel fresh at the end of the match when everyone else on the pitch is slowing down and getting fatigued.
5. Watch and Learn (constantly)
In this modern age, there are thousands of fantastic resources available to you to improve your game.
A great way to learn more about how to play as a sweeper in soccer is to watch videos of teams who use the system.
This will allow you to see how they function as a unit.
By watching them and learning how they move about the pitch, you can learn a lot about what to do and what to avoid in certain scenarios.
Very few positions in soccer give you the license to play virtually anywhere on the pitch…
If you’re one of those players who wants to do everything in a game, being a sweeper in soccer will give you the best chance to achieve this.
One of the more fun position to play in, the role of sweeper is making in comeback in the modern game.
Of course, it is a very demanding position…
And you will have to work tirelessly to even be able to function competently through a single match…
And your team will be relying on you to come up big in clutch moments…
But once you’re really get the hang of it and embrace what the position has to offer, it’s a very rewarding position to fill.