Is this playing position set for a comeback?

It would be excusable to believe that the sweeper had become a moribund position in modern football. For supporters it is not an enticing prospect to see a striker or attacking midfielder substituted for an extra defender. A sweeper traditionally plays behind the two central defenders, tasked with marking space rather than the man and clearing anything others fail to deal with. However the role was reintroduced by two British sides recently who faced Manchester United and Chelsea at their home grounds. Glasgow Rangers and Blackpool achieved contrasting success but will teams facing daunting opposition away from home be inclined to field an extra defender and apply the padlock?

For managers who decide to include a sweeper in a five man defence, the priority is to keep a clean sheet and disturb the opponent’s attackers. Rangers opted for this system against United in the Champions League last week and frustrated a team which had been rotated but did incorporate Wayne Rooney. The Scottish team’s 40-year old captain David Weir adopted this lesser seen role although cynics would argue that they defended with nine men as Kenny Miller was an isolated figure up front. Recently recalled to the Scottish national team, Weir was arguably the man of the match as he gave an assured performance which reduced the illustrious home team to a series of long range efforts.

The following weekend in the Premier League saw Ian Holloway choose to place Alex Baptiste in a central defensive three, in the faint hope of halting Chelsea’s goal scoring juggernaut. The rampant Blues scored within 71 seconds and added three more before the conclusion of the first half. The tactic had backfired with the Tangerines unable to keep their shape at the back and were mesmerised when Chelsea broke with pace. However in the traditional mould of the sweeper, Baptiste managed to occasionally get forward, evading his markers and fired a low, rasping shot at Petr Cech.

Holloway acknowledged that his tactical change had not followed the prescribed plan. But he evidently felt compelled to attempt something different given his assertion that Chelsea are “light years ahead.” He additionally suggested that the disparate PL features a number of internal divisions, reaffirming the gulf in quality between those at the top and the bottom. Newcastle outscored Chelsea in a thrilling League Cup encounter last night but few teams would travel to Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford or the Emirates in the league hoping to replicate that performance. Should more sides, therefore, consider this defensive and attritional stance when facing incomparable opposition?

The notion of not conceding and hoping to possibly grab a goal is associated with the Italian word, catenaccio which translates as padlock. This well known term is utilised to describe a team intent on defending and using pace to spring a counter attack when the opportunity arises. It is best associated with a five man defence and the inclusion of a sweeper. In this system the onus is on keeping a strong defensive shape and employing the last man to ‘sweep up’ if the two conventional centre-backs are exposed. However a sweeper should ideally be a cultured footballer, able to make clean tackles and swiftly distribute long range passes up field. As the opposition are invited to come forward and apply greater pressure, an accurate pass from defence can release quick forward players to exploit the vacated spaces. Famous sweepers in the modern game have included AC Milan’s Franco Baresi, France’s Laurent Blanc and Arsenal’s Tony Adams.

Today the role is rarely seen, particularly in England but many defenders display the hallmarks of a sweeper. Spurs’ Michael Dawson has the ability to make unnervingly precise long range passes and John Terry can often be seen making astute forward runs. Although this position/formation should not be viewed egregiously, it would understandably irritate spectators who would view it as anti football in the entertainment driven top flight. Yet when playing exceptional opposition the first task is to make your defence impregnable. Otherwise the reigning PL Champions will rack up more than four every week.

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