Explaining the Sweeper Keeper – Player Role Analysis

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April 2022 marked the launch of our new Player Role Evaluation System, where footballers are assessed by what they offer a football team – taking into account relevant metrics for their position and role, and minimizing less important factors that may not matter in the grand scheme of their role. We identified thirty-two different roles that a footballer may adopt on a football pitch, that can then be conceptualized to better understand how to evaluate each player’s performance. This series breaks down each of the thirty-two roles, contextualizing the tasks, function and job description within each – that can allow us to better measure their performance, without solely relying on menial statistics.

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While formations may exclude the never-changing goalkeepers from their numbering, we could never fail to recognize the importance of goalkeeping in the game. As a result, we start with one of the most scrutinized positions on a football pitch – that of the keeper. We break goalkeepers down into two broad categories – ‘Shot Stopper‘, and ‘Sweeper Keeper‘. We can then use these classifications to help distinguish between different types of players, and measure accordingly. Today’s article is all about the modern-day ‘Sweeper Keeper’, defining role expectations and answering the question of – ‘What exactly is a sweeper keeper?’

JOB DESCRIPTION

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The ‘Sweeper Keeper’ came to deserved acclaim at the 2014 World Cup, when Manuel Neuer showcased his ability to rush out of goal, and “sweep” in behind Germany’s high-line, almost playing like another centre-back out of possession. Since then, the role of the sweeper keeper has only grown and evolved, becoming a player who is capable in build-up phases, ventures out of their goal to involve themselves in passing sequences higher up the pitch, and commands their penalty area with a sense of confidence and control.

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As the antithesis to the ‘Shot Stopper’, the ‘Sweeper Keeper’ completes a high number of defensive actions (i.e. recoveries, catches, tackles, interceptions, clearances, etc.) away from their own goal. This is the starting place that allows us to quantify and identify the ‘Sweeper Keepers’ of the world. But the roles and tasks of a ‘Sweeper Keeper’ don’t stop at sweeping. In ‘Goalkeepers in the build-up – a new meaning to the ‘Sweeper Keeper’‘, I detailed the importance of the modern day no.1 in build up phases, and how their distribution can often be used as a mechanism for breaking lines, breaking pressing structures, and kickstarting attacks.

Therefore, the best of the art not only sweep in behind the defensive line when the ball changes hands, but involve themselves away from goal when their own team has possession. As a tertiary task, ‘Sweeper Keepers’ also tend to come off their line to claim crosses and command their penalty area to a far greater extent than ‘Shot Stoppers’, who are more rigid in positioning in letting others handle the situation before the ball reaches their path.

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Within this job description, I’m sure an array of modern day goalkeepers immediately spring to mind. The likes of Alisson, Ederson and Manuel Neuer have made the art of sweeperhood™ famously effective, and serve as emblems for the tasks of a modern day keeper.

QUINTESSENTIAL SWEEPER KEEPERS

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The vast majority of goalkeepers in world football at the moment would be classified as ‘Sweeper Keepers’. As detailed repeatedly in our previous ‘What is a Shot Stopper?‘, there are very few keepers in the world of football who are reluctant to come off their line and involve themselves in other phases of the game. One of the best of those unicorns would be David De Gea, who stays rooted to the spot and prepares himself for saves he’s through his sound positioning. But a player like De Gea is a rarity. Most of the modern keepers instead adopt some level of sweeperhood™, and follow a similar style of play to the likes of Alisson, Ederson and Manuel Neuer. But naturally, there are quite a few hidden gems in the pile, and some you may not immediately consider. One of those just so happens to be Burnley’s Nick Pope.

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Often praised for his cat-like reflexes and exceptional shot stopping techniques, Nick Pope has one of the highest ratios in world football this season when it comes to making defensive actions outside of his penalty area, and the distance away from goal of his defensive actions.

Like any sound sweeper keeper, he also excellently selects moments to come off his line to claim crosses, as opposed to staying situated and allowing others to head the ball away instead. But within Burnley’s style of play, he’s also underratedly crucial to their attack, and playing passes into the final third.

Similarly, Wolves’ Jose Sa also ranks high on the list of sweeper keepers for his incredible timing and speed off his line. Like Pope, Sa has earned heaps of praise for his shot stopping specialties, preventing more goals this season than any other Premier League keeper. But he also commands his area well, and even ventures outside of Wolves’ relatively low-block to make challenges. Finally, you can dip into Germany to see a host of exceptional ‘Sweeper Keepers’ looking to emulate Manuel Neuer, most prominently VFL Bochum’s Manuel Riemann – who has made an unbelievably high 2.8 passes into the final third this season.

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Sweeper Keepers can therefore exist not just in behind high lines as a mechanism for providing another defensive presence to clear the ball away. They can also exist in behind low-blocks and low-lines, for exactly the same purpose. They tend to be strong, physically intimidating walls like 6’5 Gianluigi Donarruma; but can also be smaller, nimble warriors like Jordan Pickford. In terms of physical capabilities, the key difference between ‘Sweeper Keepers’ of any variety and ‘Shot Stoppers’ is in their speed to explode off their line and command the situation. But again, even keepers not overly blessed with pace like Leipzig’s Peter Gulacsi or Gladbach’s Yann Sommer can develop into some of the best at the art, simply by exuding confidence in 1v1 situations, and adequately timing their runs off their line.

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Here we see the basic requirements of a ‘Sweeper Keeper’ to be that of quickly making correct decisions. Timing their runs out without hesitation, and then successfully commanding situations. This could be any type of goalkeeper, but remember – the best within the role also exude confidence in build-up phases, and use their exceptional distribution to advance their team up the pitch. This is where the likes of Alisson, Ederson and Neuer truly standout above the rest, as excellent passers of the ball. The second tier of that pile may be the likes of Gianluigi Donnarumma, Peter Gulacsi or Robert Sanchez, who also perform both functions exceptionally well, or keepers who perform one incredibly well but not always the other – like Nick Pope, Jordan Pickford, or Jose Sa.

With these ‘quintessential sweeper keepers’ and the job description associated with their role already in mind, I’m sure you can imagine how these players are measured within our system. But in case you’re still wondering…

MEASURING SWEEPER KEEPERS

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Within our Role Continuity Player Evaluation System, players are first measured by what they are expected to do in their position and their specific role first, with any tasks associated with a secondary role coming second. For goalkeepers, there are only two roles. That means that ‘Sweeper Keepers’ are scored primarily on their ability to sweep, and the other key functions associated with their role (e.g. involvement in build-up, cross claiming, etc.). But nevertheless, they are still scored on ‘Shot Stopper’ traits that are perhaps equally important to the role of a keeper – such as stopping the ball from finding the back of the net.

1. IQ

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In our previous sections, we spoke at length about the notion of “timing”. That is, it’s not just what a ‘Sweeper Keeper’ does to influence the situation or the speed at which they perform an action, but their sound decision making. That is, when, where, and how to take control of the situation. Due to the ability of this encompassing IQ metric to account for all ‘Sweeper Keeper’ tasks, we’ve made it the most important function. Establishing a player’s ‘IQ’ helps to add context to each of the necessary categories, and the on-the-ball statistical accumulations they may acquire. This includes…

  • Decision making when ‘Sweeping’ (e.g. when to come out)
  • Decision making when ‘Commanding’ (e.g. when to claim or punch)
  • Decision making in ‘Distribution’ (e.g. when to pass long)
  • Decision making on ‘Shot Stopping’ (e.g. saving techniques)
  • Discipline (e.g. fouls, bookings, and positional discipline)

By first assessing for decision making, we can then more appropriately analyze the statistics a keeper may claim in any given match. A player is given a score out of 10 in each category, using both statistical metrics and the eye test, which is then averaged together to create an overall ‘IQ’ score.

2. SWEEPING

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As the name of the role suggests, ‘Sweeping’ is the most integral role of the ‘Sweeper Keeper’ and the one we hold with the most weight when evaluating from a statistical standpoint. We break down the role of the ‘Sweeper Keeper’ into three broad categories: ‘Sweeping’ – defending away from goal, ‘Command’ – taking control of their penalty area, and ‘Distribution’ – passing success and attacking threat. The most crucial of those just so happens to be what the role was named after – a goalkeeper’s ability to defend (i.e. “sweep”) outside their penalty area. This includes statistical metrics like…

  • Defensive actions outside penalty area
  • Average distance away from goal of defensive actions
  • Recoveries
  • Clearances

3. COMMAND

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Since goalkeepers must be vocal and assertive in and around their eighteen yard-box, we assess each keeper’s level of ‘Command’. ‘Sweeper Keepers’ typically have higher levels of command than ‘Shot Stoppers’ and it is an important facet to their influence on a match, and their ability to maintain a clean sheet. Metrics include…

  • Crosses stopped
  • % of crosses stopped
  • Aerial %
  • Leadership & Communication
  • Clean sheet

4. DISTRIBUTION

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Goalkeepers in the modern era must be capable of playing out from the back, or at the very least, capable of either completing a high rate of short or long passes. Even if ‘Shot Stoppers’ may be required to play out less than ‘Sweeper Keepers’, we still assess every keeper’s distribution. We do however put more weight on the ‘Sweeper Keepers’ to achieve success in their distribution, and adequately involve themselves in build-up phases. This may include…

  • Passing %
  • Long passing %
  • Involvement in build-up
  • Playing under pressure + difficulty of successful passes
  • Control (touches, miscontrols, dispossessed, passes received %)
  • Passes into final 1/3
  • Key passes

4. SHOT STOPPING

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While ‘Shot Stopping’ may not hold the same weight for ‘Sweeper Keepers’ as the aptly named ‘Shot Stoppers‘, it remains an incredibly important facet of the game for all no.1’s. Don’t be fooled by its fourth place inclusion on this list, as statistics like saves completed and goals conceded will drastically impact the score of any keeper. But what we care more about for ‘Sweeper Keepers’ is their ‘IQ’ when it comes to saving shots (e.g. techniques used, timing), as opposed to just the pure statistical metrics listed below. This includes…

  • Total saves
  • Goals conceded
  • Save % or saves per goal conceded
  • Post-Shot XG +/-
  • Handling
  • Reflexes

Quite the complex process, I gave a more thorough account as to exactly how this category is scored in ‘What is a Shot Stopper?‘.

5. ABNORMALITIES

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Goalkeepers may also be given additional boosts or retractions for any abnormalities that they perform in a match, including the following…

  • Goals
  • Assists
  • Penalty kicks given away, or penalty kicks saved
  • Errors leading to shots or goals
  • Red cards

While these metrics can drastically affect a player’s rating in a given match, they don’t tend to change a player’s score over the course of a season, unless repeatedly conducted.

So with that, based on the five key evaluation metrics, here are some of the very best at the ‘Sweeper Keeping’ art in Europe’s top five leagues.

TOP 20 SWEEPER KEEPERS

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When establishing a Top 20 List of ‘Sweeper Keepers’, we’re not only looking for formidable form over the 2021-22 season in the metrics listed above, but also overall reputation of Sweeperhood™ over the years. Any goalkeepers with a below average number of ‘Defensive Actions Outside the Penalty Area’ (below 0.65 per 90) or below par ‘AVG Distance of Defensive Actions’ this season (below 14 yards) were excluded from the data – and classified in our previous article as ‘Shot Stoppers‘. We then assessed for the above categories, such as a goalkeeper’s ability and timing when it comes to cross claiming, distribution, discipline, and yes, even shot stopping.

So, after scouring the databases, and scrutinizing over statistics from both this season and the last 365 days, these are the best ‘Sweeper Keepers’ in the world at this time.

Rank #Player Team# OPACr. Stop %Long P %
1Alisson BeckerLiverpool FC1.4111.265.2
2Ederson MoraesManchester City1.007.370.2
3Manuel NeuerBayern Munich1.436.372.9
4Gianluigi Donnarumma Paris Saint Germain1.245.971.2
5Nick PopeBurnley1.6710.237.3
6Jose Sa Wolves1.1511.145.0
7Peter GulacsiRB Leipzig1.164.053.8
8Robert SanchezBrighton 0.8211.644.4
9Yann SommerMonchengladbach1.096.452.6
10Aaron RamsdaleArsenal0.949.141.4
11Mike MaignanAC Milan0.7710.760.9
12Pau LopezMarseille1.0615.460.9
13Lukas HradeckyBayer Leverkusen0.737.353.7
14Kevin TrappEintracht Frankfurt0.955.439.8
15Jordan PickfordEverton0.706.638.2
16Oliver Baumann1899 Hoffenheim1.349.251.9
17Geronimo RulliVillarreal0.999.362.9
18Gregor KobelBorussia Dortmund0.869.252.9
19Robin ZentnerFSV Mainz 05 1.458.643.9
20Manuel RiemannVFL Bochum1.9010.753.6

First, it must be noted that far more statistics have been considered in this ranking than the three shown above, but all three are particularly paramount to a ‘Sweeper Keeper’s’ role. As you can see from the table, even the best have at least one category where they fail to stand out above the rest. The only one consistently above average across the board would be Liverpool’s Alisson – one of the perfect emblems of a modern day ‘Sweeper Keeper’.

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Interestingly, only David Soria and Geronimo Rulli featured in the echelon of ‘Sweeper Keepers’ from La Liga (Soria not even making the Top 20); potentially illustrating something about the league’s short passing and possession-based football that requires less of goalkeepers to come off their line. On the other hand, several German keepers made the list, possibly due to the fast-paced transitional game of the Bundesliga, that requires keepers to immediately spring into action more regularly. Jordan Pickford is also an interesting case study, as the most ‘right on the line’ between the two goalkeeping types – fulfilling more of a sweeper role for his national side in particular. Others inside the top twenty would be classified more closely as a perfect prototype within the role. So let’s break down those that most closely resemble what we are looking for in a ‘Sweeper Keeper’, as opposed to a ‘Shot Stopper‘.

PERFECT PROTOTYPES

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Among the top twenty keepers, these are the most prototypical ‘Sweeper Keepers’. In order to rank high on this list, a keeper should have high numbers of ‘Sweeper Keeper’ traits listed below like Cross Stop %, Average Distance of Defensive Actions, and Number of Defensive Actions Outside the Penalty Area, in addition to high passing stats like Touches Outside the Penalty Area, Pass %, and Long Passing %. Here is how they rank:

Rank #Player TeamAVG Dist.Cr. Stop %Final 1/3 P
1Manuel RiemannVFL Bochum18.210.72.80
2Alisson BeckerLiverpool FC17.011.20.41
3Nick PopeBurnley18.310.21.28
4Manuel NeuerBayern Munich19.46.30.31
5Ederson MoraesManchester City17.47.40.27
6Pau LopezMarseille16.615.40.48
7Robin ZentnerFSV Mainz 0517.18.60.84
8Oliver Baumann1899 Hoffenheim16.09.20.61
9Robert SanchezBrighton 14.011.60.79
10Jose SaWolves15.711.10.35

Combining a range of factors together, VFL Bochum’s Manuel Riemann comes out on top as the surprise leader of the pile – the most emblematic ‘Sweeper Keeper’ around. Other prototypical types include an array of beasts at the back like Manuel Neuer, Alisson, Ederson and Nick Pope. Pau Lopez also ranks highly for his influential role in the build-up at Marseille, whilst Robert Sanchez just cracks the top ten for his solidity in a variety of different areas without drastically standing out in any one specific facet. When studying the ‘Sweeper Keeper’ and what makes them so special on a football pitch, these are the players to scrutinize over.

CONCLUSION

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When it comes to sweeping in behind a back-line, the ‘Sweeper Keeper’ plays a crucial role in modern day football. But their role on a pitch extends far beyond the basic defensive duties, taking into consideration aspects like level of command, distribution and discipline. With that, we’ve given context to the ‘Sweeper Keeper’ as far more than what the name suggests on first glance, and even break down how keepers within this role can be measured against the others. It’s possible that within a few years this ever-evolving role will add a new array of important elements to its job description, as goalkeepers grow in importance in a variety of different phases of the game. For now, the likes of Alisson, Neuer, and Ederson continue to be the best at the art, with less acclaimed keepers like Nick Pope and Manuel Riemann also standing out within the data.


So there it is! Answering the complex question – ‘What is a Sweeper Keeper?’. Be sure to check out more from this series as we detail all thirty-two roles, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

More in this series…
-> What is a Shot Stopper?

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