Explaining the Sweeper – Player Role Analysis

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When it comes to achieving footballing success, each player on a team must work in harmony, co-existing to bring out the best in one another. The task of any manager is then to not only create an environment in which players feel that they belong within a greater scheme, but to give each and every player a clearly defined role that suits their assets. A player’s role can change by the match to suit the opposition or the particular game-plan, but modern day footballers will each have their own over-arching style of play and role within a team that suits their strengths, or even in many cases, erases their weaknesses. This is where our brand new Role Continuity Evaluation System enters the scene, identifying the various roles that players adopt on the pitch, and using that as a key metric to evaluate performance.

Back when this process began, we identified thirty-two different roles that a footballer could adopt over the course of a football match, that can then be conceptualized to assess performance, and over-arching team tactics. 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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Centre-backs are not always the flashiest of players, nor do they garner the greatest attention, even despite their importance to structuring and shaping the entire organization of the team. That is precisely why a system like our Role Continuity Evaluation System works on so many levels, as we are able to adequately assess the important characteristics to a player’s performance, while minimizing the scrutinization over less important facets of the player’s game. Within the system, we break down centre-backs into three broad categories: the ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Half’, and the strongly opposed pairing of ‘Stoppers’ and ‘Sweepers’. So with that, today’s article is all about the modern day ‘Sweepers’, as we break down the tasks, functions and over-arching role of a ‘Sweeper’ in 2022.

JOB DESCRIPTION

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The term ‘Sweeper’ has existed within the game for decades. The traditional usage encourages the contrasting relationship between one centre-back who steps out (the ‘Stopper‘), and one that sweeps in behind. The modern game has evolved in such a way where centre-backs typically perform both roles simultaneously, and it’s rare to find clear-cut examples of ‘Sweeper-Stopper’ partnerships. In fact, I’d go as far to suggest that they typically exist more in back-threes in the modern game, with one clear-cut ‘Stopper’ angling higher than an obvious ‘Sweeper’ cleaning up the messes in behind.

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But ‘Sweepers’ still exist in abundance in the modern era, even if they have evolved to become more comfortable and confident in possession of the ball, and more likely to air on the side of the ‘Ball-Playing Centre-Half’. Sweepers tend to be shorter, faster defenders that help to defend in transitional moments, or recover in behind a high-line. They hold a particularly important role to rest-defense, and in supporting a robust defender that likes to step out and win possession higher up the pitch. Unlike the ‘Stopper’ they tend to win challenges through speed and skill, rather than raw physicality and strength. They may defend with their back to their own goal to a similar extent as a ‘Stopper’, but they will simultaneously be more likely to defend with their body facing the own goal, as they make last-ditch efforts and challenges.

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Since many of the best modern-day ‘Sweepers’ would also be classified as ‘Ball-Playing Centre-Halves’, we’re searching for players that specifically prioritize the defensive side of the game, or hold that defensive role for their teams. The likes of Maxence Lacroix and Marc Guehi are excellent ball-playing defenders who can help keep their teams ticking out from the back. But their main function is to defend in behind, and stop opposition players before they reach the penalty area.

As a result, essential traits that a ‘Sweeper’ must possess involve excellence in timing of challenges, not just outright pace to burn. They may even make only a few number of defensive actions per game, but always come up clutch whenever they put their body on the line. Think of Leonardo Bonucci, an all-out defensive warrior, who rarely even does any defending. That’s because the Italian legend holds his position and then turns up the dial in only the most dire of circumstances. He’s not all that strong in the air despite being a physically savvy defender, and he prefers to beat his man with pace and precision in the tackle, rather than completely annihilating his opposition out of the way – even in spite of the common perception. It’s a difficult line to walk in truly establishing differences between ‘Stoppers’ and ‘Sweepers’, so it again requires us to study not only a player in isolation, but who they’re paired up with and the types of actions they adopt to best support their partner(s).

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A final distinction may be worth noting between centre-backs who act as ‘Sweepers’, and goalkeepers who act as ‘Sweeper Keepers’. Utilizing a ‘Sweeper-Keeper’ does not take away the necessity for a ‘Sweeper’ in the side, as they still perform different functions. Centre-backs within the role may be more likely to sweep in close proximity to their centre-back partner(s), whereas goalkeepers may cover significantly more ground in coming out. The centre-back version also varies in that it requires a player to run toward their own goal, whereas ‘Sweeperhood’ from a keeper’s perspective becomes about racing away from their goal. While the two can co-exist and work in harmony, a ‘Sweeper’ may be more imperative if a ‘Sweeper Keeper’ is not present in behind.

QUINTESSENTIAL SWEEPERS

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As we just made reference to, in helping us assess who qualifies as a ‘Sweeper’, it’s important to note distinctions between partnerships. Take West Ham for example. In cases where Issa Diop or Kurt Zouma play alongside Craig Dawson, they must adapt their games to play more as a ‘Sweeper’, than they might alongside each other. The same can be said of top Serie A defenders Kalidou Koulibaly and Leonardo Bonucci, who are incredibly difficult to put a distinction on between the two roles. Then you have players like Andreas Christensen and Maxence Lacroix, who nine times out of ten will be the one ‘Sweeping’ more in behind a ‘Stopper’-ish figure supporting them. It’s more difficult to assess when those features remain fluid, and one interchanges with the other. So let’s talk about those that best fit the role in using their speed and skill to defend, rather than focusing on brute force.

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AC Milan won the Serie A title in 2021-22, in part due to an exceptional increase in defensive presence and pace at the back. Pierre Kalulu and Fikayo Tomori both acted as speedy ‘Sweepers’ cleaning up messes in behind, ensuring Mike Maignan had less to do in coming out of his goal. Philipp Lienhart of SC Freiburg played a phenomenal, underrated role alongside Nico Schlotterbeck for the Bundesliga powerhouses last season, making over 11 recoveries per match. Lienhart often situated himself as the deepest of a back-three, sweeping up any messes behind Schlotterbeck as he stepped out of line to challenge higher up the pitch.

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Steady sweepers that confidently assess situations through careful positioning and awareness, like Andreas Christensen and Eder Militao rarely have to do any hard-core defending, as they are always in the right place to mop up the mess. But you also get the odd road-runner, like Maxence Lacroix, Marc Guehi or Ronald Araujo, who win most challenges over the top through utilizing their pace and power, and then timing their tackles to perfection.

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San Diego Wave’s Kaleigh Riehl is another top-tier example, excellently cleaning up the damage done in behind Casey Stoney’s high-defensive line. Viola Calligaris provides another perfect example, wonderfully making last-ditch challenges in behind her ‘Stopper’ friend Rahel Kiwic. Since these players possess a greater ability to make recovery runs and challenges, they are then handed that role by their managers in supporting and balancing out their partners. My favourite example in the Canadian Premier League is Cavalry’s Karifa Yao, who is constantly thrust into challenges in behind the ‘Stopper’ that is Daan Klomp. But even he may adapt his game depending on the teammates alongside him, becoming more likely to step out and challenge higher up the pitch when deployed alongside Mason Trafford. Like Koulibaly, Bonucci and Militao before him, Yao is still a physical presence that excels in producing moments of physicality. But his role for the team becomes more about defending closer to his own goal, when it’s most necessary for him to do so. With these ‘quintessential’ ‘Sweepers’ in mind, let’s examine how we can measure those that excel at the art to better assess performance.

MEASURING SWEEPERS

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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 role first, accompanied by a secondary role. We utilize statistics to help measure performance, but go far beyond that to incorporate the eye test in analyzing player IQ, awareness and tactical understanding. We can then congregate data to more adequately assess their player positioning and movement around the pitch, the areas in which they make defensive actions, and the success at which they win back possession for their team. So with that, here is how we measure ‘Sweepers’.

1. DEFENSIVE IQ

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‘Sweepers’ hold more of a defensive role for their team. But unlike ‘Stoppers’, they may not be all that active for their teams out of possession. They come alive when it matters most, racing in behind to break up counter-attacks and put their bodies in the way. So instead of sheer numbers, it’s their timing and success that matters most when measuring their performance. This includes…

  • Tackle % and decision making when tackling
  • Pressure % and decision making when pressuring
  • Combined % of duels won when sweeping in behind.
  • Positional awareness and positional discipline
  • Awareness of own strengths vs. strengths of teammates
  • Discipline (e.g. fouls, bookings, and positional discipline)
  • Leadership and organization
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From the above categories, you can see a mix of statistical metrics, and seemingly non-quantifiable metrics that may require bias and personal opinion. But it’s important to note that even the so-called ‘non-quantifiable metrics’ utilize statistics as a basis, helping to reduce bias where possible, without discouraging the use of the eye test. A player is given a score out of 10 in each ‘IQ’ category, which is then averaged together to create an overall ‘IQ’ score.

2. DEFENSIVE CONTRIBUTION

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After we get IQ out of the way, sheer statistical numbers are still important to helping us assess player performance, even if we expect ‘Sweepers’ to make fewer defensive actions across the board. This may include…

  • Recoveries
  • Pressures
  • Tackles
  • Interceptions
  • Aerial duels won + Aerial %
  • Clearances
  • Blocks
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Again, it’s worth noting that we hold ‘IQ’ and percentage-points in a higher regard. But sheer number statistics carry weight in establishing players who were particularly active on the day. They can also bring to light some essential facets of IQ, such as ‘interceptions’ or ‘recoveries’ which help to tell a partial story in uncovering a player’s anticipation and awareness when defending in behind.

3. POSSESSION & DISTRIBUTION

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Regardless of role, centre-backs are essential to kickstarting build-up patterns, helping a team progress the ball up the pitch, and play-making from deep. ‘Sweepers’ in particular are often responsible for holding a more important role in possession, often as the deepest member of builds. We then assess their influence in possession based on a range of statistical and non-statistical metrics.

  • Passing %
  • Long passing % + switches of play
  • Decision making in supporting the build-up and progression
  • Involvement in build-up (including importance, average position and movement)
  • Touches + number of times targeted with a pass during build-up to progression phases.
  • Control (miscontrols, dispossessed, passes received %)
  • Progressiveness (progressive passes + progressive carries)

As the third most important set of traits and characteristics, a player who wins every challenge and performs their defensive tasks to remarkable heights will still accumulate a high player score even if their in-possession stats and IQ lack.

4. ATTACKING THREAT & IQ

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Unlike ‘Stoppers’, ‘Sweepers’ are far less likely to score goals and contribute at the front-end of the pitch. This is the least important category to their role, which helps us to maximize the value we hold on the defensive side of the game when assessing performance. But certain ‘Sweepers’ may still make the odd impression in attack, which may help to boost their scores nevertheless.

  • Passes and carries into the final third
  • Key passes + shot-creating-actions
  • Dribbles + dribble %
  • Shots + shot on target %
  • Progressive passes received
  • Decision making in attacking phases

Again, the sheer number is often less important than the player’s success and/or timing of decision making when it comes to the attacking side of the game. In most cases, both are measured to better understand a player’s ‘IQ’ and ‘Contribution’ within the overall umbrella of ‘Attacking Threat’.

5. ABNORMALITIES

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

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

While these metrics may 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, let’s jump into what you’ve been waiting for – the very best ‘Sweepers’ in the world of men’s football as of 2022.

TOP 15 SWEEPERS

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When assessing ‘Sweepers’, we’re searching for players who perform a primarily defensive role for their teams, particularly through speed and skill rather than physicality. In the table below, we’ve chosen to include three essential statistical categories that bring to light some of the best at the art.

It’s worth noting that this list does not encapsulate the players best at being ‘Sweepers’; but instead, the best players who fall under this category based on our metrics.

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So after scouring the databases, and scrutinizing over statistics from both the 2021-22 season, these are the best ‘Stoppers’ in the world at this time.

Rank #Player TeamTkl %Press %Tkl + Int
1Eder MilitaoReal Madrid 54.034.64.01
2Kalidou Koulibaly Napoli 55.841.83.75
3Leonardo BonucciJuventus81.839.82.29
4Fikayo TomoriAC Milan58.635.14.39
5Ronald AraujoFC Barcelona76.738.63.41
6Jonathan TahBayer Leverkusen51.941.73.13
7Marc GuehiCrystal Palace64.740.82.54
8Andreas ChristensenChelsea66.734.54.22
9Diego CarlosSevilla 66.739.63.01
10Gleison BremerTorino 44.040.55.23
11Philipp Lienhart SC Freiburg 50.033.33.20
12Jean-Clair TodiboOGC Nice55.239.74.51
13Pierre KaluluAC Milan76.934.65.32
14Maxence LacroixVFL Wolfsburg60.031.46.35
15Gianluca Mancini AS Roma 60.035.83.41

Highlight clips were assessed and analyzed for all players involved in the debate, taking into account the number of times they stepped to challenge, as opposed to swept in behind with their body running toward goal. Only those that made an above average number of ‘sweeps’ were included in the table. Based on this data, all of the above could be considered ‘perfect prototypes’. But some may fulfill other roles for their teams, leading us to establish the following list of players that eight times out of ten will act as a ‘Sweeper’ more than any other function.

PERFECT PROTOTYPES

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Among the fifteen names listed above, these are the ten most prototypical ‘Sweepers’. To rank high on this list, a player should boast a high influence out of possession, particularly in having a reserved mentality in sweeping in behind and making recovery challenges more so than proactive ones. They should test lower on the traits associated with other personality types, such as exceptional long passing range or solid aerial ability. Here is what we came up with!

Rank #Player TeamRecov.Press Def 1/3Aerial %
1Marc GuehiCrystal Palace9.503.9759.4
2Jean-Clair TodiboOGC Nice9.426.3957.8
3Andreas ChristensenChelsea10.15.0661.9
4Pierre KaluluAC Milan8.758.2944.4
5Fikayo TomoriAC Milan8.016.5952.3
6Leonardo BonucciJuventus 7.262.1152.9
7Kalidou KoulibalyNapoli8.315.6659.0
8Philipp Lienhart SC Freiburg11.13.3962.3
9Gleison BremerTorino14.38.2253.3
10Maxence LacroixVFL Wolfsburg 10.47.5864.9

All of our featured players struggle to accomplish more than a 65% aerial win rate, showcasing some degree to which they are less likely to use their physicality and strength to contest challenges. The above players all may step out and defend proactively when required, but they are more likely to support a partner by defending in a reserved stance. They either excel in making recovery challenges and relish that side of the game, or time their tackles to perfection in only leaving the ground when it matters most. So when studying who and what qualifies as a ‘Sweeper’ in the modern game, these are the players most worth scrutinizing over.

CONCLUSION

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Over the past few decades, centre-backs have only grown in importance to attacking phases and playing out from the back, becoming some of the preeminent quarterbacks for their clubs. But the ‘Sweeper’ is still alive and well, even if evolving out of the game to a more of a merged role with the Ball-Playing Centre-Half. Every team must find the balance in their defensive unit, and sometimes that may mean deploying a pacey, positionally aware player capable of covering tremendous ground in behind. As ‘Sweeper Keepers’ continue to come into prominence, we may see fewer ‘Sweepers’ in the traditional sense in the future. But our data provides a wonderful illustration that there are many defenders that exist in the modern game who neither come to prominence in possession or in physicality, instead offering a different level of speed and IQ in behind.


So there it is! Explaining our ‘Sweeper’ player type within our Role Evaluation System. 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…
-> Explaining the Shot Stopper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Sweeper Keeper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Wide Warrior – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Inverted Fullback – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Wing-Back – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Ball-Playing-Centre-Half – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Stopper – Player Role Analysis

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