When you were a child playing games of football in the school playground, you may have utilised the loose ‘rush back’ goalkeeper rule. In short, this allowed a nominated keeper to charge out of goal, acting as an extra defender by breaking up attacks and passing the ball out from the back.
Amazingly, this school playground peculiarity has become a staple of modern football in the shape of the sweeper keeper, whose role owes much to the formative games played by children in their break time all over the world!
What Is a Sweeper Keeper?
As we learned in our article on whether an outfield player can play in goal or not, every single football team must have a nominated goalkeeper – that is part of IFAB’s laws of the game. So, a player must pull on the different coloured shirt to the rest of their teammates, pull on their gloves and act as the only player on the team that can handle the ball.
But how this goalkeeper operates is not defined by the laws of the game, and so – in theory – they are free to roam around the pitch, charging forward and getting into the opposition’s penalty area. Of course, that would be foolhardy – it would leave their goal completely open for starters, but over the years the emergence of the sweeper keeper has added some fluidity to an otherwise static position on the pitch. The sweeper keeper is therefore a goalkeeper that is given extra responsibility and freedom on the pitch, heralding in a whole new era of football tactics and strategy.
What Does a Sweeper Keeper Do?
Although a somewhat forgotten position in the modern game, a sweeper was a defender who would sit deeper than the rest of the defensive line, mopping up through balls, making interceptions and bringing the ball out from the back to start attacks of their own. The sweeper is rarely deployed these days, largely because the sweeper keeper has taken over aspects of the role.
The sweeper keeper will patrol outside of his or her penalty area, sweeping up any through balls that are played over the defence by the opposition team. If an opposing striker does break through on goal, the sweeper keeper will come haring out of their goal in a bid to tackle the opponent as soon as possible.
It is a role that aims to balance risk and reward, preventing opposition attacks before they get underway. It also enables a team to play with a higher defensive line, which in turn, allows them to press further up the pitch and dominate their opposition both in and out of possession.
However, the individual in the sweeper keeper role needs to have exceptional judgement, a cool head and a quick turn of pace – without these attributes, their ability to burst from their penalty area and break up opposition attacks will be compromised. Indeed, such is the risk of the position that a sweeper keeper that doesn’t read the game well can be left floundering as the opposition plays around them and scores an easy goal.
One of the most famous exponents of the sweeper keeper role, Manuel Neuer, has a YouTube video devoted to his high risk, high reward approach to the position….
History of the Sweeper Keeper
There have been tactical innovators throughout the history of the beautiful game, but few changed the landscape quite like Johann Cruyff. He was an outstanding player and technician, but it was his deep thinking about football tactics, strategy and advantage-finding that Cruyff’s legacy is perhaps best known as the head coach of Ajax and Barcelona, bringing stacks of trophies to those two clubs while playing in a dynamic, forward-thinking fashion.
Cruyff was one of the originators of the sweeper keeper role in the 1980s, imploring Stanley Menzo and Piet Schrijvers – his guinea pigs in the position at Ajax – to press higher up the pitch and take more risks. He figured that the occasional goal conceded via his sweeper keeper was negated by all of the opposition attacks that he broke up.
— Quotes of Cruyff (@Cruyff_Quotes) December 26, 2017
Another change came along in the 1990s that would revolutionise the game. The back-pass rule was introduced that prevented a goalkeeper from picking the ball up when passed to them by a teammate. Suddenly, they had to become better players with the ball at their feet. Soon, goalkeepers were being tasked with playing their part in passing moves, drawing an opposition player out of position before slipping the ball to a colleague. Today, the likes of Ederson and Allison are hitting pinpoint long passes 50 yards or more – such is the evolution of the goalkeeper’s role.
Coaches like Pep Guardiola have also followed in the footsteps of Cruyff, Arrigo Sacchi and co by deploying a higher defensive line – often their deepest defenders are camped within the opposition’s half of the pitch. This has necessitated the sweeper keeper role, which the likes of Neuer (Guardiola’s former protégé at Bayern Munich) have excelled in.
Who Is the Best Sweeper Keeper?
Those pioneers of the sweeper keeper role – Menzo – helped to establish the idea of the goalkeeper doing, well, non goalkeepery type things. Peter Schmeichel perfected the art of charging out of his box – opposition strikers did not enjoy the sight of the 6ft 3in Dane thundering towards them, while the likes of Edwin van der Sar – who would eventually succeed Schmeichel at Manchester United – and Gigi Buffon were amongst those who can be loosely described as sweeper keepers.
Others excelled in the embryonic stages of the sweeper keeper. Rene Higuita is best known as the free-spirited goalkeeper who performed the famous scorpion kick against England, but he was also one of the originators of the sweeper keeper role in South America. In the modern era, there have been plenty of individuals that have performed the sweeper keeper role, with the madcap decision-making of Neuer, Ederson and the German Marc-Andre Ter Stegen all ushering in a new era of what it means to be a goalkeeper in the beautiful game.