The sweeper keeper in football is a role played by a goalkeeper, but with a twist. It was first brought to the big stage in football by Gyula Grosics, a Hungarian goalkeeper from the 1950’s. In the modern era of football, this role was brilliantly used by Liverpool legend Bruce Grobbelaar making him one of the best sweeper keepers of the last generation.
The best of the last decade and this current one is Bayern Munich goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer. He has multiple major trophies for club and country including a Champions League and a World Cup to his name. The 31-year old Bundesliga favourite is always seen rushing out of his area, so he can aid defenders. However, it does not mean though that a sweeper-keeper does then not have to have good shot stopping ability.
What is a Sweeper-Keeper?
A sweeper keeper is a player that seeks to control the space behind his respective back line. The role involves keeping resolutely close to your defenders far more often than usual, keeping on your toes for the majority of each match, and providing quick counter-attacking throws with hastened speed and efficiency. In other words, they are used to almost create an extra defender, and so an eleventh outfield player. Sweeper Keepers also need to be good out-and-out goalkeepers and so have good reflexes, one on ones, handling etc.
Johan Cruyff, the Dutch legend, he has an ideology which describes a sweeper keeper quite well. “In my team, the goalkeeper is the first attacker and the striker is the first defender”.
Is a Sweeper Keeper a good style of play?
I feel as though this question is very dependent on a few factors. Firstly, it depends on the quality of players around you, that is, confident centre backs or full backs. Meaning that they are willing to stay on their toes and receive unexpected passes. However, if your centre-backs are not confident to play out from the back, then it is not advisable to play a Sweeper Keeper.
Another factor which depends on this, is the type of league your team plays in. Leagues in the lower tiers of England are more suited to a direct type of football and so would require more of a no-nonsense type of Goalkeeper. In the Premier League, the top teams tend to play with a sweeper keeper. Clear examples are Liverpool’s Brazilian Alisson Becker and Manchester City’s keeper Ederson. In last season’s 2019-20 Premier League season, Liverpool ran away with the title and Manchester City were second by some distance. The average distance by which a keeper is away from the goal to perform defensive actions for Manchester City was 17.3m, the highest in the league. Liverpool were 3rd in this list with 16.4 average metres and 2nd place was Burnley with 16.6 metres. They also had a highly successful season, and finished higher than expected.
Also, the average length of a pass by a goalkeeper also helps provide evidence that sweeper keepers are effective. A shorter length of pass indicates that a team uses a sweeper keeper. Last season in the premier league, Manchester City’s goalkeepers had the shortest average length of passes, 29.9m. Chelsea whom finished in a Champions League spot had an average of 32m.
However, it is not just short passes that indicate that a team is using a sweeper keeper. They’re expected to make some pinpoint long distance passes throughout the season. Liverpool have a 50% completion rate of 40+ yard passes from their goalkeeper which is the second highest. In first is Brighton, which is an anomaly, when considering where they finished. So, is it effective?
What makes a good Sweeper Keeper?
Composure is a mightily important trait a sweeper keeper needs to succeed. The best sweeper-keepers in world football often possess amounts of flair. To achieve this, composure is needed otherwise the player could fell nervous and make a mistake. It’s a really tough job to stay composed when you realise there is no player behind you protecting the goal. If you make a poor pass or a bad error of judgement, you will most likely concede.
As a sweeper keeper, you are expected to make much more passes on average per game, than a standard goalkeeper. Short passes allow you and your team to make triangles around oncoming attackers. This help to break the 1st line of the opposition defence. Long passes, whilst harder, can be so important in allowing quick progression up the pitch. This drill will help you improve your distribution:
Have the Goalkeeper start will the ball on the edge of the 6-yard line. If you have mannequins, then they will be a great addition to this drill, but if not, do not worry as you can just use cones. Place one cone on the edge of the box, one in the left back position, the right back position and one each on the right and left wing but have the right wing one further up the pitch , you need 5 partners to help you out.
Play a short pass to a player on the edge of the box who then plays a 1st time pass straight back. Take one touch and play a driven ping wide to the left back position who then plays it back again, do the same to the right back. Play a driven ball to the left wing, but once you receive it back, take the ball into your hands and drop kick the ball out to the right wing. This training drill not only helps the Goalkeeper individually but can help your team launch a counter attack.
This attribute determines how well a player predicts and reacts to an event. A sweeper-keeper needs be aware of long balls over the top. They usually stand somewhere between the edge of the box and the halfway line, depending on where the ball is on the pitch. This means that when a long ball is played, they need to anticipate whether they need to return and retreat to the goal or they need to meet the ball and collect it. This is tough as its hard to tell whether the opposition player is going to reach a ball in some circumstances, so you need to be wary, this usually comes with experience.
Many people would not associate a goalkeeper with pace and acceleration, but those two factors really do affect how well a Goalkeeper rushes out to make a save. This is needed much more by sweeper-keeper’s as they are expected to be on their toes. They need to have the capability to rush out and meet a loose ball with a defender. The quicker they are the more chance they have of meeting the ball first. This also links with the positioning of a Goalkeeper as they need to give themselves a good starting position before rushing out.
Sweeper-keepers will only continue to grow in the modern game. More managers are willing to experiment and play expansively meaning that having an edge not just with your saving ability, but with your distribution will really give you a head start standing out as a Sweeper Keeper.