‘TheHardTackle Whiteboard’ is a semi-regular column which anatomises the tactical development/non-development in the game. So if chalkboard, formations, FM series and Herbert Chapman arouse you, then you are looking at the right page. Today we focus on the evolution of libero and sweeper in the modern game. The age of ‘ball playing’ defenders and ‘inverted’ sweepers.
Spain, as predicted by many, retained their European crown as they strolled past a somewhat surprising finalist in Italy. In general, it was perhaps one of the most enthralling Euro in recent memories.
So for tactical partisans, what would be the highlights of this tournament? Prandelli’s Italy showed tactical flexibility, Vicente Del Bosque implemented the much debated striker-less formation and Roy Hodgson’s England were a bit too English. But perhaps more microscopically, this tournament also ascertained the notions of Libero and box-to-box midfielders can still be effective today, but in different roles.
Just like dinosaurs, once a breed of footballers called sweeper/libero existed. An era where names like Franz Beckenbauer, Franco Baresi, Gaetano Scirea and Lothar Matthaus walked across the green turf.
Karl Rappan – The Architect
Although it was only in the 1960s that the libero and sweeper extensively came into existence, the invention of this position is credited to someone who divided opinions in the football world with his revolutionary tactics in early 1930s. Karl Rappan was a man ahead of his time. During a period when the football world was adapting to changes in the off-side law and embracing Herbert Chapman’s W-M formation, Rappan was plotting something revolutionary – the ‘bolt‘.
The bolt is perhaps the most mystical formation in football history. Rappan’s tactics divided opinions and still continue to do so, infact very few understood it entirely. W-M was a very rigid formation and depended a lot on individual skills of players in the squad. Whereas in the 1-3-3-3 system of the bolt, success was more dependent on team work. Unlike the rigidness of W-M, nearly every member of the team in the bolt had different roles while attacking and defending. And, the most flexible role was that of the sweeper.
The sweeper was placed in-between the three center backs and the goal-keeper. While defending they were relieved of their role of marking and had the task of sweeping up loose balls and stop forwards who might have got past their markers. They acted as the connection between the attack and the defense. His formation was the Verrou (bolt) and the sweeper was the verouller.
Rappan’s success with the Swish team meant that this formation spread across Europe, and Italy is the place where this formation was revolutionized further. In late 1940s, Giuseppe Viani implemented Rappan’s tactics at Salernitana for the very first time. Then in 1947, Triestina finished a surprising second in the league under Nereo Rocco using this formation. Rocco achieved similar success with Padova and AC Milan, later on. The role of a sweeper caught the imaginations of the Italian masterminds.
During 1960s, Rappan’s bolt was truly revolutionized by Helenio Herrera at Inter and Catenaccio was born. Armando Picchi was one of the greatest exploiter of the role of a sweeper. Herrera used the 1-4-4-1/1-4-3-2 formation with Picchi sweeping at the back; La Grande Inter went on to dominate domestic league and Europe throughout the sixties.
Meanwhile in Germany, another man was beginning to make his mark; a certain Franz Beckenbauer. Beckenbauer took the role of a sweeper to a whole new level. Beckenbauer effectively changed a sweeper into a libero.
In general consensus, Franz Beckenbauer was best German player of all time. He was a man of immense talent and character. Der Kaiser defended and attacked with indistinguishable effectiveness. So instead of wasting his attacking talent while ‘sweeping’ for his team, he modified the role of a sweeper and the libero was born. A libero positions himself behind the center-backs while defending but plays in-front of the defense while attacking. Beckenbauer was famous for his powerful forward runs with the ball from the back. He scored 98 goals in his 695 appearance (for both club and country) during his long and illustrious career; an amazing figure considering his role in the team.
A number of sweepers/liberos graced the game during and after that period; legends like Franco Baresi, Gaetano Scirea and Lothar Matthaus mastered this role. Matthaus was the heir to Beckenbauer’s throne in the German national team, and was perhaps the last of this breed to adorn the pitch. Following Matthaus, this role slowly but surely died out in the twentieth century.
The Extinction Of Sweepers
So how did such an influential position cease to exist?
Perhaps the most defining reason behind the extinction of sweepers was the change in the off-side rule in 1990. An attacker was adjudged onside if he was level with the second-to-last opponent. To counter this change teams came up ‘off-side’ trap. Notts County are credited with the devisal of this tactics in early 20th century, which was later adapted by Osvaldo Zubeldía when in-charge of Argentina. In this system, the back-four would synchronously move up the field to catch an attacker in an offside position.
The sweeper who was placed between the goal-keeper and the back-four would unwittingly goof up the offside trap in such a situation as anybody running past the back-four would be played on by him.
The second most important change that took place during this period was increasing use of zonal marking instead of man-to-man marking. This was a direct result of the change in role of the attackers as the game evolved. Forwards started to play in an withdrawn role to avoid their markers. They dropped deep and operated in-between the lines of the defense and the midfield. Similarly, attacking midfielders and wingers started drifting from their natural positions, which rendered man-to-man marking ineffectual. Teams started using only one forward up-front while a second striker would play in the hole behind him.
This caused two problems for the defending teams. Firstly they were out-numbered in the midfield due to the striker dropping deep and secondly an extra man was wasted in defense as there was only one forward to mark.
The above change in nature of the game was the final death nail in the coffin of a sweeper/libero. Teams began to figure out that while defending against a single striker, one center-back can man-mark him, while the other center-back can act as a sweeper, hence another sweeper at the back was wasteful and also made it harder to implement the off-side trap. Instead, if the extra man in defense is deployed in-front of the defense as a holding midfielder, it would not only prevent a team being out-numbered in the midfield, but would also help in nullifying the ‘with-drawn’ striker, who operates in that space. Hence the advent of the holding midfielders began, and the era of sweepers ended.
The Reincarnation – Invertedly
When one species becomes extinct, another appears to take its place. That’s the law of nature.
Other than their defensive responsibilities, libero had the role of conducting play from the back. They bombed forward and provided impetus to attack. While their defensive role was rendered ineffective, their build-up play from the back was still required. This has eventually lead to the increase in the number of ‘ball playing’ center-backs. The protection provided by the defensive midfielder has meant that one of the center backs can move forward while in possession, provided they have the skill to do so. In recent times defenders like Lucio, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Rio Ferdinand, Thomas Vermaelen, Thiago Silva, Mats Hummels and Carles Puyol, to name a few, have shown great efficiency in retaining possession, passing the ball and joining in attack.
But the question remains – can modern-day football sustain a libero/sweeper?
The first instance of the return of libero in the twentieth century was perhaps in world cup 2010, when Rafael Marquez played in that role for Mexico. In a match against France, Marquez put up a wonderful display and Mexico won the match 2-0. The former Barcelona man, initiated most of the attacks for Mexico and moved forward with authority. He was given a free role while defending as Rodriguez covered at the back. Michael Carrick was also used in a similar role at United for few games, but that was due to the long injury list that Sir Alex has to deal with at that time.
In recent times, various tactician have deployed players in roles which are strikingly similar to that of a sweeper, but a modified one. Jose Mourinho practically deployed Pepe in the role of a sweeper against Barcelona. The Portuguese man’s main role was to disrupt the fluidity in the midfield of the Catalan giants, while sweeping in to stop the midfield runners from the deep. The only thing was the fact that Pepe is not to comfortable with the ball, compared to what you need in a sweeper. But, against Barca, one needs players who are comfortable without the ball.
In the Euro, Cesare Prandelli deployed Daniele De Rossi in a similar role. In the first match against Spain, De Rossi was surprisingly played as a sweeper. He excelled in his role as the Italians gave the world champions a run for their money. Spain went into the match without a striker with Fabregas playing as a false #9. Hence, they were dependent on forward runs of their midfielders to penetrate the Italian defense. De Rossi covered all these runs brilliantly for most part of the match, expect for once when Fabregas managed to score.
Sergio Busquets is a perfect example of what a modern-day sweeper is. He acts as a sweeper when Puyol or Pique moves forward in attack when Barcelona have possession, while he plays in front of the defense trying to win back the ball when they defend. This is similar to what De Rossi was instructed to do against Spain.
Libero and sweeper have taken two different course of evolution. While the former has transformed into ball playing defenders who join in attack, sweepers have a modern avatar. Sweeper started as a position where the player played behind the back-four while defending and were positioned in-front of the defense when attacking. Changes in off-side rule and general game-play means the new breed of sweepers play behind the back-four while attacking and ‘sweep’ in the front of the back-four while defending. Inverted sweepers? Quite possibly.
Read the previous edition of ‘TheHardTackle Whiteboard’ here