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If you’ve followed football for any amount of time, you may have heard of the football sweeper. At one time, this was a straightforward position responsible for cleaning up any balls that got by the other two or three defenders. It’s also referred to as a “libero.”

In today’s game, this role is a bit more complex and the position can get altered and tweaked based on theteam's football formation

Continue reading to learn more about the football sweeper. 

What Is a Sweeper in Football?

A sweeper in football is a defensive player whose primary role is to provide cover for the other defenders by sweeping up any balls that get past them. The sweeper typically is positioned behind the other defenders and acts as the last line of defense before the goalkeeper. 

They also can act as a playmaker, able to distribute the ball to the midfielders or forwards. Sweeper is often referred to as a libero in some countries.

Where Did the Role of the Sweeper Come From?

The role of the sweeper in football originated in the early 20th century, in the 1930s and 1940s, when the offside rule was changed. The offside rule was changed to allow only two defenders (excluding the goalkeeper) to be in front of the ball at any time. 

This led to the development of the "WM" formation, which featured three forwards, four midfielders, and three backs. In this formation, the center-back was pushed up to play as a "stopper" while the fullback on the left was moved back to play as a "sweeper" to cover for the stopper.

The role of the sweeper was to provide cover for the other defenders by sweeping up any balls that got past them. 

The sweeper was also responsible for starting counter-attacks by making accurate passes to the midfielders. This formation and role was very popular in Italy, and it was developed by an Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi.

Main Traits of the Sweeper Football Position

As with every football position, certain positions require certain characteristics. Knowing how to play sweeper in football is important. Here are some characteristics of the best football sweeper:

Strong Communication

You need to be in the right position at the right time while also ensuring that your teammates are in their spot as well. Great sweepers will identify potential weak points before they become a problem. The sweeper is the furthest person back on the football pitch so keeping the defense in order is a main component of their game. 

Great Field Vision

The sweepers main job is to anticipate danger to minimize risk throughout the game, this requires you to scan the field and always think ahead. When done correctly, you can ensure that other players are in the right place before they even know it’s the right spot. 


Certain positions like attackers and midfielders require a bit of aggression and willingness to roam about the pitch, a sweeper needs to stay home and allow the danger to come to them before making a move. Once the opportunity is missed, the last line of defense is gone and the whole team is in trouble. 

What Is a Football Stopper?

A stopper is a defensive midfield position and their job is to shield the back line and prevent anything from getting by. Does this sound familiar? 

The job is the same as a sweeper but instead of being right outside the box, they’re towards midfield and they act as the first line of defense on your half of the field. 

The stopper will have a lot of 50-50 balls and fights so they need to be able to provide tight coverage for the defensive line.

This position exists in today's game but they’re not usually called stoppers anymore. Today, they’re referred to as “destroyers.” 

Stopper vs Sweeper

A stopper and sweeper in football essentially do the same thing but in different locations on the pitch. N’golo Kante is known as one of the best stoppers in the game because he is a wizard at cutting off passes and making life hard for attackers or strikers coming into your side of the field. 

Truthfully, these types of characteristics apply to both positions with the main difference being where you are on the field and what level of defense you are. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Football Sweepers

Do teams still use sweepers?

Traditionally, no, teams do not use football sweepers anymore because the back 3-4 provide protection without giving up that much space to create 1-on-1s anymore. 

That said, all of the defenders on the back half can play the role of a sweeper at any given point. The philosophy remains the same but you won’t see coaches lining anyone up as a sweeper. 

How do you beat a sweeper in football?

Forcing the sweeper out of position is the primary way to beat them. If you can create a wide attack and force the sweeper in one direction you can switch and create a 1-on-1 opportunity with the goalkeeper. 

That’s another reason why discipline is the most important feature of a sweeper. They need to ensure they remain in position no matter how tempting it may seem to chase down a play. 

Is a stopper in front of the sweeper?

Typically, yes. The stopper is a piece of the back four with two fullbacks and the sweeper as far back behind the stopper as they can get without being in the box. 

In fact the position of a sweeper-keeper has actually grown in popularity. Where a defensive midfielder plays a more deep-lying position and is responsible for preventing the ball from reaching the keeper. 

What are some popular sweepers from history?

Franz Beckenbauer, Bayern Munich,Franco Baresi, and Manuel Neuer are some of the most popular sweepers to name a few.

Final Thoughts

The more you understand about thefundamentals of football, the better you can coach it and train your young athletes. While the sweeper position isn’t as popular as it may have been at one time, the philosophy and foundation of what the position does still applies in today's game.