When Switzerland went to the 1938 World Cup, they did so with a team of amateurs and a very small talent pool. In response to the physicality and technical sophistication of their opponents, coach Karl Rappan used one of his centre halves as a deep-lying defender who could sweep up any loose balls that got behind the full backs. Once the team got the ball, he could step out from the defence and offer his services deep in the midfield. The four-man defence and the libero sweeper were born.
In recent years, the sweeper has gone out of fashion. “Flat” back fours have become the norm, and full backs have become more attacking. Systems which could naturally house a libero, such as the 3-5-2 and 5-4-1 have fallen by the wayside as modern football has demanded both full backs and a well-manned midfield. As Jonathan Wilson notes, however, that could all change.
As teams have progressively played with fewer and fewer forwards, so defences have had to change shape to compensate. Rappan’s back 4 was designed to combat the W-M. Catenaccio would later respond to the 4-2-4 and 4-3-3. The 4-4-2 offered more protection against the 4-2-4s and 4-3-3s.The 3-5-2, popular in the late 80s and early 90s, circumvented the 4-4-2. And finally the 4-5-1 negated the 3-5-2.
What we have now is excellent older tactics. Marauding full backs can leave either two or three men permanently when attacking and offer greater penetration on the wings. When defending, the four can easily cover the wings and the centre of the park. Unfortunately, as teams begin to predominantly play with one or fewer forwards, the space ahead of the defence gets flooded. To counter, the team has to sacrifice an attacking player to play as a holding player or use technical superiority to break down the opposition and avoid being hit on the counter.
This is where the libero can come in. Not only can he defend when called upon, he can step out of the defence and help the midfield. The “libero” or “free” defender has no specific marking duty if the opposition are only playing with one forward; so he can double up on the forward when needed and act as an extra midfielder when on the attack.
In defence, the sweeper defence acts like a back 4 with split defenders (one attacks the ball – the “stopper”; one sweeps up loose balls in behind – the “cover”) when defending. However, it behaves similarly to the W-M’s midfield when on the attack by adding an extra DMC.
Against a 4-5-1, this makes extra use of the “spare” defender. You don’t need both central defenders marking all the time.
It also has major advantages over the 3-5-2 in combating four, five or even six-man midfields. The team retains the use of full backs (something the 3-5-2 lacks), allowing the team to employ two players down each wing instead of one. It also avoids the problem that the 3-5-2 has two “spare” defenders. Add this with the ability to counter-flood the midfield, perhaps playing with two forwards as well, and the sweeper defence gains a lot over its “flat” cousin.
Our old friend the “4-6-0” is also under pressure. The W-M formation I outlined a couple of weeks ago is essentially this system, except in that formation the DMC is told to hang back, whereas in this one the DC is told to push forward. Hence, the sweeper system can be more defensively stable in a variety of situations (such as if the opponent switches formation or, more likely, you forget to change the formation back and are stuck with a default match plan).
Sweepers are notoriously difficult to find in the FM and FML database. In FM, at least you can train them up in a different position from a young age: in FML, you’re forced to trawl the regens in the hope that one of them can play SW naturally and has the attributes and potential to “make it”. Further, when playing against two forwards, there is a danger that either the libero will get caught out of position when going forward (leaving the lone DC to mark two men on his own); or he might get penned into his own defence while tracking the spare FC, meaning he never effectively steps into the midfield. To counter this, though, it may be that the opposition are using split forwards, so one forward will be naturally deeper anyway, meaning the split defence system makes logical sense.
In the 1.3 Match Engine (and the 1.2) so far, I’ve noticed the SW needs to be given a libero role attack duty to get him into the midfield often enough. Bear this in mind when setting out the other roles in the team.
Still, I think you’ll find this system rather useful when playing against one FC. Making best use of the spare DC in your 4-man defence can really give you something extra – both with and without the ball.
|Written By Gareth Millward
"Millie" is a long-standing member of the FM community and a co-founder of Gameworld One.Com. As part of FM-Britain, he was a contributor to TT&F and involved with the new tactical interface in FM2010.