A conventional goalkeeper has been wearing #1 since the inception of the number system. Every team depends on their number one for one primary thing, stop the ball from going past him into the goal. The goalkeeper is the only player on the pitch with the luxury to handle the ball (in his box of course).
He is supposed to use his hands to guard the sticks and make breathtaking dives, in order to halt the opposition from scoring. The keeper traditionally stays in his penalty area with the intention of sometimes approaching the attacker to narrow down the scoring angle or sometimes staying behind and hoping to get a hand on the ball.
The sweeper keeper is a completely different mechanism. Although the primary task remains the same; stopping the opponent from scoring.
Some of the best citations of sweeper keepers are Lev Yashin and Gyula Grosics, two of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, who were genuinely good with their feet. Yashin was also known for long throws that used to kickstart counter attacks.
What is a sweeper keeper?
Speaking in simple words, a sweeper-keeper is a goalkeeper who pushes himself up the pitch and stays close to the last line of defence. The Godfather of football Johan Cruyff had famously said: “In my team, the goalkeeper is the first attacker and the striker is the first defender”.
In Cryuff’s ideology of total football, the goalkeeper is the 11th outfield player of the team should provide passing options to his teammates.
How does a sweeper-keeper function?
Mike Mutebi and Abdullah Mubiru’s idea of the game is to score by breaking through various lines of pressure. In this type of progressive play, the sweeper-keeper becomes an important part of the team.
The defending team always tries to press and win the ball in the final third, thus reducing the distance to the goal and having a much direct chance at finding the back of the net.
The only option for defenders under such high pressure; is to hit the ball long and risk losing it to the opposition in most cases. That is when the sweeper-keeper comes into play. By leaving his comfort zone and moving up near the defensive line, the keeper provides a passing option to the players and allows them to adjust accordingly or make forward runs to get a pass.
If the attacking team presses the goalkeeper, he is expected to deal with the pressure and find a free defender. This gives enough time to start a rapid passing move with the midfield and progress through the defensive third.
The main characteristic of a sweeper-keeper is that he should be confident enough to not use his hands and have composure on the ball with his feet. He is usually good at passing and has able distribution skills.
This way, even if the keeper is average or just par with his hands, he could be a devastating part of the team’s attacking movement, much like Denis Onyango was at Mamelodi Sundowns in Pitso Mosimane’s 2016 all-conquering side.
Both Mutebi and Abdullah believe in making the pitch as small as possible for the opposition. This meant that the attacker’s press first, the midfielders are really close to them near the final third and the defenders keep a high line meaning they are usually at the halfway line.
The risk in this type of press is quite obvious. One looped ball over the defence and a player could be straight through on goal. In these situations, a sweeper-keeper is handy and can deal with a through ball on his own or at least clear the danger of a break. The defence is thus less vulnerable to these balls because of the keeper’s ability.
Among other skills mentioned, a sweeper-keeper should have awareness about whether to attack the ball or not, be fast, and have good interception skills. The presence of mind is also an important quality for sweeper keepers.
Sometimes you could chip the ball in front of the attacking player and then pick the pass, sometimes it just isn’t the time to try outrageous things, and maybe clearing the danger is better. It most certainly is the latter when imposing strikers like Geoffrey Sserunkuma and Hood Kaweesa are in front.
Players who succeeded as sweeper keepers
In his prime, Denis Onyango was one of the best, if not the best goalkeeper on the continent, not only due to his antics with the gloves but also due to the ability to play the ball with his feet.
Onyango is also one of the most outrageously gifted keepers in recent times. At times, people have seen him positioning himself outside of his box line at Sundowns and sometimes even getting close to the center circle. He has also shown some brilliant fly heading ability at times.
His performance against Zamalek in the 2016 CAF Champions League final is one of his most memorable goalkeeping displays of recent times.
Recently, Andre Onana of Ajax has excelled in the sweeper-keeper role. He is extremely good with his feet and is composed as anyone with his passing and distribution. The Cameroonian is someone who took the time to adjust to the role and exposed the weaknesses of the role in his early days.
There were instances where he conceded important goals because of coming too far ahead on the pitch. His mistake against Groningen for Ajax cost them dearly.
Despite some of those faults, Ajax did not ask him to stop playing as a sweeper-keeper and now he has improved tremendously with his feet and gloves. Onana also highlighted what a keeper can do from the attacking aspect with his numerous linkups with Tadic upfront. The young Ajax keeper has shown he could excel in the sweeper role if repeatedly asked to do so.
Lukwago at KCCA FC is one of the best sweeper-keepers around at the moment. Benjamin Ochan also did that part of his job right in Lugogo, although he’s work with his gloves were far from impressive.
How good is the tactic for modern football?
Like every other tactic, it is neither good nor bad but completely depends on how effectively it is utilized. It is a useful tactic for almost all teams who base their game on build-up and possession football. It’s a big risk for the keeper to push high up the pitch knowing he does not have the luxury of using his hands.
If executed properly, it is good for even teams who are not reliant on the build-up. The goals scored on counter-attacks can decrease rapidly because of this tactic. The time is taken to restart the attack also reduces and players save energy by not having to track back and run forward again.
A sweeper keeper helps in improving smaller things but many would prefer to be on the safer side. After all, keepers are more likely to be blamed when conceding due to their presence up the pitch, rather than in a 1v1 situation in their own penalty area. In some cases, it could go horrifically wrong as it did for Charles Lukwago against Express FC at the weekend.
Article by Komagum Ray
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