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Sweeper System!

Updated: Nov 1, 2018

Coach, I really love your books...I use a lot of your ideas in training my high school team. We're facing a team that uses man marking with a sweeper. Any suggestions for training to prepare for this? Thank you.

It’s definitely not a system that you see a lot in today’s game so it’s a good idea to prepare, as there are opportunities to exploit for sure. I think finding out the reason why a certain team would adopt a sweeper system is the first step. There can be a number of reasons based on the team: they may be overcompensating for a lack of speed in the back line, they may want to be a bit more aggressive defensively on the initial entry pass so like the idea of cover, or they may be doing it to counteract long passes in behind where they can react a little easier as a unit. If the nature of the game is somewhat transitional, it prevents attacking support from coming quickly, so leaves them with an important 'plus one' centrally.

The second step is to find out where the holes are in the system. This depends on how they are going to play it (which can largely depend on what you do) so having a series of options to look at are useful.

For example, if you play with a front three, they can counteract it like this (below).

Or, if you play 4-4-2, they may play with a back five (below)

They may, however, be okay with the risk and play against the 4-4-2 with a back four and bring the outside backs inside to provide cover, rather than man mark the wingers (below)

Because I feel that the system can isolate the central forward in a traditional 4-3-3, I would be more inclined to use either:

1. A front two pairing (similar to a 4-4-1-1) with one center forward staying on the sweeper when they are in possession, and then looking for space on either side of the sweeper when you are in possession, or even pulling the sweeper out of the central position that they want to occupy. This will create a level of discomfort for the opposition because it removes the aspect of cover, and it also creates a potential 1v1 opportunity higher up the pitch. If they counteract this by moving another defender in to man mark, they will invariably be using two players to mark one and this will create a space elsewhere. (Below)

2. 4-3-3 but with two attacking midfielders who can arrive in between the sweeper and stopper, and create a potential 2v2 or 3v2. If you keep your #7 and #11 wide, it occupies the outside back, creating valuable space in the middle. You may have to give away your numerical advantage in central midfield to accommodate this system.

3. Again, go with a 4-3-3 but changing the shape of your front three and bringing them in centrally. The opposition will have a numerical advantage of course, but you can offset that slightly by constant movement. This will create space in wide areas for your full-backs to get high and potentially deliver service. This system will work better if your team is comfortable in possession allowing more opportunity to move the defenders and potentially bringing another midfielder forward, as well as bringing the full-backs into play. (Below)

The third and crucial step is training it. I would recommend doing a lot of work on the training field on whatever system or systems you chose to use. The key for me in breaking a system like this down would be movement and timing, especially if it is a transitional game. Therefore, the type of exercise you use will be important. For example, playing a simple attack versus defense game may not produce the transitional element of the game that you require. Therefore, if you play a game like below, that begins as a 6v4 inside a grid for the defensive team and, as soon as they win possession, they win possession, they can play into the forward line and the full-backs can go. Creating situations like this can paint more realistic pictures for players than simple attack versus defense.

Hope this helps. My advice would be to look at the strengths of your team and assess where you can cause the opposition the most problems. Perhaps you run through a few variations in training and then get the feedback of the players also. This can add some ownership and responsibility to the group, as well as empowering them to solve different situations as they arise throughout the game. For me, movement is key. If you can constantly manipulate space around the sweeper and force them to move as much as possible, chances are something is going to open up and it also puts the onus on them to solve it. Thanks for your question and let me know how it goes.


If you have any coaching questions that you would like Gary to address, please email him at

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