World Cup 2010: Has Rafael Marquez brought the sweeper role back to the modern game?

Mexico’s Rafael Marquez’s free role as the half defender/half midfielder exhibits the same traits as the classic sweeper.

Back in Italia 1990, it was supposedly a player revolt which convinced England manager Bobby Robson to switch his side’s formation from the rigid 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2 sweeper system. The Three Lions had just played out a dour 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland and with a tough match coming up against Holland, it was obvious changes were needed to liberate the creative players but still retain the same sense of cohesiveness. Robson, however, wasn’t pressured into any tinkering by player power – he had been mulling over a change of system upon finding out the Dutch would be prospective World Cup opponents after being defeated by the Oranje 3-1 in Euro ’88.

“I’d got it wrong against the Dutch in 1988 when we lost 3-1, when I had two against two [central defenders] against Van Basten and Gullit,” Bobby Robson later told Four Four Two magazine. “Then I decided I’d play with a sweeper to cover myself against the Dutch and the Germans (eventual semi-finalists) .”

As implied, the sweeper system was cautious with Mark Wright, coming in for Arsenal legend Tony Adams, playing behind the two England centre backs and looked to snuff out any danger. The role was ultra-defensive, not too dissimilar to the early incarnations of the sweeper (i.e. the catenaccio system perfected by Helenio Herrera’s Inter 1960-1968), who, according to attacking midfielder turned sweeper Renato Zaccarelli, “stayed back and didn’t touch the ball for more than two minutes a game.” But as the game evolved, so did the sweeper (or libero) of which Zaccarelli adds: “then they [the libero] started to participate more and more and balance the midfield.”

Perhaps the greatest exponent of this classic form of the sweeper was Franz Beckenbauer who continuously strode out from the back to act as a spare midfielder and as the director of the team. Taking advantage of the strict offside laws whereby a passive offside was penalised (therefore compressing play) and man-marking was still the prevalent form of marking, the sweeper was able to exert greater influence as the “free” man in the formation. More recently it was Matthias Sammer in Euro ’96 who caused havoc to opponents marking in Euro ’96 as he scored two goals in the tournament and also created a penalty as the “free” centre-back in the 3-4-1-2 formation. Unfortunately by this time, the sweeper was a rare occurrence as the rise of zonal-marking and the liberation of the offside trap meant the sweeper could no longer function as effectively any more.

The latter point is an important one as the changes in the offside law forced defences to retreat deeper thereby stretching the playing field* so the use of the sweeper became, to most sides, almost exclusively defensive or even negative. (Why play a defender behind the other centre-backs when the backline is already deep? It makes more sense to play the back three in a line – unless of course that was the aim is just to defend – lesser sides spring to mind.) Manchester United last season against Wolfsburg deployed Michael Carrick in such a manner but that was because injuries to all other central defenders forced the midfielder to play in an overtly defensive manner to make up for the unfamiliarity. (Interestingly, United defended resilient and countered the Germans with speed and energy to win 3-0).

The signs therefore seem to indicate – should the sweeper return  – that his best work would be in front of the defence as opposed to starting behind. And in the 2010 South Africa World Cup, we may have just witness that with Mexico’s Rafael Marquez performing such a function. Strutting around the field like he owns the place, much of Mexico’s attacks start with Marquez picking the ball up from defence (see Figure 1). And in the 2-0 win against France, Marquez strode out into the opposition’s half to played a delightfully chipped ball over Les Blues defence for Javier Hernandez to score the second.

<Figure 1> Rafael Marquez’s places of operation are shown above in the 2-0 win over France. As one can see much of his play comes just in front of his half, receiving the ball from defence and initiating forward moves.

Most interestingly, however, is the formation which Marquez is slotted into because while it looked closer to a 3-4-3 in the warm-up game against England, it now more closely resembles a 2-3-2-3 (See Figure 2). Marquez is spending more time in defensive midfield – possibly partly because of the calibre of the opponents he has had to face. He is capable of dropping back to make a three-man defence as he did versus England and occasionally in the two group games with South Africa and France but defending from him firstly starts in midfield with the onus on the two wing-backs to make a back four in the defensive phase. Indeed, Mexico are not the only team in recent times to play the formation. Bayer Leverkusen’s Carsten Ramelow often stepped out of the defence to engage in passing moves while Edmilson scored a wonderful team goal for Brazil in the 2002 World Cup pushing forward. Chile, under Marcelo Bielsa, have altered between a 2-4-1-3 and a 3-3-1-3 because of Gonzalo Jara’s versatility allowing the side to alternate freely between the two.

<Figure 2> Marquez operated mostly just in front of his defence making a 2-3-2-3 formation in possession. Of course, this diagram is slightly skewed in this game as Juarez (16) pushed higher to stop France’s attacks from building up from the left hand side with Ribery and Evra while Osorio (5) looked to stay tucked in because of Juarez’s eagerness and Barrera’s (7) directness on the ball in front of him.

As a position, however, the naming of the Rafael Marquez role is open to debate. Can he really be classed as a sweeper despite not spending much time in the defence, let alone behind? The answer may hark back to the 1930’s where Vittorio Pozzo’s Italy won the World Cup twice in the decade playing a W-W formation which in the modern game more easily translates as a 2-3-2-3. The player in front of the defence was commonly referred to as a centre-half.

Nevertheless let’s not detract from the main crux of the article which is trying to investigate whether Rafael Marquez has reinvented the modern sweeper-type role. Indeed as we have partly ascertained so far (and will continue to do so below) it is difficult in the modern game to play behind the defence especially with a team which likes to take the initiative as Mexico –  it is much more effective playing in front. Therefore in some ways this position, whereby Javier Aguirre has granted Marquez the “free” role as typified by the assist he made against France, can be argued to be a libero position (libero literally means free/unrestricted in Italian). The half defender/half midfielder role he is playing is possibly the next tactical advancement because like the sweeper, it is a role which both attacking and defensive sides can play with to good effect.

Certainly some may be forgiven for thinking the Marquex role is not such a tactical advancement as such a function is being performed week-in, week-out in front of our very eyes – by the ubiquitous defensive midfielder. Alex Song, at the start of last season usually dropped back to cater for Thomas Vermaelen’s frequent forays forward from defence, earning him seven goals. The Cameroon midfielder was also one of Arsenal’s first sources of dristribution, recently commenting that his first job was to “give a good pass.”

“There are trends in football,” says former Roma manager Carlo Mazzone. “This is a time of between-the-lines players. From a classic 4-4-2, we now have a 4-1-1-1-1-3-0 as we have at Roma. That first man in midfield – Daniele De Rossi at Roma – is the modern libero. His movements are similar, but he starts ahead of the defenders and retreats into the shell if needed. But he gets the ball all the time and is the main distributor.” And Eugenio Fascetti, who incidentally was the last manager to deploy a traditional libero in Serie A – while coaching Bari in 2000) concurs, adding: “You have to stay away from one-on-ones,” he explains. “If your opponent plays with one striker, there should be no excuses. One of the two centre-backs must get him, the other sweeps from behind. If there are two strikers, one of the full-backs must mark him, leaving the centre-back free. In zonal marking, this is complicated. It’s easier to have someone like De Rossi tracking back and acting as libero, with two centre-backs busy marking the two strikers.”**

To conclude with Eugenio Fascetti’s final point, it can be said that it was zonal-marking which ultimately killed the sweeper. Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan popularised the use of the centrale staccato’ (a detached central defender) in the back four – a defender who would push out to create an offside while also being very adept on the ball. It done away with the nuances of the sweeper that zonal-marking presented it with and gave teams a far more flexible and modern option. Tony Adams of Arsenal very much perfected the art which makes it all the more baffling therefore why it was Mark Wright and not he, who was deployed as the sweeper in Bobby Robson’s England.

But there is one more reason that we haven’t touched upon on why we may see a further evolution of the defender. The increased fitness and technique of the modern game should create the need for mobile and ball-playing centre-backs. And especially with the increasing prevalence of the single-striker formation, one central defender should in theory be “free” in the back four. Of course such is a risky tactic to leave one defender back (although the idea is to have a midfielder drop in) so it is not unfeasible to suggest this could happen in a three-man defence with either of the three alternating to get forward to cause surprise or one given a less defined role. Indeed, as indicated by Denmark’s Daniel Agger and Simon Kjaer, the upsurge of the ball-playing, advancing centre-back has already started.

But as it is with zonal-marking there is always some way to stop them getting forward. Urugauy’s Diego Forlan, in the final Group A game, denied Mexico’s Rafael Marquez from exerting the same influence as in the previous games merely by patrolling his zone behind the forward and in doing so, forced Aguirre to push his captain back into the back four.

Fascetti may state the defensive midfielder is the natural heir to the sweeper but with Forlan marking Marquez out of the game, he showed the spirit of the libero lives not alone in any one position – he exhibited some of the traits too. “The libero evolved so much it became a stealth position,” says Fascetti. “In almost every action you see – or should see – someone playing libero. But the position is so hidden it appears dead.”


*The changes of the offside law can in some way be comparable to Adam Smith’s division of labour whereby the stretching of the play area meant positions were separated into bands/lines in order to allow the team to control space better. This split the composite tasks and positions into components and had them performed separately (i.e. the use of two box-to-box midfielders in a midfield four was split into the use of a defensive midfielder and more progressive midfielder; the wing back into full back and box-to-box wide midfielders in a 4-4-2.)

** One reader has asked to list some of the references used to draw up this article. As it is, much of the investigation was done first hand but the quotes from the exotic sounding Italian names are from an article from World Soccer Magazine (Aug/Sep 2008 issue) entitled: “The sweeper is dead… long live the sweeper.” The pitch graphics are courtesy of


13 thoughts on “World Cup 2010: Has Rafael Marquez brought the sweeper role back to the modern game?

  1. I dont get this ‘modern libero’ business – these guys Marquez and De Rossi are holding midfielders. People have been playing that role for years – Guardiola for example. I dont see this as related to a sweeper system

    1. It’s a fair point. The first concern I had when drawing up this article is that it may complicate matters. What it is trying to say that much of what the holding midfielder does is what the sweeper did – but in front of the defence. The Marquez role is more defensive because he drops back more frequently but nevertheless he exuding the same nuances.

  2. If Mexico gets beaten in their next round, then this modern sweeper nonsense will be forgotten in a minute.

    bottom line – in order for a new formation to become a trend, first thing first it gotta be able to bring success to the team playing in it. What’s the point for other teams to copy a side’s new formation if this side get eliminated early in a tournament?

    1. I disagree. Quality of players contributes a great deal to the success of a side, and the unfortunate inclusion of Blanco and lack of production from Franco and Vela have dimmed Mexico’s light.

      But they are still playing great football in a very intriguing system, and regardless of their success from here out I think there style of play (along with Barca’s tendency to drop a DM between the CB’s) will have many managers pondering the possibility of duplicating some of what Mexico has shown.

      Great article Brain.

  3. my first time to this site. interesting stuff. not the usual wenger-hating shite i’m used to reading on arsenal blogs. may i ask what your coaching credentials are? anyway, in the words of a certain austrian, i’ll be back.

  4. Top stuff!
    The modern day sweeper is probably a more defensive CDM, more like a CB being played in front of defense(Pepe maybe). Marquez, has definitely added a new dimension to the role, by being good on the ball and he is a good passer too. Is this role (referring to Marquez) not a more defensive version of a deep lying playmaker?
    I think the increasing use of this type of player would lead to teams(attacking ones) play a two man defence. Barcelona this year played something like that with Busquetes playing very deep, almost like a 3rd CB. As you state, Chile and Mexico have been doing the same by advancing their full backs.
    Wenger once stated that Cesc has the intelligence and the vision to play as a sweeper. Will it work? We have to remember that it is easy to negate the threat of a sweeper by pressing him and denying him space. Let us see how the Marquez role pans out in the tournament.

  5. A libero don’t have to be a DM.Some of the greatest libero were AM turn CB (Beckenbauer,Ridjkard,L.Blanc….).For me a Libero have to be a great passer with a great thecnic.In modern game i think Pirlo at Ac Milan have more or lees been playing this position.

    1. It’s interesting because when Pirlo was moved to play as a DM, the libero role is what the manager had in mind. One of the key attributes we must not forget, however, of the sweeper is that they must have some marking duties. Pirlo was defensively okay but got away with it as he knew how to patrol his zone – which is still very much a defensive duty despite looking passive.

      Carlo Mazzone vital in Pirlo’s transformation says: “I was managing Brescia when Pirlo still considered himself a mezzapunta (attacking midfielder). I told him to play in front of the defenders, because he had vision. ‘But I like goals,’ he told me, unconvinced. ‘You score four or five a year,’ I replied. ‘Play in this position and you’ll score even more. Let’s try it for two weeks. You’ll be a base playmaker.’

      “I told him to play two games without asking questions. Afterwards he told me: ‘I feel very comfortable here. I get the ball all the time.’ He found out how it worked. If I’d told him I was going to play him as a libero ahead of the defenders, he’d have run away terriffied. Calling him a base playmaker convinced him.”

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