It may be regarded as the most competitive top flight European league, but the Premier League has been going backwards tactically for some time now. This is evident by the declining performances, year after year, by English sides in the Champions League. It seems top sides here have suffered from acquiescence regarding their place in the pecking order. But there could be a way to stop them from faltering further.
On a weekly basis we see goals conceded that, while making the Premier League exciting and unpredictable, are a tactician’s nightmare. Some of the errors border on the schoolboy variety; others highlight how the pace of the English game makes defending a thankless task.
The solution could come from – quite ironically – an old European favourite: the sweeper system.
Before we go on, it needs to be pointed out, my personal level of football coaching begins on Championship Manager (the version before CM’93) and ends with Football Manager 2016. As a player, my greatest contribution was the post-match karaoke for the Sunday team I represented.
However, I did take England to two World Cup final victories and scored a screamer when hungover once (and just once, making me the least prolific striker in history). But you don’t have to be an all-time great to have valid observations. Indeed, the majority of top managers were, at best, average players.
The call for Premier League teams to adopt a sweeper system isn’t borne from some romantic notion. I’m not expecting John Stones to be the next Franco Baresi, although, it’s not too difficult to imagine. It comes from common sense.
The reasons that made European teams evolve away from the sweeper system are no longer valid in this country. Some factors apply across the board, including the Champions League.
Take the inability to apply a successful offside trap when employing a sweeper. When was the last time you saw an English side lockout Bayern Munich or Real Madrid because of their quick-thinking high defensive line?
Moreover, the offside trap requires linesman to never make a mistake. Okay, perhaps they can be afforded a few. And in days gone by the odd error would have been taken on the chin. But nowadays we have an overcomplicated offside rule. A defender can play a perfect “trap” and be caught out by the second or third phase of play. He can lose to the official’s interpretation.
A sweeper removes this area of potential ambiguity. He just clears up and prevents shock counters and breakaways.
Another argument against could be the modern defensive midfielder already does the role of sweeper but in a more advantageous position on the field.
To a certain degree, this is clearly true in some cases. The current Barcelona team never look like they need a sweeper. And Pep Guardiola’s conversion of Philipp Lahm to the defensive midfield role shows how versatile and effective it can be.
Under Guardiola, Lahm performed a similar role to the one Busquets had in Pep’s Barça side. Sometimes they slotted back, making a line of three centre backs, with the option for one to sweep. But it wasn’t an in-game reversion. The role of sweeper is too complex for players to cameo in the position. These instances were an example of a team responding to pressure and adapting for short bursts.
But aside from the very top sides, the role elsewhere is either performed by charlatans or capable players stuck in teams that don’t know how to support it. Take Manchester City, it can’t be argued they have the talent to play the modern defensive midfield role. They also have demonstrated how deadly it can be at times. But sides from Bournemouth to Middlesbrough to Juventus, have all shown how easy it is to bypass their midfield.
When that happens, you don’t have a sweeper sat in front of the defence – you have nothing but empty space protecting two centre backs.
This lack of cover combined with today’s blistering pace means even the best defenders will be made to look stupid. Eliaquim Mangala would have had an entirely different season if he’d have been given better protection in front of him. With a sweeper behind, he’d have excelled.
A sweeper would make teams more solid in the Premier League, the question then becomes: How would they fare in Europe.
This is harder to answer, mainly because it reduces some of the advantages English sides take into a game. The play goes slower still, the intelligence of the midfield to receive passes from a ball-playing sweeper needs to increase, and the best forwards in the world can try and camp out on your defensive line.
But the current weak imitation of how to play their style is sending Premier League teams backwards.
Perhaps a perceived disadvantage of the system would help English sides in Europe. The sweeper is seen as a waste of a defensive player when so many modern sides play with only one striker. This is an illusion at best.
A 4-3-2-1 soon becomes an out-and-out 4-3-3 when a good side is in possession.
The extra insurance at the back can deal with the morphing forward line.
Many will believe it’s outdated or impossible to try the system now. They’ll say defensive midfielders shore up a team. But ask yourself: when was the last time you saw a player properly anchor a side during a Premier League match?
Marcel Desailly? Nigel de Jong, at a stretch.
The sweeper system is a solution that keeps getting ignored. Someone needs to try it. Failure to do so ensures the European dominance stays with the German/Spanish power share and the domestic game will continue to suffer tactical devolution.