The term sweeper keeper is now known to every casual football fan and is one of the recent tactical innovations in modern football. Sweeper keepers have been effectively in action since 1970’s with the Dutch deploying the usage of selection of a GK who was perhaps better on the ball than his shot keeping. Still traditional keepers were the norm and it was not until the rule change in back pass in the early 1990’s , that football world truly started realizing the importance of having a keeper who is also comfortable on the ball. The La Liga and Bundesliga were already making strides in this respect with especially in La Liga where it has been a long tradition of the GK taking part in the team buildups and rondos to hone the ball playing skills.
With time we have seen increase in numbers of sweeper keepers in modern football and presently it seems that most teams favor building up from back and hence require sweeper keepers rather than traditional keepers. In the La Liga, Bundesliga and Dutch Leagues, almost every other keeper is a sweeper keeper due to their long tradition of playing out from back. Change in football tactics in modern times with fullbacks pushing up and teams playing high lines to deploy high press has made it imperative that the keeper is capable of maintaining cool under high press , can play accurate long balls to initiate attack and has enough technical ability to move up and sweep long overhead balls from opposition or cutting up through balls.The rest of the world is also catching up in this regard and even in most top national sides also we see mostly Sweeper Keepers are the norms. Hence let us take a look today towards the man who is perhaps the first in documented football history to show the effectiveness of this role. Many people credit the legendary Lev Yashin as one of the most early form of Sweeper Keepers since the “Black Spider” had the habit of rushing up field to clear out balls and snuff out dangers. Whilst Yashin definitely is among the first generation of sweeper keepers, there was one earlier than him who properly demonstrated the role and effectiveness almost 40 years earlier than when the back pass rule change marked the era for the true necessity of Sweeper Keepers.
It was November of 1953 when the Mighty Magyars led by the likes of Puskas & Hidegkuti arrived at Wembley to play the supposed best team in the world, England. Some things never change and just like many gullible fans of a particular league today, that day also the supposed best team was in for a hard reality check. That match was dubbed as the “Match of the Century” by British press. However after the match ended, and the british press and fans crashed down to reality, they dubbed it as man vs boys. That game will forever be remembered for many iconic things, the destruction of the W-M formation, Hidegkuti showing the first global spectacle of the destruction by a deep lying forward (forefather of modern false 9), the legendary drag and shoot goal from Puskas. But one thing that game showed for the first time and was mostly overlooked, was the first demonstration of the usage of a sweeper keeper by the legendary Gyula Grosics. The fact that it was mostly overlooked had it’s reasons, the general footballing fraternity was not even aware that such a role could exist, and they could not fathom the effectiveness and the tactical flexibility provide by Grosics’ sweeping. England lined up in the then traditional W-M formation. Hungary lined up in a loose 3-2-1-4 with three full backs, two half backs,one deep lying centre forward, two inside forwards and two wingers.
Infact though Lorant/Zakarias was staying deep, but Grosics was compensating for the wide spread back three by pushing up and cutting up attacks.
What England and rest of the world were witnessing were revolutionary from many fronts, the formation, the roles, the quality of play and the goal keeping. It was something alien to them, something they could not comprehend. This was best summed up during the game when Grosics charges out of the box to intercept a pass from Jimmy Dickinson to one of the English attackers and clears it with impeccable timing.The English commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme was so confused that he simply reacted, “unorthodox, but effective”. The match ended 6-3 and in a rematch next year in 1954, Hungary again swept England aside by 7-1.
Grosics had a tragic life amid the political hotpotch in Hungary and though in the same stature and league to the likes of Lev Yashin, Gordon Banks and Dino Zoff, this legendary man remains widely forgotten today. So when you witness the likes of Neuer, Ter Stegan,Allison, Ederson etc caressing the ball, passing with accuracy, rushing upfield to intercept a pass or lounge into a tackle to clear a through ball, remember the man who more than 60 years ago first demonstrated these abilities in front of world football in the “match of the century”.
By Arindam Chakraborty