A revolutionary role within football, the Libero, or Sweeper, is a player typically deployed at the heart of a conventional back five, sitting slightly deeper than the two central defenders.
The archetype example is Franz Beckenbauer, who was deployed in the Libero role during the 1974 FIFA World Cup final, against the Netherlands, performers of the revolutionary “total football”. Beckenbauer displayed qualities similar to that of a creative midfielder.
Two different roles a Libero would typically have are, firstly, being able to intercept passes and close down space in front of goal. In contrast, a Libero can be given licence a to roam further into midfield, with sometimes more attacking privileges than other defenders.
The role became synonymous with legendary former FC Bayern Munich captain, Franz Beckenbauer. The 1974 FIFA World Cup winner demanded the freedom of a creative playmaker. Beckenbauer’s vision and excellent ball playing ability allowed him to play passes that not many other players in the same role could execute.
During the 1996 European Championships, another German, in this case Matthias Sammer, played slightly deeper than the other defenders in order to intercept passes closer to goal, and to break forward into midfield when necessary.
Franz Beckenbauer influenced the next generation of brilliant sweepers, most notably legendary AC Milan stalwart Franco Baresi, who under the guidance of outstanding tactician Arrigo Sacchi, helped form one of football’s most extraordinary backlines alongside Mauro Tossatti, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini. The back four, spearheaded by the calmness and skill of Baresi, complemented Milan’s extravagant midfield and forward players; Frank Rijkarrd offered balance, while duo Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit provided the goal scoring touch for the “Rossoneri”. Later on in his carer, former Bourssia Monchengladbach and Internazionale player, Lothar Matthaus, moved from midfield to play as a Libero for FC Bayern Munich, using his valued experience and reading of the game competently, helping the Bavarian side win the UEFA Cup in 1996.
One of the main aspects required of a Libero in an attacking sense is composure with and without possession. This is due to the Libero offering security in defence, as well as being expected to start attacks when in possession. Expert reading of the game is a necessity, enabling the player to intercept passes and through balls which pass the full-backs and centre-backs.
Perhaps the most important quality required of the Libero, is to be able to instigate attacks from deeper positions. As soon as possession is retained, the Libero could begin a quick counter-attack by playing a effective long pass into a dangerous area, or even hold onto possession, in order to allow teammates into a direct attack. The Libero could use adequate dribbling ability to good effect, in order to break down the opposition midfield, and subsequently disfigure the overall structure of the opposition.
However, Libero’s in more recent times have been replaced by centre-backs with more sides playing back fours. Centre-backs in the modern game in general have more expectations to be good in possession.
Yet, it is arguable that many players who are either a deep-lying playmaker or a ball playing centre-back could easily adapt to playing the sweeper role. A prime example is Germany and Borussia Dortmund centre-back Mats Hummels. Hummels is an elegent defender, who combines height, vision, and a strong tackle.
Hummels has also shown the ability to glide past opposition players while carrying the ball through midfield. Dortmund’s pressing style results in the forwards working effortlessly, taking some pressure off the back line, which may enable Hummels to play a free role at the heart of defence (A Libero, even though more adept as part of a back five, can also play as part of a back four, sitting slightly deeper than the other centre-back.).
Perhaps the like of Sergio Busquets of FC Barcelona could possibly play as a sweeper; both pass the ball exquisitely, both possess great vision, both have composure in possession, and Busquets particularly, as he has also played as a centre-back for the Catalan Giants.