The Inquest: Making a case for a sweeper at Arsenal

Speculation continues to abound regarding whether Arsene Wenger will abandon the back 3 after how badly exposed it’s been this season. Last week I expressed my doubts about how well the system works given how reliant it is on Sanchez leading a high press, and opined that Wenger would eventually revert to a back 4, but not quite so soon, given his stubbornness.
On the face of it, continuing with the back 3 is problematic, with the system not fulfilling its objectives of giving us security when the full/wing-backs push forward. Aaron Ramsey tends to get too far forward (to an extent because of Wenger’s instructions to act as a decoy), leaving Granit Xhaka to help with the defence, but Xhaka tends to try to win the ball too high up the pitch, meaning the 3 centre-backs are left entirely exposed to 3 vs 3 and 4 vs 3 situations (or worse).
At the same time, playing with 4 at the back only exacerbates these problems, as the full-backs will still be pushing forward to provide width. Aaron Ramsey will still not come back on defensive duty, and Granit Xhaka will continue to mess up (this was amply evident when we tried playing him in that system last year). Basically, unless Cazorla is fit (which he isn’t going to be till next year, we’re hearing now), 4 men at the back is going to be a massive problem.
So is there a way to make the back 3 work again?
The solution might lie in the modification of our 3 to include a position that has gone out of favour for many years – the sweeper. And more specifically, the kind of sweeper known as a libero.

How would a sweeper fit into this Arsenal team?

A sweeper used to traditionally sit behind the defence – whether a 3 or a 4 man backline – and look to mop up any attacks the other defenders fail to deal with. This was an entirely defensive interpretation of the role, and required other players on the pitch to do a great deal of extra attacking work.
It is possible that Arsenal could use this sort of approach, dropping a sweeper behind the back 3, and instead tasking the wing-backs to be even more attacking, and leaving one man in midfield to ping long balls to the inside forwards and out to the wings. This was the approach that Helenio Herrera’s Grande Inter side used to follow, with Armando Picchi behind 3 defenders and which used Jair on the right and Facchetti on the left (particularly the latter) to get forward and wreak havoc in attacking positions. Theoretically, in Sead Kolasinac and (once he sorts himself out) Hector Bellerin, we have the wing-backs to adopt this kind of approach, as well as a central midfielder in Granit Xhaka who can take on that lone midfielder role.
However, this would isolate us far too much in midfield, making it incredibly difficult to construct any real passing moves, and forcing us to rely on long aerial balls and percentage football. As Hererra’s side found out eventually, this cannot be a sustainable approach, inviting too much defensive pressure and sacrificing too much initiative in attack.
Instead, a more sensible way to utilise a sweeper for Arsenal would be to designate one of the 3 centre-backs to take up the role instead, sitting deeper than the rest of the line. This would allow the other two centre-backs to step up and tackle or press further up the pitch (one at a time, not together), knowing that there is always going to be a man behind. The sweeper would also help plug the gaps that keep opening up on our wings, given how far up the wing-backs push.
A crucial thing to do with he sweeper is ensure that he does not permanently sit deep, but instead take a leaf out of the Beckenbauer book of sweeping and be willing to step out and initiate attacks. A standard 3 man back line becomes quite static, and if the sweeper just sits behind the defensive line, this would be even more static still. However, if the sweeper brings the ball up from a deep position, they can instead help with attacks, and reduce the burden on the defensive midfielders. This is something David Luiz has done admirably for Chelsea ever since they switched to 3-4-3 last season.
This would also address one of Arsenal’s undoings this season, with Xhaka having to receive the ball deep and then come forward with it – using a sweeper to do the job would reduce the pressure on him, and allow Xhaka to be another option for passing in deep midfield positions, which gives us the ability to pull opponents out of shape with approach play. In some ways, this would become almost a hybrid of a 3 man backline and a 4 man backline.

Would this be different from playing a defensive midfielder in a 4-3-3 or 4-1-2-3?

The key difference is how the sweeper’s positioning changes in different phases in the game. A defensive midfielder would play in front of the defence at all times, and venture beyond the halfway line when play moves forward. A sweeper would never venture beyond the halfway line, and their position in respect of the rest of the defence would not be fixed.

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Phase 1 – Ball in our final third (in our possession)

In this phase, the sweeper would begin at the same level or just behind the other 2 CBs. He would then progress out with it, interchanging passes with a CM or WB, stepping beyond the other CBs. He would however stop somewhere between the box and the halfway line.

Phase 2 – Ball in the middle third (in our possession)

In this phase, the sweeper continues to remain ahead of the other CBs, but does not cross the halfway line. He offers himself to receive the ball anywhere across this zone, whether from the CMs, the WBs or the inside forwards (for instance when Ozil comes infield and looks back). He has to be careful to not get caught out pushing forward if any of our players lose the ball in the middle (see Phase 4 below).

Phase 3 – Ball in opposition final third (in our possession or not)

The sweeper remains in position, even if the ball goes for a corner. He no longer offers himself as an option, and needs to be particularly watchful of where the ball is, with an eye to switching to his defensive avatar.

Phase 4 – Ball in middle third (not our possession)

The sweeper drops back to the CBs, allowing the CMs to look and win the ball back, along with the WBs (WBs on opposite flanks should tuck inside). The sweeper doesn’t commit to any tackle unless absolutely necessary when the ball is in this phase, instead directing a CB (or both CBs) to push up if required, leaving him as the last man, who should always look to withdraw and force an opponent away from the central area.

Phase 5 – Ball in our final third (not our possession)

The CBs and WBs drop all the way back to the edge of the box, CMs and inside forwards also come back. Sweeper drops into a free role just ahead of the backline, plugging whatever gaps crop up. He doesn’t act as a CB when aerial balls come in, allowing the other CBs to challenge for these and instead looking to get to the second ball or support whoever is trying to get the second ball.

Who would play this role for Arsenal?

It’s probably evident at this point that the sweeper will have to operate in a very specific manner, and be very mindful to stick to these instructions to stop us from falling prey to the flaws in our standard 3 man or 4 man backlines. A particular concern with a sweeper is always that this stops one from playing an offside trap, or at any rate, makes it easier for opponents to break the offside trap. This concern can be addressed by having the sweeper drop to the level of the CBs in Phase 4 rather than behind them. If 2 attackers have come forward, he can direct both CBs to step forward, and then to minimise the risk of the offside trap being broken, can immediately withdraw to the edge of the box, giving other players time to get back.
The big question is: do we have a player who can perform a role of such complexity? That’s not an easy question to answer.
But I think that Nacho Monreal may actually be able to play the role quite well. He’s got a good head, has shown great composure and resolve over the last three seasons when he wrested control of the left-back spot from Kieran Gibbs, and is comfortable with his defensive duties as well as with taking the ball forward. Take his statistics from last season in the Premier League. In defence, he made the most tackles (90) and second most interceptions (88), which demonstrate his ability to read the game well and effectively snuff out chances – his tackling success percentage was 68% and he made not one error leading to a goal. Going forward, playing on the wing, he made the third most passes in the team (1,753), including 38 accurate long balls. He’s also got decent speed, so isn’t going to get destroyed for pace by anyone.
One obvious objection to him playing the role is that he has struggled when played as the central CB in a back 3, but I think that arose because of the way a non-sweeper back 3 works. He had to get up for aerial challenges as a CB, which is not a strength for him – he lost more aerial duels last season (61) than he won (57), and wasn’t in a position to step forward to the halfway line.
On the other hand, playing the sweeper role as defined earlier would allow him to utilise his best assets for the team. It would also work better for the team, for these reasons:

  • all our CBs except Mertesacker like to step forward to win the ball rather than drop deep, if they know Monreal is sitting deep, either or both of them can do this with more ease;
  • at the same time, it would mean when the ball is moved back that it goes to Monreal who is more comfortable on the ball than our CBs in case he has to get out of a tight spot;
  • it would reduce the pressure on Xhaka to bring the ball up from deep;
  • it would reduce our weakness to attacks on the counter by having him sit deep no matter where the rest of the team goes;
  • it would allow us to stop having to play a CM in a decoy position further afield as the sweeper in the libero avatar will already be pulling focus away from the midfielders and attackers.

Another option in the role could be Mohamed Elneny, who has the passing range to perform the attacking aspects of the role, as well as the calmness in defence to perform the role. Encouragingly, given Wenger’s use of him in preseason as a CB as well as trying out Monreal in the middle of the back 3 means that both of them have some expertise playing this way. You never know, maybe this has been Wenger’s plan all along?

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