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History of the Sweeper Keeper: What is it and how it came about

Neuer, Edison, Allison. 3 huge goalkeeping names in world football that most associate with the sweeper-keeper role. Whilst this more aggressive style of goalkeeping has been around for years, it fell out of favour in the 2000s and only began to return through the success of Manuel Neuer’s aggressive playstyle.

However, the role has been around for many decades, with some of goalkeeping history’s most enigmatic, innovative, and well-respected names. Aggressive goalkeepers are integral to modern football, but this form of sweeper-keeper is no recent invention. A sweeper keeper is a very adventurous role that involves a goalie venturing outside their penalty area to intercept opposition attacks and indeed start his own team’s attack using his feet. But when did this phenomenum begin? Continue reading to find out.

What is a Sweeper Keeper?

Before we get into discussing the roles biggest innovator, it’s important to outline what a sweeper keeper is, and how it’s different from a typical goalkeeper.

First, a sweeper keeper must be confident with the ball at his feet. When utilised in this role, goalkeepers are used as an active part of a teams build-up play, often relied upon as a passing option for a team to play their way out of trouble, as opposed to the typical defender-goalkeeper exchange of hoofing it long at the first sniff of the ball. 

Vision, technique, and general passing ability are vital, with possession retention the key benefit of this role, with goalkeepers passing it short, sometimes spraying pinpoint balls to well-positioned midfielders, or on rare occasions should the opportunity present itself, trying an audacious through ball for a striker to run on to and score.

You may think “well that’s just hoofing it, isn’t it?” but the big difference here between a ball-playing sweeper keeper playing the ball for a striker to chase, and a regular keeper hoofing it, is that the sweeper keeper specifically picks the right moment.

In the same way a playmaking midfielder spots a run 50 yards away and lofts a pass over the defence; a Sweeper-Keeper launches a perfectly weighted ball for an attacker making a smart run behind. If the striker is able to break the opposition’s offside trap, they often find themselves 1 on 1 with the other keeper.

Secondly, Sweeper Keepers position themselves much further up the field than typical goalkeepers, in order to squeeze the space between the defensive line and the goalkeeper, making balls in behind much less effective. This is the reason you might see Neuer racing with a striker to get to a ball and winning the battle, playing the ball to a team mate, or in particularly close calls, clearing the ball to safety.

Lastly, Sweeper Keepers need to be able to read the game exceptionally well. An underprepared Sweeper Keeper can be exploited by aware outfielders who catch the keeper too far off his line and lob the marooned goalkeeper from range. To prevent such occurrences, this type of keeper needs to know when to start backpedalling quickly, and when to stay deeper in their own half.

Often, to play the role successfully, the goalkeeper needs to think 2 or 3 steps ahead of the game as a whole, not just the opposition. They need to anticipate where their team might be more likely to lose it and position themselves accordingly, and make the right decision on whether to rush out or stay put. Great Sweeper Keepers combined with well-drilled, high-line defences can make some teams seem impossible to score against.

The Early Years of Goalkeeping

In football’s early years, the state of the game was very different from the way of the beautiful game today. With English Football’s governing body (The F.A) set up in 1863 Football has been around for getting close to 200 years. To illustrate just how different football was back in the early days, simply performing a short pass was unheard of until 1870, with the Nottingham Engineers perhaps the first step to the Tiki-Taka of today. “Lieut. Creswell, who having brought the ball up the side then kicked it into the middle to another of his side, who kicked it through the posts the minute before time was called”

In the world of Goalkeeping, things were also very different. In the early days, goalkeepers would simply wait on the goal line for encroaching strikers. The only thing preventing a player from getting as close as they wanted were defenders, but with 2-3-5 as the formation of choice these days, defenders were stretched very thin.

To further show how alien this game was compared to today, Goalkeepers were only banned from handling the ball in the opposition half in 1887, 24 years after the initial Laws of the game came to pass. Further still, keepers were still allowed to handle the ball in their own half up until 1912. Goalkeepers were known to take the ball in their hands in their own half and drive up the pitch, sometimes shooting from the halfway line.

By 1931, the rules were very similar to today, save for the Backpass and 6-second rules. Still, the playstyle of the goalkeeper was nothing like today, with keepers still typically rooted to their goal line. 

It would take some 15 years and a war embroiling the whole world before someone stepped up to change the world of Goalkeeping forever.

The First Sweeper Keeper

In 1945 a little-known 19-year-old goalkeeper would make his debut for River Plate. Amadeo Carrizo was his name, and he would go on to become the original sweeper keeper. His career spanned multiple decades, playing for River Plate until the age of 42 and making 521 appearances, his goalkeeping was like nothing anyone had ever seen.

Carrizo is widely regarded as the first to charge down strikers, to leave the box to meet through balls before the attacker, and even utilise quick goal kicks to start counter-attacks when the other team were out of position. 

Whilst many think Yashin was the first to use these tactics, Carrizo had been doing it for a decade before Yashin gained notoriety for the same strategies. His play style would inspire some of South America’s most notable goalkeepers, with names such as Hugo Orlando Gatti, René Higuita, and the goal-scoring José Luis Chilavert. 

More than just a gimmick, Carrizo is a legend of the Argentinian game and even innovated when it comes to equipment. He would be again considered the first to don goalkeeping gloves. He didn’t bring these innovations to the team from his first starts, but as Football entered the 50s and Carizzo had earned his place as the first-choice keeper for River, his confidence grew, and he began to implement a crazy new way to play in goal. 

Innovation and Success

Known as “Loco” style, Carizzo’s approach at first drew criticism and brought unease to the fans. It’s understandable too, imagine you have never seen a keeper leave their box, with some only leaving their 6-yard box to claim crosses, and suddenly you’re watching your first keeper maraud outside his penalty area to claim loose passes like some unhinged vagrant.  He even goes as far as to carry the ball up the pitch with his feet, further arising your suspicion that this man belongs in a home for the mentally unwell…

But, despite this initial unease, after a few League titles that were heavily influenced by Carizzo’s brilliant innovations to the role, his antics were considered less and less loco by the week, as the Sweeper Keeper was brought to the public’s attention for the first time. Not only was it entertaining, but it was also hugely successful.

River Plate’s dominance would fade in the last years of the 50s, many of their star players being poached by European teams. Football was undergoing a massive shift in Power as the South American leagues were no longer the pinnacle of football. Still, despite River’s fall from the top, Carrizo would remain River Plates, first choice goalkeeper, until he left in 1968, aged 42.

The only thing missing from his career was success on the biggest stage the World Cup, but sadly the Argentinian team was not in the best of forms during Carrizo’s time in the National team, with Carizzo’s Argentina crashing out of the 1958 World Cup Group Stage to a 6-1 defeat to Czechoslovakia, who themselves failed to progress past the group.

His lack of presence in the international game is the biggest reason as to why he lacks the same recognition as Lev Yashin, who is sometimes attributed as the first to do many of Carizzo’s innovations. But, despite his lack of success for Argentina, he is now considered the father of Sweeper Keepers. Without his influence, the likes of Manuel Neuer, Ederson, Higuita, or even Yashin himself would never have reached the heights they ascended to.

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