Everyone remembers what it felt like watching a sweeper get the ball on his foot, spot daylight and take off on a 50-yard sprint through the midfield. It was one of the great, truly exciting and almost always unexpected moments in our game.
The classic “last man back” sweeper, the Franz Beckenbauer-type who played behind two central defenders, striding forward to trap strikers offside or carrying the ball into the attacking zone to become a spare midfielder, was once soccer’s tactical centerpiece. Teams won World Cups, Copa Américas, Champions League titles and more with the sweeper pulling the strings.
But it is a position that went out of style in the 1990s as teams adjusted their attacking formations, and by the time Matthias Sammer was putting the cherry on top of his remarkable career at Euro 1996, the liberalization of the offside rule had just about killed off the sweeper entirely.
Over the past dozen or so years, teams have counterbalanced against minute tactical adjustments to the point where we’re at a worldwide stalemate. 50 percent of the globe wants to play a 4-3-3 because they think they can do what Barcelona’s done, 49 percent go 4-2-3-1 because that’s what Mourinho does, and the other one percent are Udinese and Napoli screwing around in a 3-4-3 because, well, what the hell, why not? They’re not going to win anything anyway, so might as well blaze away.
And almost nobody thinks anymore to take the initiative of pushing a central defender into the attack. The chances of seeing someone pick the ball up on the back line and make one of those Beckenbauer-esque 50-yard sprints has just about vanished entirely.
But Houston’s Geoff Cameron may be bringing it back.
Cameron has the ability – both technical and athletic – to play as a new version of a sweeper, one that makes the same surging, forward runs of Beckenbauer and Sammer with the ball, but stays square and plays as a pure central defender without it.
It’s a natural evolution for both the player and the position. Cameron has spent about half his career as a central defender, excelling at the position in 2009 when he should have won MLS Defender of the Year (no offense, Chad Marshall). But personnel losses and Cameron’s innate skills and attacking instincts compelled Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear to play Cameron primarily as a box-to-box central midfielder ever since then.
Over the past two years, Cameron’s played well, but while he’s gifted as a midfielder, he’s not going to make anyone forget Jean Tigana or Lothar Matthäus. Or even Stuart Holden and Dwayne De Rosario, really. He’s not the kind of guy who’s going to work in tight space and create; he’s at his best when he’s on the run, playing one-twos with teammates and putting his opponents into a backpedal.
As the season went on, the Dynamo and their 4-4-2 were solved to the point that Cameron was neutralized as a midfielder. Each of their games became more-or-less a series of Brad Davis crosses. It appeared as if that was the only way they were going to beat you.
Two weeks back, Kinnear finally threw up his hands and stuck Cameron in central defense for what looks like a permanent assignment. Since then, Houston’s fortunes have changed.
Part of that is because Cameron is faster, stronger, better on the ball than anyone else Houston could put back there, and the first rule of soccer is “Play your best player in his best spot.” Cameron’s presence on the back line simply makes Houston a better defensive team.
But another part was moving another natural center back – either Jermaine Taylor or Andre Hainault – to right back. Neither is from the new breed of fullbacks that wants to overlap at every chance (though Taylor had a lovely assist against Columbus), which means Cameron gets something close to carte blanche to step into the midfield and provide the Dynamo with numbers going forward.
Houston has basically thrown out the parts of sweeper that don’t work anymore – playing deeper than two pure central defenders – and reintroduced the characteristic of the position that made the Beckenbauers and Sammers so thrilling: those galloping runs into attack.
It’s become a way to get Cameron the ball when he’s already moving forward into space, a welcome change from a summer of receiving in midfield while swarmed by defenders. This is key, since Cameron runs like a deer and makes surprisingly good decisions on the fly.
Like, you know, a sweeper.
And now the game plan against the Dynamo has changed. All year it had been, “Make sure Cameron never gets momentum out of midfield” — now, coaches suddenly have to figure out how to stop him from getting momentum a half-dozen or so times per game from the back line. Do they tell a forward to man-mark him when he pushes into attack? Do the central midfielders track him? If so, what about the other Houston midfielders?
We got a possible answer to that question in the Dynamo’s 2-1 win over San Jose, when central midfielder Luiz Camargo found room out on the right side whenever Cameron pushed up. That gave him the time and space to pick out Will Bruin for the game-winner. It was just one play, but it hints at a surfeit of new tactical possibilities.
There’s still work to be done, of course. The biggest part will be making sure that the Dynamo’s back four will be on the same page and don't leave passing lanes open.
There’s also the small matter of facing FC Dallas this weekend, a pressing issue since 99 percent of all MLS’ tactical innovation happens when Schellas Hyndman is involved. If there’s anyone who has spent quality alone time thinking about what Cameron’s new role means and how to punish Houston for it, it’s Hyndman.
But however it plays out, it’s nice to see the sweeper in action again. Let’s hope it’s a position that’s here to stay this time.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com.