At the professional level of the beautiful game, the decision in which to play a straight back four or a stopper-sweeper system is made by a top team official. When it comes to your local Sunday league team, however, the defensive system you employ is rarely made by a “coach” individual.
With Sunday league teams, a common practice is “winging it,” attempting to employ each system at the most opportune moments, depending on factors stemming from the opposition (most commonly the speed of the other team’s forwards).
In this debate of a defensive system, that considers all the defensive players and not just the centre back pairing, an argument can be made for either.
What then are the pros and cons when it comes to the stopper – sweeper system? The positives for an efficient and properly employed stopper-sweeper system are many, but perhaps the most important is the stability and strength that it gives to the centre of a team’s defence.
With a strong tackling, fast, and stamina filled stopper, a team can easily pair this position with defensive midfielders to absolutely shutdown opposition centre forwards and attacking midfielders.
Wing-backs may also choose to pinch in on defence, forcing the ball wide while relying on wingers to help in defending. With a reliable sweeper, any ball sent over the top of a pinching wing-back or any ball that passes the stopper, can easily be cleared or turned into a counter-attack with a good first touch.
When a stopper-sweeper system is employed with four individuals that understand the tactical positioning and awareness of the game, this system can thwart almost any opposition attack. The pitfall, however, is the gap it leaves in the centre of defence. With any team, in any league, there will always be opportunity to attack.
The stopper-sweeper system leaves open opportunities in its gaps on the left and right of the sweeper when an opposition counter-attacks quickly. A covering sweeper will also be forced to shift out of position leaving his back vulnerable, allowing for an opposition to double up on the remaining wing-back, forcing the stopper to recover before an opportunity comes from it. This system allows for greater attacking movement as the stopper pushes the midfield forward, acting as an anchor man; spreading short balls to teammates who in turn look to start the attack.
In this ability to help the attack lays the advantage of the stop-sweeper system to the straight line defence approach. The negative side of a straight line is that it forces a midfielder to occupy the space that a stopper would, effectively removing that midfielder from the attacking third of the pitch.
In the case of a team like Real Madrid, however, that have a defensive playmaker such as Xabi Alonso, they are not hindered by removing him from the attacking third. It must be shown, also, that when Alonso is absent from the lineup, Madrid struggles greatly to move the ball and create chances.
The straight line defence makes up for its attacking deficiencies with its defensive capabilities, ensuring that the centre is always covered (either by a centre back, or the defensive midfielder when a centre back switches to cover his wing-back). The straight line is easier to operate, as both centre backs have a clear wing-back to cover, and the offside trap becomes feasible.
In the stopper-sweeper system an offside trap is nearly impossible, as the sweeper must remain in a relegated position. The defensive security and relative simplicity offered by the straight line is what makes this system far more popular.
A combination system is an excellent compromise in strategy, if the players are able to execute it. When attacking, one centre back becomes the stopper and advances into space that would normally be occupied by the defensive midfielder, while his partner would convert to a sweeper and cover the centre.
When defending, they would switch back to their defensive positions in a straight line and operate in that system instead. A compromising system requires a stopper centre back with the tactical awareness to read a play progressively, detecting a possible counter attack before it happens, so they can recover their position in the straight line.
When choosing a system for your Sunday league team take as many factors into consideration as possible. Consider the pace of your players, their tactical reading ability of the game, their strength on the ball, the voice of your keeper in calling out instructions, etc.
Start with a straight line defence and experiment as the game goes on. If you see that your team is controlling the play and has the better possession score, switch to a stopper-sweeper and attempt to take advantage with greater attacking numbers. Experiment as you go and choose what works best for your team.
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