Just as Roma was not built in a day, you cannot create a successful tactic in one season. Especially not without taking into account the input of the innovations that came before. My 4-2-3-1 tactic is no different. It took me a few months of experimenting with various tactical setups and teams to arrive to its current form. In my second season as AS Roma manager I am about to take a brave new step into the future. But first I will be taking a page from football’s past. From 1960s Russia to be exact. Because today I am highlighting the Sweeper Keeper!
The Birth of the Sweeper Keeper
Once a journalist asked Dynamo Moscow’s and USSR’s national team’s legendary keeper Lev (Lion or Leo in Russian) Yashin about the secret of his success. He famously replied that the trick was “to have a smoke to calm your nerves, then toss back a strong drink to tone your muscles.” This philosophy allowed Lev to stockpile eight domestic and two international trophies.
Lev Yashin’s philosophy may not be applicable to modern game of football as modern athletes are increasingly asked to be health conscious machines, operating at the top of their physical capability. Can you imagine Ronaldo enjoying a pint of beer and a smoke before a big game? Yet Yashin’s style of goal-tending is more relevant today than ever before. Dressed in his signature black (actually very dark blue) and with his black wool cap, Lev Yashin was a feared sight on the competitive fields across Europe. Once they saw the “Black Spider” in goal, the opposition players instantly knew that it would not be an easy day. They even feared him as far as the mist-shrouded Island of Albion.
To say that Lev Yashin could play out from the back would be a huge understatement. Yashin thrived outside of the penalty area, traditional space defined for the keeper. Prior to Yashin, keepers were expected to spend 90 minutes in this area waiting to be called into action. On the other hand, the Russian Lion revolutionized the role of the goal-keeper by acting as one of the first real sweeper-keepers. He had the uncanny knack for anticipating danger, often coming out of the penalty area to intercept crosses, through balls and to run out to meet onrushing attackers. He also perfected his signature quick throw of the ball to begin a counterattack, and was able to command and organize his defenders like no other at the time. To this day, he stands as the only goalkeeper to win the the Ballon D’Or.
Looking for our Lion
Considered by many football historians to be the greatest goalkeeper in the history of the game, Yashin possessed all the attributes of a great sweeper keeper. Firstly, he had an imposing presence in goal due to his tall stature (Jumping Reach) and elite athleticism (Agility and Acceleration). He matched this by his high Positioning sense, Aggression, Anticipation, Bravery, and exceptional Reflexes. Obviously his ability to Command the Area and Rush Out had to be equally great. The best modern equivalent is probably Bayern’s Neuer. Unfortunately, as my Roma had no chances of stealing him away from the German giant, my search was on for a sweeper keeper of our own.
But why am I searching for a new goalkeeper? Particularly after a season as good as our man between the posts, Robin Olsen, had. He put up some quality performances, winning some games single-handed by denying our opposition. Olsen had 28 clean sheets in 50 games, all while maintaining 83% save percentage.
Not too shabby, especially as he won Serie A top goalkeeper award, beating Juventus’ Szczesny and Inter’s Handanovic in the process. But no, it is just that Olsen’s skillset is not what I’m looking for to complement my tactical style. I want my Roma to play Possession football, building from the back with a high defensive line. And while Olsen is an excellent traditional keeper, unfortunately he is not really comfortable playing in the sweeper-keeper role. His rushing out, command of area, passing and acceleration attributes are nowhere near where I want them to be and he is not young enough to improve them. The passing success rate of 82% is also not good enough.
In reality, Roma’s new manager Paulo Fonseca is looking to play 4-2-3-1 with a similar style. One of his first moves as manager was to buy a true sweeper keeper of his own, Pau Lopez. In many ways acquiring Lopez has been a coup, since he is currently one of the best young keepers in Spain’s La Liga. His formative years were steeped in the national Tiki-Taka mentality of building from the back and the important role of the keeper in such tactics. In his matches with Betis last season he was often an active originator of passing plays which is reflected in the game in his excellent passing ability and mentals.
Yet as good as Lopez is, I do not think he is the best sweeper keeper that was available on the market this summer. Naturally I am looking to do better than Fonseca in my save. So without further ado here is my #1 choice: David Raya!
The Future of Football
In my last article, I mentioned how excited I was to acquire David Raya. There is good reason for this. In the last couple of versions of Football Manager, he has become my go-to keeper. No matter which club I play with, I usually turn to David for help between the posts. Firstly, it is because he is relatively cheap to acquire at the start. It is strange to see a keeper of his caliber in a Championship club. When picked up by top league club he usually develops into a leading goalkeeper within a season or two. And this should be no different in my Roma save.
Secondly, I usually acquire Raya because he is still the best affordable young sweeper keeper you can get at the start of the game. It pains me greatly that Roma sold Alisson before the start of FM19. As he IS the best sweeper-keeper in the world right now. But of course there is no way we can get him back. Yet Raya should have enough about him to perform the sweeper duties equally well.
So why my obsession with sweeper-keepers you might ask? Simple, I think that the future of football lies in playing with 11 players able to pass the ball around and control the flow of the game. Gone are the days where the game was played by ten players and the keeper was there as last-resort defender. The implication being if you win and your keeper is idle then you must have had a good game. No, the keeper should be your first attacker as much as he is the last defender. As Thiago Motta implied with his 2-7-2 formation idea, the modern keeper needs to be a pro-active presence in the central group of seven. Because it is much easier to keep possession when you outnumber your opponent in the central area.
When you keep majority of possession, your opponent has less time on the ball. If they have less time on the ball, they have less chances to score. Less chances to score equals less chance to win. In modern game of football, possession is key to winning. Just look at the most successful sides in the world: Barcelona, Man City, and Liverpool. They are all known for dominating possession. And playing an aggressively possessive game (aka possession with intent, or Vertical Tiki-Taka) is inherently linked with using a sweeper keeper. I predict that in the future, every serious team will need to play with one. Just as you cannot win without at least one designated striker, you will not be able to win without a sweeper keeper.
The tasks of a good sweeper keeper are twofold. Launching attacks and venturing out of his box to defend aggressively. He needs to be proactive and aggressive in not only maintaining possession but also in recapturing it. That is possession starts with the keeper. But one bad pass can lead to losing possession. It is up to the sweeper keeper to decide when to run out and make a long pin-point pass that could very well result in a goal (as seen in the video above). He could also come out aggressively to stop an opponent’s move and reverse possession in our favour. In the following video, you can see how Raya likely prevented a very dangerous one-on-one by jumping on the ball before the Napoli’s striker even had a chance.
Even with the world-class sweeper keeper, you have to set up the rest of your tactic to suit him. Otherwise the whole system will fall apart. For example, I try to take advantage of Raya’s superior passing, vision and acceleration by encouraging him to get forward. I do this by playing with a very high defensive line. At the same time I use short passing instruction in order to force him to get as close to my defenders and midfielders as possible before passing. This will not only reduce the risk of a misplaced pass, but will also put the opponent on the backfoot. As the first video above showed, the occasional long pass from my keeper could bypass their midfield. Obviously I would not try this with a keeper who is less comfortable on the ball. Naturally, I set Raya’s duty to Attack.
The rest of the tactic still works as well as it did last season. The team is told to keep as compact as possible by using a very high defensive line and a inverted wingbacks on the wings. If anything our central play has improved with majority of our assists coming from central areas. As much as possible I want my player to focus play and passing through the middle. In this respect, both IF-S and W-A (has cuts inside PPM) will bring the ball inside and drag defenders with them. At the same time Edin Dzeko, our DLF, drops deep to drag a CB with him leaving a gap for a runner from deep (either our shadow striker or mezzala) to exploit.
Roma’s Bright Future
We are currently in 1st place in early May with six more games to go. The title is within Roma’s grasp even more than it was last season. Also the rewards of using a natural sweeper keeper are already starting to show in our season statistics. Roma’s average possession went up from 55% last season to 57%. The other highlight is how we improved in our chances created. Currently we are 3rd in the league in the number of quality chances created, ahead of both Juventus and Inter. What is even more exciting is that 12% of those chances were converted into goals.
In the image above, you can see some of our key stats from last season. And below you can see in comparison how we fared this season. You can judge for yourself …
With some tough games left in the season, can we maintain our winning streak and clinch Roma’s first title since 2001? Or will our Home record (have not lost at home since mid-September) finally shatter? Will Roma be crowned Europa league champion? Find this out and more in the next part of Running with The Wolves!
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