Shane O'Bree swoops on a loose ball

The Role of the Midfield Sweeper

By Shane O'Bree

In this position, a player is used as a spare man but has to work hard for his side in attack and defence as well as in the midfield.

Position description
A midfield sweeper must know who is around them depending on the position of the ground they are in and the team set-ups for that area. They must also be able to assess the situation on the ground, whether in the forward line, midfield or defence.

Key relationships
Whether in attack, defence or at a midfield stoppage, they must communicate with their teammates in those areas of the ground. Even though midfield sweepers are free players, they must know who their opponent is and consider
how dangerous the opponent’s positioning is to the team. This may determine where they should be setting up. It is also crucial they know when to attack and defend – they don’t want to desert their defence or crowd their forward line.

Main responsibilities
Their main aim is to get into the right position – as required in defence, attack or the midfield – to help their team. They must be a player who all their teammates trust to do the right thing, and cannot be a lazy player.

Expectations of the midfield sweeper

  • In the forward 50:
    If midfielders go to a forward stoppage, the midfield sweeper must make themselves dangerous to catch their opponent out. If forwards are at the stoppage, they should make a wall to fill in the space where the opposition may go. In general play and when in space in the forward line, they should slide forward and try to kick a goal.
  • In defensive 50:
    They should fill the most dangerous space in their defensive 50. If the opposition has a dominant forward, they should keep an eye on them to cut off their leads. If the ball is kicked long into the defensive 50, they should get back to give their side numbers around the ball when it hits the ground. At stoppages, they should position themselves on the defensive side to be an option their side can feed the ball back to, or in case the opposition hits the ball forward.
  • At stoppages in general play:
    They should set up as a sweeper on the defensive side of the stoppage, as an option for a backwards handball and in case the opposition midfield gets a free run, in which case they can hold them up or get off a quick relieving kick. If they sense the time is right to attack, they should ensure they are on the move to receive a hit-out or a handball on the fly.

Characteristics of successful midfield sweepers
They must:

  • Read the play well.
  • Use the ball well.
  • Be a good decision-maker by hand and foot.
  • Be a good communicator.
  • Not get flustered.

Key points to get across to the player
The midfield sweeper must:

  • Realise their importance in the team structure.
  • Realise it is not all about them – their focus must be on what is best for the team.
  • Have a good knowledge of the opposition and their teammates.
  • Read the play well.
  • Be able to assess game situations quickly.

Specific training for the position

  • A lot of stoppage work at training in all areas of the ground, practising being the spare man.
  • Game simulation where there is one extra player on one side (the midfield sweeper) and that player practises getting themselves free.
  • Watch a lot of video footage of the opposition.
  • The coach should provide one-on-one guidance at team reviews and on the player’s positioning during games.

Scouting the opposition pre-match

  • By the time of the game, they should know how the opposition moves the ball, for instance, at kick-ins, where they kick their goals from and which players they look for most.

Key hints to excelling in the position

  • The player must want to learn.
  • Watch a lot of the opposition’s games via behind-the-goal footage, focusing on its positioning and what worked for it and what didn’t.
  • Watch stoppages and positioning.
  • Watch other midfield sweepers and observing what works for them.

This article appears on page 14 & 15 of the Coaching Edge Magazine (June 2010).

Download the PDF version of the article - including diagrams to explain the role of the midfield sweeper in a defensive and forward stoppage.

Shane O'Bree is a Collingwood Midfielder, currently playing his 13th AFL season after debuting with the Brisbane Lions in 1998.  This article was written as part of the requirements of the AFL/AFLPA Level 2 Coaching Course.

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