For many people, perhaps the only thing more boring than watching hurling teams play with sweepers is listening to debates about the merits of playing with them. But since it seems we are doomed to debate this topic, we can at least aim to do better than the recent exchange of fire between Davy Fitzgerald and Michael Duignan.
The first step to a more fruitful discussion is to recognise that the debate is often overly polarised, as though the options are either traditional 15-on-15 hurling or playing ultra-defensively.
It is more useful to think of a range of different ways in which hurling teams set up, from an orthodox six forwards-six defenders, to an extra midfielder and a two-man full-forward line, to half-forwards dropping back to midfield, to teams playing with extra defenders.
Very few intercounty teams nowadays line up with six forwards in anything like their traditional positions. For instance, while the three All-Ireland semi-finalists other than Waterford each play a three-man full-forward line, they tend to drop at least some of their half-forwards deep, providing extra workers in midfield and opening up more space for the inside forwards.
Kilkenny, so often seen as the most traditional of outfits, have often lined out with a two-man full-forward line in the last few seasons.
These teams depart from the traditional set-up for many of the same reasons that Fitzgerald and Derek McGrath have chosen to play with a spare defender: To provide more cover for their defences, to avoid being outnumbered in midfield, and to open up space in front of the opposition’s full-back line.
For instance, a feature of this year’s championship has been centre-backs staying close to their own full-backs to cover the space in front of goal (Mark Ellis performed this role admirably against Tipp, after a shaky start in which Cork could have conceded goals to runs by Noel McGrath and Brendan Maher through the middle of their defence).
In effect, teams playing in this way are adopting some but not all of the sweeper set-up: the centre-back is covering space rather than picking up a man, much as a sweeper does, but his team is not using an extra defender is to cover that space. One effect of this has been that centre-forwards can find more space by dropping off their man: hence Michael Breen scoring 0-06 from play against Cork, and Pauric Mahony 0-03.
The sweeper system is not as radically different to other formations as it might seem. That said, the system does have certain weaknesses, particularly when it comes to attacking play.
Teams who use the sweeper typically play two or just one man in the full-forward line. The danger is that these inside forwards will be stranded, too far away from their team-mates to reliably win possession or pose a threat.
This helps to explain some of the characteristic failings of teams which play with a sweeper, such as players shooting from too far out or over-elaborating short passes.
The issue here is not simply a matter of how many forwards should be played, but of how to devise a way of playing with a sweeper where the full-forward line can be brought consistently into play, either to score themselves or to lay the ball off to supporting runners from deep.
It has become common to hear that playing with a sweeper makes sense when building a young team, as McGrath did with Waterford in 2015 and Fitzgerald is doing with Wexford.
It provides defensive solidity and makes a team hard to beat. The criticism is that playing with a sweeper will prevent teams from going on to challenge for the highest honours, because it places too much emphasis on defensive structure and restricts their attacking potential.
There is obviously something to this criticism. But any of the tactical variations described above can restrict a team’s attacking potential.
All of them involve playing with fewer forwards or moving some forwards further out the field.
This reflects two major trends in hurling – teams defend as a unit, and defending is no longer just a question of individual battles but of covering off certain parts of the pitch, and denying the opposition time, space and preferably possession in these areas. In other words, defending in hurling is nowadays as much a matter of controlling space as of marking your man, and playing with a sweeper is just one way of doing this.
Playing with extra defenders certainly places more emphasis on these defensive tasks than, for instance, playing with an extra midfielder. But whether it places too much emphasis on defence – whether playing with a sweeper unbalances a team – is a different question.
Whether a team could win an All-Ireland playing with a sweeper mostly depends on the players available, especially the forwards. A team with four or five outstanding forwards, particularly forwards who can win their own ball and who are physical enough to put real pressure on the opposition defenders, would have a decent chance of succeeding with a sweeper.
The Kilkenny team of 2015 could have done so, given the ability of their forwards to consistently win possession. The present Galway team would be another candidate.
Neither of these sides saw the need to play with an extra defender, but for a side with comparable forwards but weaker options in defence, a sweeper might be the best solution.
Donnchadh O’Conaill, Pundit Arena
Listen to this week’s episode of The 16th Man where we hear from Davy Ftzgerald’s fiery press conference and we get the thoughts of Tipp legend John Leahy.