For any football manager, a win is always the first priority. But second to that is almost always a clean sheet, as it’s the ultimate demonstration of when a team is functioning cohesively and with a defined structure. After all, if a team can keep the score at 0-0, all they have to do is score one goal to win the game.
If scoring really is the hardest thing to do in football, then, arguably, the best thing a team can do is to reduce the number of goals needed in order to win.
The importance and frequency of clean sheets have changed throughout the years, but in the modern day, there’s no denying that clean sheets can lead to success over a long period of time – as we will show. Here, we will attempt to establish how often we see clean sheets, why some teams are able to achieve them more than others, and how tactics massively impact the regularity with which we see them.
How Common Were Clean Sheets In The Past?
When compared to other western sports, football has never been exceptionally high scoring. With this in mind, scores to nil have been a common occurrence since the laws of the game were first codified.
However, that isn’t to say that the regularly of clean sheets have remained consistent. Today, we are used to seeing sides ‘park the bus’ and make it difficult for the opposition side to play. However, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always like this. Before ‘Cattenacio’ was perfected, defensive football was a rarity, especially when it came to the international game. We see this best in the FIFA World Cup.
Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1990 World Cup in Italy, some 60 years after the inaugural tournament, that we finally saw a team earn a clean sheet in the Final. Prior to that game (in which West Germany won 1-0), every team had scored at least once in the World Cup Final. Compare and contrast this with finals in the modern era, and it really is night and day.
Since 1994, five of the seven finals have involved at least one of the finalists earning a clean sheet. But is that change just down to tactics, or are there other reasons we can point to? Personnel naturally has a big bearing on the final score of a match. Better defenders will invariably concede fewer goals, and it’s certainly true that in the 1990s and 2000s, some of the greatest defenders the game has ever seen were at the peak of their powers.
Primarily, however, it does seem like the general tactical shift towards more defensive play can be regarded as the key factor for why we started to see more clean sheets after the 1980s. But more on that later.
Clean Sheets In Finals
Finals, regardless of the competition, have a tendency to be tight and cagey affairs. However, is that reputation especially fair, and if so, do we see more clean sheets in finals than we would do in league matches?
To try and find out, we thought it best to assess every final from two of the world’s premier competitions – the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League. Looking at only finals since the turn of the millennium, we can immediately spot some interesting trends in regard to clean sheets. For instance, in the FA Cup, 17 of the 23 finals since 2000 have had at least one clean sheet, with two of those matches ending 0-0.
The Champions League returns altogether different results. Contrastingly, only eight of the 23 finals since 2000 involved one of the two sides earning a clean sheet, while only one of those finals ended 0-0. While there is no apparent reason for this discrepancy, we can observe that, in general, two Champions League finalists will be more evenly matched than the FA Cup finalists.
For instance, on two occasions, second-tier clubs (Millwall in 2004, Cardiff City in 2008) reached the FA Cup final, where they would predictably be on the end of a shutout defeat to technically superior opposition.
By contrast, Champions League finals tend to be played out between two supremely talented sides, and it’s arguably much harder to reach the final in European competition than domestic. Whatever the cause, it’s curious to note that around 75% of FA Cup finals since 2000 have had at least one clean sheet, while only 30% of UCL finals did.
The Premier League Era
The Premier League is probably the best case study to highlight just how much managerial changes and tactical trends have impacted the number of clean sheets recorded in a single season. One of the most significant shifts towards defensive football came in the summer of 2004, with the arrival of Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and Rafael Benitez at Liverpool.
Over the following seasons, both sides would become famed for their defensive resolve and ability to shut out the opposition. Indeed, between 2004 and 2009, we saw some of the stingiest defensive records in Premier League history. This is best exemplified by the list of sides that recorded the most consecutive clean sheets in EPL history, with four of the top five playing between 04 and 09.
Manchester United still hold the record with 14 in a row, which was achieved during their title-winning 2008/09 campaign. Mourinho’s Chelsea are next, as in 04/05, they recorded ten consecutive clean sheets. Just below them (all on eight) are Chelsea 06/07, Arsenal 97/98 and Liverpool 05/06.
Since then, and perhaps to the relief of many fans, the trend has been towards more goals. This has naturally impacted the number of clean sheets we see on average, as since 2015/16, no more than 226 clean sheets have been recorded in a single EPL season. The figure came from 2017/18, although last season’s tally of 224 came close to topping that.
Clean Sheets Per EPL Season Since 2015/16
|EPL Season||Number of Clean sheets||Percentage Clean Sheets|
You can see from the table above that a figure of 200+ clean sheets is common for a Premier League season. With 380 matches per campaign, that’s over half of the games that will feature a clean sheet.
It’s not uncommon for a match to contain at least one clean sheet, therefore, but it is uncommon for one team to dominate the statistic.
Which Premier League Teams Get The Most Sheets?
Throughout the entire history of the Premier League, you might not be surprised to discover that the most successful sides have tended to earn the most clean sheets. Across all 30 seasons, Manchester United top the list for the most clean sheets with 472 – or 43.5% of all matches played.
Chelsea are next up, which makes a great deal of sense when you consider the Mourinho years. The Blues are just 17 clean sheets behind United, while Arsenal and Liverpool are joint-third on 428 (39.5%). The drop-off from the top four to fifth-placed Everton is quite stark, as despite playing every season in the Premier League, they have 345 clean sheets to their name – over 100 fewer than Chelsea.
Premier League Teams With The Most Clean Sheets
Now that we’ve established just how common clean sheets are in domestic football, how about on the international stage? An excellent place to start is with the most significant global competition of all, the FIFA World Cup.
Last time out in Russia in 2018, we saw a total of 33 clean sheets recorded from all 64 matches. Brazil, Uruguay and Sweden earned a clean sheet percentage of 60% while in Russia, which was a tournament high. Eventual winners France had four clean sheets from seven games (57%), while a remarkable 13 teams didn’t record a single shutout between them.
Four years prior, in Brazil in 2014, it was a very similar story. Once again, 60% was the best return, this time by Costa Rica and France, who each earned clean sheets in three of their five games. Just below, Argentina, Holland and winners Germany each finished on 57%. There was a slightly higher number of clean sheets compared to Russia at 37, while 12 teams this time didn’t earn a clean sheet during the tournament.
For comparison, the most recent European Championships, Euro 2020, had slightly more clean sheets per matchday. Out of the 51 matches that were played, there were 27 clean sheets, with nine teams going without. Host nation England recorded the most, with a very impressive five from seven – or 71.43%.
Every World Cup Final With A Clean Sheet Since 1930
|World Cup year||Host nation||Result||Scorers|
|1990||Italy||West Germany 1 Argentina 0||Brehme (pen)|
|1994||USA||Brazil 0 Italy 0 (3-2 pens)||–|
|1998||France||France 3 Brazil 0||Zidane (x2), Petit|
|2002||S. Korea/Japan||Brazil 2 Germany 0||Ronaldo (x2)|
|2010||South Africa||Spain 1 Netherlands 0 (AET)||Iniesta|
|2014||Brazil||Germany 1 Argentina 0 (AET)||Gotze|
Why Do Clean Sheets Occur?
The answer to this question is simple on the surface. Far from it being a great secret, it just comes down to a side being able to defend well for the entirety of the game. However, as we all know, football isn’t quite as simple as that.
Sometimes the importance of a match can neutralise it as a spectacle, meaning that one – or both sides – are too nervous to over-commit in attack. On other occasions, attackers can lack the all-important clinical edge needed to score, producing more clean sheets than would otherwise be the case.
One of the main reasons why we see more clean sheets today than in decades gone by comes down to tactical developments. In a sport where keeping the ball out of your own net is imperative, it behoves all managers to think long and hard about their defensive setups.
Where it might have been more of an afterthought, today, a solid defensive base is seen as paramount to attaining any success. We’ve seen this with the development of defensive midfielders since the early 2000s and the so-called ‘parking the bus’ approach, where a team will sit very deep and soak up pressure.
These trends have been counteracted in recent times, with possession-based play and attacking full-backs like Trent-Alexander Arnold changing how we view football. After all, no matter how well some defenders play or how perfect a manager’s masterplan is, stopping their goalscoring machines can sometimes be impossible against attacking forces like Manchester City or Liverpool. But the quest to do so, as hard as it may be, is the reason why a clean sheet remains so coveted by defenders and coaches alike.
It’s little wonder that a clean sheet continues to be something so sought after in the modern game, with each being so difficult to attain.
While they are a relatively frequent occurrence, that shouldn’t detract from how difficult it remains to shut out an opposing team for 90 minutes.
As we’ve shown, the rate of clean sheets does vary depending on the league and time period, with certain trends impacting that rate massively. And yet, through it all, a clean sheet has remained one of the best barometers for success at the highest level.