“If you can’t win, make sure you don’t lose” are words from Johan Cruyff, one of the greatest minds and innovators the game has ever seen. This statement from one of the pillars of ‘total football’ underlines the importance of defensive displays. The fact is, securing a clean sheet – unlike a goal – makes it impossible to lose.
It’s the same story in Fantasy Premier League. A clean sheet from a goalkeeper, defender or midfielder guarantees points, regardless of individual performance. To the contrary, a dominating display in which a number of goals are scored doesn’t guarantee anything for forwards. No matter how involved they might be in the overarching success of a team.
Take the 2014/15 season, for example. West Brom ranked 9th for total FPL points scored by a team. They also scored an average of one goal per game and finished 13th in the table, conceding 51 goals whilst they were at it.
It was common knowledge that their attacking prowess was distinctly limited for years, sustained by Tony Pulis’ arrival. So how did they manage to accumulate a higher points tally than 55% of the league? Clean sheets. 16 of them in total. That’s how.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but in a way, there’s a little Tony Pulis in all of us. Just as his job security is determined by astute defensive displays, FPL managers’ weekly success, failure and overall mental state often swings in the balance of a single goal.
That said, the logical place to start analysing clean sheet potential is amongst the top six in the Premier League. I think we can all agree that the two Manchester clubs, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham are the six in question.
Barring Martin Kelly (£4.0m), who appears to be the ‘go-to’ bench fodder option, 8 of the 11 defenders with +10% ownership in FPL play for one of the top six. Further evidence solidifies why they are the most prized defensive assets: the top seven highest point-scorers in the 2018/19 campaign, classified as defenders, are from these sides.
With this in mind, my first task was to compare the defensive performances of the top six teams in the previous two seasons (2017/18 & 2018/19). I feel this provides a good balance between present-day tactics/managerial reign whilst being a large enough sample to highlight trends.
There was a total of 456 matches played by the top six in this period, with 183 clean sheets. The top six produced 15.25 clean sheets on average per season, compared to the remaining 14 clubs who averaged 8.89.
I have also looked at the output of clean sheets when pitted against one another. That’s a vital piece of the puzzle for long-term selection or when the crunch fixtures arrive and your FPL backline is looking shaky on paper.
Clean Sheet Trends of the Premier League Top 6
Man City’s Clean Sheet Potential
Unquestionably the best-attacking force in the Premier League, Pep Guardiola has also eradicated any remaining doubt of frailties in defence with the most clean sheets (39) in the last two seasons.
Ever since revamping his backline by upgrading veteran fullbacks Sagna, Zabaleta and Clichy with Mendy, Walker, Danilo and Zinchenko, while reinforcing the spine of the side with the additions of Laporte, Stones and Ederson, Man City have been taking positive steps to concede fewer goals and secure more shutouts every single season.
A total of 39 goals conceded and 12 clean sheets in his debut season, a total of 27 goals conceded and 18 clean sheets in his second season and, last season, a total of 23 goals conceded and 20 clean sheets.
This trend will eventually plateau, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t achieve a higher number of clean sheets than goals conceded next season. Last season, they conceded the fewest shots on target, the fewest shots from inside the box and the fewest big chances.
But it’s Man City’s capability of dominating the big sides which really sets them apart. In the last two seasons, they have kept a clean sheet in 50% of their 20 matches against top six opposition. Their two closest competitors sit at 25% with 5 clean sheets in their 20 fixtures.
Laporte (£6.5m) and Ederson (£6m) are comfortable season-long holds. Walker (£6.0m) will play the majority of minutes at right-back, but will see some rotation, while Zinchenko (£5.5m) offers value at a drop-down price. It remains to be seen whether Mendy’s return from injury will threaten his minutes.
Liverpool’s Clean Sheet Potential
Throughout the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons, Liverpool ranked worst for total clean sheets (23) amongst the top six, despite banking the second-most (6) when facing the top six. Bizarrely, they kept a clean sheet in 25% of their fixtures against the bottom half clubs, while managing a shutout 30% of the time versus the top six.
Fast forward a few years and they’re rubbing shoulders with Man City at the top with 37 clean sheets in 76 matches. To put their massive improvement in this timescale into perspective, Liverpool conceded 50 goals in 2015/16 and finished 2018/19 with just 22 goals conceded.
There are a number of factors to this development, but none more so than the arrival of Virgil van Dijk (£6.5m). I can’t remember a player coming in and having such an influence on a backline. As I mentioned in my article on the best premium defenders, he’s a Rolls-Royce centre-half.
A lot of credit must be given to Alisson (£6.0m) as well. Even with an already vast improvement in the second-half of the 2017/18 campaign, there was still a clear weak link between their defence and goalkeeper. Alisson arrived in preparation for the 2018/19 season and quickly plugged this gap and fused together a backline lacking confidence.
The final piece of the puzzle was the upgrade of Alberto Moreno to Andrew Robertson (£7.0m) in July 2017, along with Trent Alexander-Arnold’s (£7.0m) fast track through the academy into the first team.
All of the players I have mentioned are excellent additions to an FPL squad, however, I’d advise selecting their defenders over their goalkeeper due to their obvious advantages from open play.
Alexander-Arnold is first due to his set-piece responsibilities. Following closely behind is Robertson and Van Dijk. The pair offer consistent bonus points along with their own contribution of assists (12) and goals (4) respectively last season.
Chelsea’s Clean Sheet Potential
Back in the day, with Jose Mourinho at the helm, no one could compete with Chelsea in terms of defensive stability. The Blues registered 18 and 17 clean sheets in the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons as the likes of John Terry and Ashley Cole played out their twilight years.
Their average number of clean sheets hasn’t exactly deteriorated since then. It’s more a case of Man City and Liverpool overtaking them in the last couple of seasons with averages of 19.5 and 18.5 clean sheets respectively to Chelsea’s 16.
We can all agree that Man City and Liverpool were on another level last season. Without the pair, Chelsea topped the defensive leaderboard for clean sheets (16), goals conceded (39), shots conceded from inside (216) and outside (135) the box.
However, they’ve matched Liverpool in the number of shutouts secured against the top six (5) over this period. All of these were held at Stamford Bridge. So if you’re looking to field a Chelsea defender in a tough fixture, make sure you factor in home advantage (which I will discuss later on).
Marcus Alonso (£6.5m) had another productive season in 2018/19, averaging 5.25 points per 90 and chipping in with eight goals and two assists. As his owners will know all too well, the bulk of his attacking returns came in the early stages of the season. After that, his form quickly deteriorated.
Nobody is sure if Lampard will try to implement a high line. If he does, David Luiz (£6.0m) would definitely be the beneficiary. He has great scope when lobbing balls into the channels and attempted the most through balls (41) of any player, in all positions, last season.
Cesar Azpilicueta (£6.0m) arrived in 2013 and quickly established himself as a master of collecting bonus points. Fast forward six seasons and he’s amassed 96 in total, averaging one every 189 mins. However, he struggled in the bonus department last season. Indeed, David Luiz averaged almost double that of his teammate per 90 minutes.
It’s difficult to predict how Chelsea will fare in the defensive third this season. With new management, they will have to adapt rapidly to a new system, new personnel and possibly a new formation. Meanwhile, the likes of Klopp and Pep have already established their principles and have the luxury of fortifying an already solid foundation.
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Tottenham’s Clean Sheet Potential
Mauricio Pochettino’s squad are also very well-drilled. Indeed, Spurs have seen a huge boost in their clean sheet fortunes since his appointment. His debut 2014/15 season was tough (53 goals conceded, 9 clean sheets), but in the following three seasons they averaged 15 shutouts.
Spurs ranked fourth for clean sheets (13) and goals conceded (39) last season. Though not a terrible total, it was still a drop from their expectations. In turn, the starting price of their defenders has also dropped.
Using Chelsea – whose obvious first choice defenders are £6.0m – as an example, I think there’s a lot of value to be found in Tottenham’s defence. I wouldn’t be surprised if they hit the 15-18 range for clean sheets, and personally I have a great deal more faith in Pochettino than Lampard.
Not to mention the addition of Tanguy Ndombele (£6.0m). He’s a huge upgrade on their current crop of defensive midfielders and his physicality and mobility should have a positive effect on Tottenham’s overall structure. In turn, the desirability of their defensive assets increases too.
Jan Vertonghen (£5.5m) is rarely involved offensively, with just a couple of league goals and assists since joining Spurs. With that said, he’s Pochettino’s fourth most-used player (204 apps). He’s a guaranteed starter in a well-drilled side who have played together for numerous seasons.
Hugo Lloris (£5.5m) is an interesting pick, having matched Ederson for points per 90 minutes (4.4) last season. The former saved two penalties and kept 12 clean sheets as Spurs frequently underwhelmed in defence, while the latter was handed a £0.5m price rise in a season where Man City’s backline arguably exceeded expectations.
With Trippier leaving for Atletico, it’s also worth keeping an eye on Serge Aurier (£5.0m) and Kyle Walker-Peters (£5.0m). They will fight for the right-back spot and the majority of league minutes, while the runner-up might have to settle for rotating in for cup fixtures.
Manchester United’s Clean Sheet Potential
Ranking worst amongst the top six for clean sheets (7) and goals conceded (54) last season, Man United will be hoping a full pre-season supervised by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will go a long way in reviving a once dependable defence.
Don’t be expecting any miracles though. They’ve finally filled the void at right-back after a decade of loyal service from Valencia, but are still in disagreement with Leicester City on the valuation of their number one centre-back target, Harry Maguire. It’s hardly a reassuring sight.
Even if they do get their man, the season will kick off shortly after. No time to settle, no time to adapt, no time to get to know his new teammates and surroundings. And, let’s face it, Maguire is nothing special. He might fancy himself to carry the ball out of defence, but is that really the priority when you conceded 1.42 goals per game on average last season?
All in all, it’s a wait and see with United. David De Gea (£5.5m) is one of the best goalkeepers in the world and would’ve been a dream at this price in previous years. Aaron Wan Bissaka (£5.5m), meanwhile, will always be close to FPL managers’ hearts following his breakthrough season at £4.0m.
Welcoming Chelsea to Old Trafford to kick-off the season will be the perfect opportunity to make a statement. If Solskjaer looks to have a grip of things, De Gea and Wan Bissaka could well build on the 120 points they collected apiece last season.
Arsenal’s Clean Sheet Potential
Arsene Wenger’s rule over the bottom-half clubs during the 2015/16 and 16/17 seasons placed the Gunners in second place for total clean sheets over this period. They were consistent against weaker opposition and obviously relied on these fixtures for shutouts.
Things have changed under Unai Emery, and not for the better. Arsenal averaged 14.7 clean sheets throughout Wenger’s final three seasons, while Emery managed just eight – the club’s worst tally since the league was formed in 1992.
Last season, they ranked 9th in the league for goals conceded (51), 15th for shots on target conceded, (182, which is 101 more than Man City) and 12th for big chances conceded (85). It was practically impossible to forecast when they were likely to keep a clean sheet.
This drop off was anticipated by anyone with a basic understanding of Unai Emery’s high risk, high press system. Throughout his managerial career, he’s leaked a lot of goals. In 323 matches managed in La Liga (Almeria, Valencia and Sevilla) he conceded an average of 1.24 per game.
As discussed later, Home Advantage is a big factor in the likelihood of a club scoring or keeping a clean sheet. Arsenal took this to another level with 58% of their goals and, very worryingly, 87.5% of their clean sheets coming at the Emirates last season.
I wouldn’t advise starting the season with any of their defensive players. Despite the countless negatives associated with the Arsenal defence, Bernd Leno (£5.0m) passed the 100 point barrier having playing just 2835 minutes. He’s strong on bonus and averaged three saves per match.
Sead Kolasinac (£5.5m) is always a popular pick. The Arsenal defence saw a starting price net loss, but he actually rose £0.5m in value. This is testament to his attacking threat, which saw him collect an assist every three games on average last season. He’ll also fight off knife-wielding thugs to protect your other Arsenal assets. Which is always nice to know.
Other Clean Sheet Trends of the Premier League
*Note: Wolves have only played a single season, so I have used their average from 2018/19 to give a very rough estimate on where they might rank compared to their rivals.
The obvious takeaway from this table is the gap between Everton and the rest of the field for total clean sheets. They also excel in holding out top-six opposition.
The concerns over their defence – and the belief that Big Sam was far superior in this department – are unfounded. Their average goals conceded per game remained almost identical, with just a 0.04 gain, and they rounded off the season with eight clean sheets in their last 11 gameweeks.
Lucas Digne (£6.0m) and Seamus Coleman (£5.5m) are solid picks and safe to start in all fixtures. Their efforts helped their side shutout Chelsea twice, as well as Liverpool, Man United and Arsenal last season.
Despite collecting fewer clean sheets, I would place Leicester at a similar level. Brendan Rodgers is a fantastic manager and set to work quickly at Leicester City, cutting out defensive frailties to lower their average from 1.39 goals conceded per game to 0.90. For comparison, Chelsea and Spurs conceded 1.03 on average throughout the season.
In my opinion, Ben Chilwell (£5.5m) is a nice alternative to Ricardo Pereira (£6.0m). He gives his owners the peace of mind of guaranteed starts and the odd attacking return, though he lacks the explosiveness of his higher-priced counterpart.
West Ham also impressed in difficult fixtures, with clean sheets versus Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham last season. Manuel Pellegrini has experience of managing at the top and now has a knack for frustrating them.
As mentioned in my best budget defenders article, Ryan Fredericks (£4.5m) is worth keeping tabs on. If he displaces Zabaleta at right-back, he’s well known for his attacking incentive.
Elsewhere, Newcastle are an unknown entity this season, whereas Crystal Palace and Burnley are fairly reliable sources for defensive returns. Though do be wary of fielding their outfield players in fixtures against the top six.
Wolves are another side full of potential at both ends of the park, however, their £4.5 > £5.0 price rise for their centre-back trio makes them inconvenient investments.
If you are eager to own one of their defenders, Willy Boly (£5.0m) would be my first choice. Parting with the extra £0.5m for Jonny (£5.5m) could well be rewarding too.
How Does Home Advantage Affect Clean Sheets?
This section is fairly straightforward. A side playing at home is more likely to perform better and win more matches compared to playing away. Looking at the chart, nothing changes for clean sheets.
Familiar surroundings, the playing surface and the dimensions of the pitch are all contributing factors to this home advantage and the tendency for clubs, especially the smaller ones, to have more possession at home helps the cause.
As Xavi Hernandez once said, “The one who has the ball, is the master of the game”. Unless, of course, you’re Burnley. In which case, the preferred route out of the defence is a pinpoint 90 yard diagonal to Chris Wood!
This impact on clean sheets was most significant in 2010/11 as 66% of them were secured at home. A trend emerged over the next eight seasons, and although the numbers inevitably fluctuated, a 60:40 home:away clean sheet ratio was maintained.
The 2018/19 season continued in a similar fashion, with the total clean sheet tally split 57:43 in favour of the home side. Every club – barring Man City, Cardiff and Newcastle – conceded more goals on the road. Arsenal and Chelsea conceded twice as many goals away (35 & 27) than at home (16 & 12).
FPL Implications (Figure 3)
How Does European Involvement Affect Clean Sheets?
Since 2010/11, the schedule for UEL and UCL fixtures has been unchanged. The group stages are played through the Autumn months (September, October, November), coming to their conclusion in December. Four UCL and two UEL participants from the Premier League is the standard setup.
As you can see from Figure 4, there is a huge contrast in the percentage of clean sheets during August and September. This coincides with the start of the group stages and is evidence that the extra fixtures, which are typically seen as more significant to the English clubs, have a negative effect on the number of clean sheets.
This trend continues for the duration of the group phase, with the percentage slowly climbing into the mid-50s by December. Cementing top spot with games in hand is perhaps one reason for this rise, as managers can afford to rotate for the final fixture(s) and field a stronger XI in the league.
A break in January follows, with the convenience of the transfer window to reassess and reinforce squads. The top sides in the Premier League switch their full attention to the domestic campaign, and right on cue, the clean sheet percentage creeps up once again.
This percentage (57%) holds steady into the next month. This is unsurprising, as the number of monthly fixtures is reduced for the first knockout stage. The majority of Premier League hopefuls make it this far. On average, just one club of the initial six drops out.
In March, both legs of the last 16 are battled out in the UEL and the 2nd leg of the UCL last 16 takes place. The home and away matches exhaust the UEL clubs, while the remainder of UCL competitors play what is likely to be their most intense match of the season. This takes a lot out of them and sees the clean sheet percentage slump.
On average, just 12.2% of the Premier League is left competing in April. In 2013/14 and 2014/15 no one in England’s top-flight made it into the last 8 of the UEL or UCL, which helped boost an already rapid increase of the average clean sheets in the penultimate month of the season.
The season concludes in May, and although just a single club on average remains with a chance of European silverware, the clean sheet percentage plummets. Relegation, qualification for next season’s tournaments and final league standings are in the balance as every club goes for it tooth and nail.
End of Season Variance in Clean Sheets
Figure 5 compares the average number of goals conceded in Gameweek 38 with the average number of goals conceded per gameweek since 2010.
Taking this into account, the final gameweek of the season in which all 20 teams play simultaneously is a minefield for FPL managers, particularly if you’re in need of a clean sheet.
Just take a look at the chart to see how messy those couple of hours can get. The 2012/13 season in which Alex Ferguson waved his farewell in a 5-5 draw with The Baggies, thanks to a Romelu Lukaku hat-trick, was my personal favourite.