What Is The Meaning Of A Clean Sheet In Soccer?

A ‘clean sheet’ in soccer is as simple as it sounds. A clean sheet occurs when a team from either side does not concede a goal. Though it is obviously a team effort, the goalkeeper is generally the person who is credited with the clean sheet (especially statistically) and indeed you will frequently hear commentators refer to how many clean sheets a goalkeeper has kept in a season. How many consecutives clean sheets a goalkeeper has kept in successive games. Or if a goalkeeper may be about to break a clean sheet record. This also applies to clubs or teams in general and how well they are doing in regard to keeping clean sheets.

Origin

The term clean sheet originates from an era when ‘scorers’ would track the result of soccer matches on a sheet of paper. At the time if the score-keeper did not have to write anything on his sheet of paper then the paper would stay clean and hence the term developed. Reporters, fans, and pundits alike simply did not have access to the myriad of modern-day technology we have today. So they would just keep track of how many goals had been scored in a game by writing them down on paper. Simple but effective!

During the course of this article I will explain how the term clean sheet has continued to evolve from its origins and highlight some classic examples of games which ended with clean sheets as well as clean sheet records and their importance.

Clean sheet vs a no score draw.  

Ok before going on to look at some examples it is important firstly to explain the difference between the two above terms for they are commonly confused, miss-understood and miss-used. This is important for they can yield vastly different results!

Clean Sheet:

  • A clean sheet can be said to occur when any team and their goalkeeper do not concede a goal during the course of a full match. For example a clean sheet is classified as such when any team does not concede a goal within 90 minutes or added time of a normal match. Whilst in cup matches to be awarded a clean sheet the goalkeeper and team must not concede a goal for the whole 120 minutes plus any stoppage time.

*Note however, goals conceded in a penalty shoot-outs do not apply. So providing a team does not concede a goal before this, a clean sheet is awarded.

No score draw:

  • A no score draw is different from a clean sheet in that both competing teams do not concede a goal in the respective 90/120 minutes and stoppage time play. So basically the game ends 0-0. Or as it is frequently referred to ‘nil – nil’   

A soccer game however that finishes 0-0 is statistically considered a clean sheet for both teams. 

What is the imporatance of a clean sheet in soccer?

Well quite simple a clean sheet in soccer is always of utmost importance for it means you can never lose a league game – a no score draw would be the worst result you would achieve if you kept a clean sheet . Thereby your team is guaranteed at least 1 point if it keeps a clean sheet. Similarly in cup matches if you achieve a clean sheet the worst that can happen is that you go out on penalties, which a lot of purists consider somewhat of a ‘lottery’ anyway.

To explain in more emphatic yet basic terms, in soccer you are always seeking to score more goals than the opposition, because if you do then you win the game which is your ultimate goal. So keeping a clean sheet in a match is a rather good way to do that!

Games involving clean sheets in soccer are boring?

There is a wide miss conception that games involving a clean sheet in soccer, likely must have been a boring game. This is a total fallacy some of the most entertaining matches in soccer history have seen one side keep a clean sheet whilst the other side has not been so fortunate shall we say – yet still contributed to the game.

Take a look at the following video and you will see what I mean. Crystal Palace are thumped 9-0 by the great Liverpool side of 1989 yet the match could never be described as boring with Crystal Palace even having their moments.

Moreover, just listen to the atmosphere and look at the performance and I think you’ll agree a clean sheet by one side does not necessarily mean the game will not be entertaining. Indeed, Crystal Palace may have lost by a huge amount but nevertheless gave a decent account of themselves. They even hit the post from a free kick and missed a penalty! So a clean sweep and a zero in the score line doesn’t always tell the whole story.

Games involving score draws are boring?

Again just because both sides keep a clean sheet in the game does not mean that the game has not been a great game. Take a look at a very good article from the respected British publication ‘The Guardian’ complete with descriptions of some for the finest score draws in history.

So again a game cannot be judged solely on whether one or both teams do not score a goal.

Games involving a deliberate clean sheet are a disgrace!

Well here this is actually a truism. For one of the most infamous and despicable games in soccer history actually had this occur. The ‘disgrace of Gijon’ was a World Cup match in which this sadly occurred due to collusion by both sides. The tragic event is worth an article on its own and cannot be done justice by just a few words so I will just provide you with a video link which humorously yet tragically shows what happened

As you will have heard if you watched the video this led to FIFA changing the World Cup rules. In future all final group games would be played on the same day and at the same time, so no side could seek an advantage by knowing another teams result in advance.

You will note in modern day soccer leagues around the world, the same also now occurs. All teams kick off their final league matches on the same day and as much as possible at exactly the same time. This again prevents a team being able to gain an advantage by knowing the result of a rivals score. 

Nb it can be quite amusing on the final day of the season however to watch fans on their mobile phones checking the scores of rival matches and then relaying it to the players on the pitch, particularly in the last few minutes. One famous example of this actually occurred in the 1994/5 season where Manchester United needed a victory at West Ham and Liverpool to beat Blackburn at Anfield in order to win the title.

The latter actually did occur with a last minute Jaime Redknapp free-kick, but United were unable to beat West Ham despite laying siege to the West Ham goal. Nevertheless ‘real time’ information was constantly being relayed between the two grounds and you can often tell when something has happened due to a huge cheer erupting around the ground though nothing has actually happened on the pitch. It means something favorable has happened somewhere else!

Clean Sheets the tactics

Ok so we know that clean sheets are pretty essential if you want to be successful in soccer. Subsequently you will find that teams as a whole will work very hard to ensure they achieve one. Traditionally it was the job of the defense and the goalkeeper to ensure a clean sheet. But this is now a very outdated concept. Though the defenders and goalkeeper still work hard as a unit and pride themselves on keeping clean sheets. Midfielders and forwards are now expected to exert constant pressure on the ball to help ensure a clean sweep can be achieved.

Previously employed, semi advanced tactics have developed; the best soccer sides throughout history were always taught and said to have ‘defended from the front’, which basically means the forwards harried the opposition defense and gave them no time to settle on the ball. These days however the ‘high press’ and indeed constant pressure on any player with the ball is the favored tactic. 

  • Why?

Well if the playmakers or star strikers in a side have time to work their magic then the chances of them scoring or creating goals is greatly increased. If they don’t then it’s greatly reduced. If you watch the English Premier League players and sides in action for example, you can see how this is best exemplified. New players to the league from abroad even commenting on how they have so much less time on the ball than they do on the continent such is the speed and intensity of the game.

Some recent examples of a clean sheet and their importance! 

Two examples of a clean sheet of major importance were

  • Germany 1 Argentina 0 in the FIFA World Cup Final of 2014

and 

  • Liverpool 2 Tottenham Hotspur 0 in the 2019 Champions League Final.

For not allowing a team to score on the biggest of all stages obviously gives you a great chance of winning. Moreover, if your side is dominating the game and has a defense renowned for keeping clean sheets, then this also places great pressure on the opponent. Thereby in turn leading to mistakes and the opportunity for the defensively solid and dominating team to score. 

The two above examples are cup competitions but would it surprise you to know that in Chelsea’s 2004/5 Premier League Championship winning season Petr Cech recorded a record 24 clean sheets out of only 38 games? 

Allowing the opposition the opportunity to score in only 14 games not surprisingly gives you a rather good chance of winning the league as even if they opposition scores in those 14 games it does not necessarily mean they have won the game. Clean sheets therefore are a vital component of both successful league and cup winning sides.  

Just to clarify though a clean sheet doesn’t mean that no goals were scored during a game, but it does mean that at least one team has prevented the opposition from scoring a goal during the game.

Some clean sheet records! 

Goalkeepers are obviously absolutely integral to the keeping of a clean sheet and a successful side. Check out the following article for it perfectly illustrates how some of the best sides in world football ever, have also had the best goalkeepers in the world at the time. Their record of cleans sheets absolutely astounding.

Moreover, here is a more modern article which highlights the goalkeepers who have kept the most clean sheets since the year 2000.

Finally here are the keepers who are currently regarded as the best keepers in the world by clean sheet statistics at the moment. 

You will note that most are well-known keepers who play for hugely successful clubs Ederson ( Manchester City), Alisson (Liverpool), Edouard Mendy (Chelsea), Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich), Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid). Looking at the other lesser known entries and what their clean sheet records have helped their clubs achieve however is perhaps more important. For whilst the previously mentioned keepers all have great teams that help them achieve clean sheets. The other keepers clean sheet records are to a football purist arguably are more impressive as they are not part of all conquering teams with rock solid defenses and eleven of the best players in the world to protect them.

Conclusion – clean sheet. 

From this article you can see that obtaining a clean sheet in soccer is a vital part of the game. The team as a whole needs to contribute to it but the keeper is the ‘main man’ who is pivotal to effecting it. A good goal keeper who keeps clean sheets is essential to a successful side: What is often missed however is that a good goal keeper who keeps clean sheets for an unsuccessful side is arguably more important – for he can help them avoid relegation and the terrible pitfalls associated with it. Something which is discussed in my article about relegation in soccer here.