By Ed Valentine
What would you say is the most memorable defensive performance in football history? The 2010 Champions League semi final second leg between José Mourinho’s Inter and Barcelona is a famous example as the Nerazzurri maintained strict defensive discipline and sacrificed possession to win 3-2 on aggregate. Or what about Jan ‘The Man Who Stopped England’ Tomaszewski of Poland who denied England a place at the 1974 World Cup with a sensational display of goal keeping? Liverpool fans may champion the reds’ defensive efforts, specifically those of Bruce Grobbelaar, for their performance during ‘that night’ against Roma in 1984.
There are countless other examples and though each is just as memorable as the next it’s likely to be a one off 90 minute display. A sustained season long demonstration of defensive strength is a different proposition entirely. Last season the stand out performers in the EPL were Crystal Palace.
The 2013-14 campaign saw 232 clean sheets kept among the 20 Premier League sides which worked out at about .61 per game or roughly two in every three matches. What is striking is that clean sheets have a different value for each team. Liverpool won every time their opponents failed to score while Swansea’s clean sheets* were more or less redundant as they were not involved in a single 1-0 win and had just one goalless draw. This puts a time specific emphasis on when teams get points from clean sheets e.g at 1-0 being more valuable than at 4-0.
* This does not take into account other factors or dynamics that occurred in specific matches and is not a 100% reliable metric.
Despite keeping 12 clean sheets Norwich found themselves in the bottom three. Relegation under these circumstances demonstrates that they did not score enough in key matches throughout the season. Although West Brom, who avoided relegation by finishing one place and three points ahead of The Canaries, kept five less clean sheets they did manage to win 1-0 at Carrow Road which further highlights the time specific importance of keeping opponents at bay – this was the result, arguably, that kept the Baggies in the Premier League.
Abu Dhabi’s billions may virtually guarantee a Premier League challenge but at the foot of the table clean sheets can help managers rest easy.
All data courtesy of Opta.