What Is A Clean Sheet In Soccer? (Full Explanation)
In soccer, a "clean sheet" refers to a game where a team prevents the opponent from scoring any goals or points.
For instance, a girls’ high school basketball team from Texas once won a game 100-0. They prevented the opponent from scoring a single point, which means they kept a clean sheet.
This situation is very rare in high-scoring sports such as basketball, but there are such cases.
In the same way, the team that prevents the other from scoring a goal in soccer keeps the clean sheet. That term varies a bit in American culture where it is sometimes referred to as a “shutout” instead.
There are also situations where the clean sheet goes both ways, in games that end 0-0.
Considering the fact that soccer is generally a low-scoring sport, the chances for clean sheets on one or both ends is higher than with others.
Where Did the Term "Clean Sheet" Come From?
The popular explanation for how the term clean sheet was coined comes from a time when people recorded scores on actual sheets of paper.
Back then, when a team scores a goal, the number would be written on the sheet of paper for that team.
The implication of this for teams that failed to score is that they ended the game with an empty sheet of paper - a “clean” sheet, so to speak.
In soccer, finishing a game with a clean sheet has positive effects on the team.
For starters, goalkeepers and defenders are often judged by the number of clean sheets they keep, although this applies more to the former than the latter.
As a goalie or a defender, you spend most of your time in training sessions trying to improve your ability - tactically and technically - to limit the chances that your opponents create to score goals.
When match-day arrives and your team manages to keep a clean sheet, the satisfaction that comes with knowing that your work paid off is a confidence booster for the next game.
Clean Sheets & the Points System
Additionally, the points system adopted in soccer benefits teams that keep clean sheets.
In a league-scoring system, 3 points are awarded for a win, 1 point for a draw, and 0 points for a loss. This means that whichever team outscores the other always wins the game and the 3 points.
So, if a team keeps a clean sheet in a game, it guarantees 1 point without scoring a goal. If they keep a clean sheet AND score a goal, then they win.
The guarantee of a point is a major reason why teams try to keep a clean sheet. The need for this becomes even more pronounced when a smaller team is playing against a superior team.
We’ve seen many cases where the small team deliberately plays a defensive game, leaving little in attack because they are focusing on winning at least a point from the game.
In fact, some of the most memorable “underdog” wins in soccer history have come as a result of this approach.
The Latics and The Greeks...
These teams are two of the biggest winners in soccer history from playing a game and keeping a clean sheet.
The Latics vs Manchester City
“The Latics” is the nickname of English club side Wigan Athletic who currently plays in the third tier of English soccer -- the League One.
Two of the most memorable games in the club’s history were 1-0 wins against English powerhouses, Manchester City, and one of those wins won the club a major title in the F.A Cup.
That F.A Cup final in 2013 was supposed to be a walk in the park for City, but they got more than they bargained for as Wigan matched them in attack and defense.
To be fair, Manchester City player Pablo Zabaleta got a red card in the 84th minute, before Wigan scored in injury time seven minutes later.
Yet, the fact that they managed to keep the City attack out for that long is in itself a huge achievement.
Fast-forward five years later in the same competition, but this time in the fifth round. The Latics beat Manchester City again 1-0 to advance to the next round of the competition.
That particular win is a prime example of “shutting the opponent out” from the perspective of the team’s goalkeeper and defenders.
Despite having 83% possession, and 29 shots to Wigan’s 4, Manchester City conceded a 79th-minute goal from Wigan’s Will Grigg, and it was enough to seal defeat and give the Latics another memorable win.
The 2004 Greeks
Perhaps even more impressive than the achievement of the Latics was the manner by which the Greeks won the Euros in 2004.
After an indifferent performance in the group stage where they scored 4 goals and conceded 4 in three games, the team grabbed 1-0 wins against France and the Czech Republic in the knockout stages, before defeating Portugal (for the second time in that competition) 1-0 in the final.
At the time, Greece was known for grinding out wins by frustrating the opponent with their defensive tactics and “boring” style of play, but it worked out extremely well for them that year.
This strengthens the plot that smaller teams often have to focus on a defensive game that helps them to keep a clean sheet when playing against significantly better teams.
In modern soccer - especially in the top leagues, clean sheets are a bit harder to come by than they used to be in the past.
This is a result of the way the game has evolved with teams favoring expansive, attacking soccer that fans enjoy watching instead of tactically disciplined, defensive alternatives.
Yet, clean sheets are still a crucial part of the game, and they will remain a metric for judging defensive players and goalkeepers - at least for the foreseeable future.