Guest post: The case for the defence (part one)

Among Fantasy Premier League managers, Ruth_NZ is known as a straight-talker who frequently challenges FPL norms and conventions. Healthy debate keeps managers alive to alternative ways of thinking, so when he offered to write a guest post about clean sheet potential how could I refuse? Over to Ruth_NZ: 

In search of clean sheets

Clean sheets by GW6Predicting clean sheets is difficult. Bookmakers’ clean sheet odds do not represent probabilities (despite what many people assume) so they are of limited use. A site like FFFix uses a statistical probability algorithm which takes opposition strength into account and typically delivers a clean sheet probability of between 10 per cent and 60 per cent for any given team in any given week – they claim an accuracy of around 65 per cent with this. Historically the occurrence of clean sheets in the Premier League runs at around 30 per cent (meaning six clean sheets on average in a full gameweek) and there are three home clean sheets to every two away. These numbers have been consistent over 10 seasons and have remained close to those ratios every season. And that’s about what we know. We are then into the murky statistical waters of assessing form via “shots conceded”, “big chances conceded” and so on, based on recent games (against different opponents).

My view on statistics is that they can easily become the tail that wags the dog (and in many cases that is exactly what they are for FPL managers). Statistics only interest me if they can be explained by some rationale other than happenstance and variance. In other words, the numbers interest me less than the reasons why those numbers may have occurred. If I don’t see sound reasons I don’t trust the statistics – not as a predictor of what will happen in the future. And predicting what will happen in the future is the name of the game.

I am therefore taking a different approach to the art of clean sheet management here. FPL managers don’t want to be making too many defensive transfers. So which teams can you trust to give you solid defender options over a longer period? Which are the ones to avoid? Which are the ones that are more fixture based? And in this I am not focusing on defenders with special attacking prospects for goals and assists – amongst whom I would include Aleksandar Kolarov, Daryl Janmaat and Seamus Coleman for example. They are another matter entirely – though I would suggest that those types of players are ones you want when their teams have good fixture runs with above normal chances of both clean sheets and goals. For this article, however, it is the clean sheet itself that most interests me.

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Why do teams keep clean sheets?

As an initial concept, it may be interesting to look at the main reasons why a team may achieve a clean sheet in any game. Obviously luck plays a significant part – sometimes the clean sheet rests upon a striker missing from two yards (Graziano Pellè v West Bromwich Albion) or is lost through a 50 yard wonder-strike from a midfielder (Charlie Adam v Chelsea). But in general I’d say there are three main reasons:

  • The team is so dominant in attack and ball possession that the opposition goes into damage-limitation mode – Bournemouth achieved a fair few clean sheets that way last season and it is one reason behind Manchester City’s clean sheet record this season (another being a rejuvenated Vincent Kompany).
  • The team is defensively so well organised and the players are so committed (blocks, tackles, interceptions) that opponents find it hard to create clear chances (a good goalkeeper also helps in this regard, obviously); forcing opponents to shoot from distance is often an element of this.
  • The opponent is weak as an attacking force. A subset of this is the situation where both teams would be happy with a point. This tends to apply more later in the season; the kind of game where caution rules and if it is 0-0 after 60 minutes it will likely stay that way.

Of these, it is the second element that I am most looking for; teams with the character and mindset to fight for a clean sheet as a priority. Attacking form may come and go and a team that is 4-0 up is often prone to conceding a late “consolation” goal anyway as concentration relaxes. It may not matter for the game but it matters for the FPL manager.

The approach I am taking therefore divides the 20 Premier League clubs into four groups with this kind of thinking in mind. I will attempt to explain the rationale of each group as the article proceeds and I may even adduce some statistics in confirmation of the general points. But don’t be looking for a “proof”. I am offering my judgement here and will quite understand if you prefer your own.

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Group A – Defensive priority

Chelsea, Southampton, West Brom, Watford

For Group A, I am looking for two things:

  • The manager bases their team’s approach on defensive soundness and the team is in no doubt about what is expected of them in this regard;
  • The team has demonstrated an ability to put that organisation and mindset into practice.

Chelsea, Southampton and West Brom are obvious. Chelsea had 17 Premier League clean sheets last season, Southampton 15 and they were the two best in the league. It’s clearly not an accident, you only need to listen to the way Mourinho and Koeman talk to know that. It is true that Mourinho is expected to build a team with attacking flair and can’t be as dour as he was in 2004-07 but defensive soundness is nevertheless in his and Chelsea’s DNA. Chelsea may have started the season poorly but it is hard to see that continuing for too long.

Southampton, similarly, are showing signs of settling into their defensive rhythm after changes of personnel and we may well see “Fortress St Mary’s” return before too long. Three clean sheets in six games is pretty fair even as it stands.

I have read much nonsense from various quarters about West Brom because “they concede too many goals”. The fact is they have 14 clean sheets in 24 Premier League games since Pulis took over. That’s not a freak occurrence, he did the same at Palace and at Stoke before that. His players are in no doubt that a clean sheet is absolutely worth fighting for, and they do. If not, they don’t get picked. Personally I am happy to have Pulis’ players fighting for my FPL clean sheet too.

Watford would not have been in this group pre-season – with a new manager and virtually a new team how could anyone know? Even now, six games is a small sample to look at. But it certainly looks so far that they meet the two Group A criteria and they have three clean sheets from the six games to show for it.

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Group A players

The idea of a Group A player is that you can play them in any game, home or away, with a fair chance of a clean sheet (although home games will generally be more reliable). Apart from Chelsea all the teams have defenders cheap enough to be part of a rotation as well. Here are my recommendations:

Chelsea – Asmir Begovic, César Azpilicueta.

Begovic is a snip at 5.0m for a goalkeeper that can be played every week and he should have three months with no game time risk. Azpilicueta also seems good value to me at 6.0m. He can be played every week without worry and he is good for bonus points. If Branislav Ivanovic is sometimes rested for Abdul Rahman Baba then playing at right back will only help Azpilicueta’s attacking prospects in those games – his crossing from the right is much better.

Southampton – Jose Fonte, Ryan Bertrand.

Either/or really, Fonte is the bonus point king in the Southampton defence and capable of the odd set piece goal, while Bertrand will likely get more assists and is 0.1 cheaper. I wouldn’t go for Cédric Soares myself, the fact that he has played 90 minutes only once in six games (despite being fit) suggests he could be left out when you most want him. It depends how valuable the 0.4/0.3 is to you I guess.

West Brom – Boaz Myhill, Jonny Evans.

I may be a little biased here as both are in my FPL team. Myhill could be on borrowed time although he probably still has four to six weeks before Foster returns; Lindegaard was never going to automatically supplant him. As for the defender, I have read quite some nonsense about Dawson’s “attacking prowess” justifying the 0.2 price premium over Evans. Piffle. We are talking about a player who has two Premier League goals in his entire career (Evans has four). People have noticed that he has had a few shots in West Brom’s initial games and allowed the statistical tail to wag the dog. Evans is a far better footballer, he will be better for bonus points and he’s 0.2 cheaper. No contest. The only reservation about Evans is his injury history but regular games may well sort that out, just as they did for Fletcher – repetitively injured at Manchester United but ever-present since moving to West Brom.

Watford – Heurelho GOMES, Craig Cathcart.

Yes, I capitalised Gomes because I can’t believe how little he is discussed. Shot-stopping was always his strongest attribute and he has five save points already in a team that isn’t conceding that many chances. The question was whether Watford would be a well-organised defensive unit and the indications so far are that they will be. Watford rotate well with Palace for defensive purposes and a Gomes/Alex McCarthy pairing would look really good to me for 8.6m. I currently have Myhill/McCarthy and may just switch Myhill to Gomes when the time comes. As for the defender – Allan-Roméo Nyom is a bit too much of a card magnet for me but there is little in it.

In part two, Ruth_NZ’s hunt for clean sheets continues with a look at Swansea City and West Ham United among others.


15 thoughts on “Guest post: The case for the defence (part one)

  1. Ryan says:

    Great article Ruth and I am very intrigued by the 3 reasons as to why teams get clean sheets. I think you are onto something.

    With that in mind though I’m a little confused as to why you still consider rotation. After all Watford and WBA seem to be teams that can get clean sheets away from home due to their mentality. I’d also suggest that Palace wouldn’t be a good rotation option as we know their mentality is to attack and not worry about clean sheets.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ruth_NZ says:

      Hi Ryan

      You’ll see why in Part 2! I am trying to cater for those that want a 3-man defence. But my team is setting-up for 4-4-2 so defender rotation, whilst it will happen, will be less of an issue for me than for some others.

      The point with WBA and Watford is that you have defenders that can play every week, are cheap enough to bench when you really don’t like their fixture and are unlikely to let you down if your bench is called on. If I had a Watford defender I might well play them mainly at home. Evans I will play almost every week.

      I agree totally about Palace, also as you’ll see in Part 2. But McCarthy is an exception.


  2. A great article, Ruth – thank you! However, it will not surprise you to know that I do not in any way accept your diagnosis of WBA – and Pulis – and nor are my views “nonsense”, begging your pardon.

    1. Most importantly, WBA – and, I would argue, Pulis – have clearly been a shambles pre- and early Season.
    2. A disproportionate number of their clean sheets have been away, by your own arguments.
    3. They have indeed conceded an inordinate number of goals, in their other matches.
    4. The current, and previous, mix ‘n match by Pulis of players to their playing positions is, in my opinion, not helping their cause now or in the immediate future. Dawson is a prime case.

    That having been said, I agree with 99% of the rest of your arguments – particularly the bit about the bookies’ odds. The burgeoning reliance on what is essentially a series of rigged markets is beginning to bother me, and I am a little suspicious of the motivations behind it all, too.

    And, furthermore, it is delightful to see you lurking about, and well done to Diva for bringing you in. This is fast becoming my favourite footie blog!!! 🙂


    • Albertini says:

      Great article Ruth, I’m glad to see you posting in here, well done to Diva for that! I second Doos’ opinion, this blog is becoming better each day!

      Looking forward to part two, this will surely help me to decide on my this GW’s FT (Gomez replacement).


  3. Ruth_NZ says:

    Dear Doosra!

    I am banned from posting on FFS so couldn’t say goodbye. A shame because I wanted to thank some people and I had a special “salt of the earth” category for Wakey and you. But there you go, I can thank you now.

    Personally I do think your views about WBA are questionable. But I know you have reasons for them and I much respect the fact that you have your own reasons are aren’t following the herd. We can agree to differ I think. I hope so anyway. 🙂

    Warning: you probably won’t like what I say about Jagielka either. Hopefully the Irons part will pass muster anyhow.


    • CTID Jeff says:

      Very good post Ruth. Looking forward to the next installation! Shame you got banned. I was just a lurker but I had your posts bookmarked and always enjoyed your reading your perspectives.

      I think the key to an optimal defense is a mix of players from your Group A defenses and defenders that like to get forward. If I were to wildcard right now I’d probably go with something like Azpil/Kolarov/Evans/Francis/Nyom.


      • Ruth_NZ says:

        He removed my possibility to post. What is that if not a posting ban? 😕

        The fact is he wants me to back down on certain things and I won’t do so. But this is not the place to discuss it probably, this is Diva’s blog.


    • Hehehe! I think the Irons are treated too kindly by your good self. I haven’t found Jagielka, yet?

      Anyway, I have enjoyed these two well-written articles immensely – although I think you and others are slightly misreading Stoke. Thank you for your kind comments, and I hope that you are back soon, or post here occasionally. I do enjoy your comments, although I think you might take a leaf out of Wakey’s book in terms of style! 😉


  4. Mathan314 says:

    Very insightful and a great read! As a blues fan, any thoughts on Zouma as a cheaper alternative into the Chelsea back line? He’s been getting consistent starts – or is the risk of rotation with Terry too great? Always enjoyed reading your perspective on the game – refreshingly different!

    Thanks Diva for hosting – as a long time lurker on FFS I’ve quite enjoyed your blog since recently discovering it. Keep up the great work!


  5. Cheers for the article. I am surprised you didn’t mention Zouma. I’ve checked some Chelsea forums and the majority thinks he’s nailed. If Terry returns, it seems Cahill is the one who is under threat.


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