Why Goal Difference Is Not the Best Tiebreaker for the Premier League Table

Caught your breath yet from Sunday’s Premier League season finale excitement? What a way to end the 2011-12 season. After 38 games, the table doesn’t lie, or so says the time-honored cliché, and Manchester City is deserving champions.

With that said, I’ve been surprised at how little outcry there has been, or discussion at the least, about using goal difference as the first tiebreaker when determining final positions in the league table. I’m not exactly sure why that method has been so accepted for so long and not questioned at all. Could it simply be because that’s how things have always been? If that is the case, that’s ridiculous.

By looking purely at goal difference, we gain, admittedly, a pretty decent picture of how the table is ordered by points. Logic tells us that the best teams win more games, outscoring their opponents and thus accumulating a better goal difference. On the flipside, teams near the bottom will have lost more games and thus accumulated a worse goal difference. Just as a broad, general tool, goal difference can be a useful tool to capture the state of the league.

Broad and general is not good enough, though, when millions of pounds in prize money and potential European qualification places, as well as relegation, is on the line. Using head-to-head results is by far the better method to order teams, one that actually prioritizes what the tied teams have done against each other. If teams are tied, and the definition of “tie” is that they are supposedly equal, surely the best way to determine who is better would be to look at how they fared on the field. Goal difference can be fluky, and significantly altered by just one or two good or bad results with high-scoring final outcomes. But it must be said that whether goal difference or head-to-head results were used Sunday, Manchester City still would have been crowned champions.

Liverpool, however, finished on 52 points, good for 8th-best in the league but exactly equal with Fulham in wins, draws, and losses. Even though Fulham beat Liverpool twice this season, they finished in 9th, behind Kenny Dalglish’s woefully disappointing outfit. Why? Because Liverpool managed a superior goal difference.

West Brom, who had a terrific season under Roy Hodgson, lost to Swansea home and away but finished ahead of the Swans on the basis of one goal scored, the second tiebreaker behind goal difference. Norwich City, who like Swansea had a fantastic first year in the Premier League, tied on points (47) with both Swansea and West Brom, but finished behind BOTH of them despite defeating Swansea twice and splitting victories with West Brom. That dastardly goal difference again, up to its unjust tricks. If head-to-head was used instead, Norwich (with 9 points gained from their 4 games against tied rivals) would finish in 10th, ahead of Swansea in 11th (with 6 points gained) and West Brom in 12th (with 3 points gained).

According to the Liverpool Daily Echo, figures from the 2010-11 season indicate that each higher place is in the standings is worth an extra £800,000 in prize money. Fulham, for me, should be awarded that ahead of Liverpool, and Norwich an extra £1,600,000. On the flip side, of course, Liverpool would miss out on £800,000, and West Brom would lose £1,600,000, a nice bit of cash for a mid-table outfit.

You may think to yourself, “£800,000?? That’s nothing”. In some cases, to some teams, you may be right. However, Sunderland bought the outstanding young left winger James McClean for £350,000 from Derry City last August. Shaun Maloney, who had a terrific game for Wigan against Manchester United in April — getting a goal and helping lift Roberto Martinez’s side out of the relegation zone — cost the Latics only £1 million. Swansea paid £1.6 million for Michel Vorm — one of the best goalkeepers in Britain this year.

Good, inexpensive players can be found through scouting and development. Extra prize money can go into the transfer kitty, pay loan fees, or help pay wages.

It’s not just prize money in the hundreds of thousands of pounds or few million. What if goal difference decided even more valuable positions like the difference between staying in the Premier League or being relegated to the Championship? Or what about the financial and prestige difference between playing in the Champions League and playing in the Europa League, or even playing in the Europa League and playing in no European competition at all?

If you take a look at the final Premier League table this season, simply organized by goal difference rather than points, you’d find an interesting result. The top four and bottom four teams would stay the same, and that’s to be expected.

However, Newcastle, who everyone would agree had a great season with Premier League Manager of the Year Alan Pardew guiding a team built on cheap signings, finished 8th instead of 5th. Sunderland’s revitalization under Martin O’Neill helped boost them to the 9th-best goal difference, but they still finished 13th in the league. Aston Villa, my favorite club, was simply awful to watch this season yet still managed the 14th-best goal difference, two places ahead of their actual final position. Stunningly, they were only two goals in difference worse off than Norwich, who had a far more impressive season and should have finished 10th, as I mentioned earlier.

The point is, goal difference simply just doesn’t matter that much, at least not enough to be the first tiebreaker when there are, potentially, millions of pounds on the line. Head-to-head results are a better option, one that some other leagues in Europe have been smart enough to implement, including Serie A, La Liga. If it’s good enough for two of the best leagues in the world, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be good enough for the Premier League as well.

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