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Is goal difference important?

22 September 2011

Should Spurs have hurt Liverpool's goal difference even more on Sunday?

It was suggested in some corners that Tottenham might live to regret not embarrassing Liverpool even further on the weekend; with both sides likely to be competing for the final Champions League spot in May, Spurs could have dealt Liverpool’s goal difference an early blow.

“It might come down to goal difference” is straight out of the Premier League phrasebook, suggesting title candidates, European hopefuls and relegation scrappers would do well to keep an eye on the next-to-last column on the league table.

Mathematically speaking, however, goal difference at the top end of the table has proved to be almost entirely irrelevant over the history of the Premier League.

Neither the title nor final automatic Champions League place* has ever been decided by goal difference. Meanwhile, only twice has the final Champions League place through qualifying or the final UEFA Cup / Europa League place gone to teams on merit of having a better goal difference, in 1997 and 2004 respectively.

With less scope for variation in point totals, relegation has been decided by this measure five times in nineteen seasons.

Needless to say, there are caveats to these raw numbers.

There’s nothing in the numbers to show the effect of having an inferior goal difference. This is particularly true at the bottom of the table, and you only need to look at last season when Birmingham were forced to commit players forward in the final minutes of the season in the knowledge they were going down on goals scored. They duly conceded a late winner.

There are probably other examples in similarly dramatic relegation battles.

In mid-table, it’s perhaps important to note that each position carries an extra £757,000; last season Newcastle were more than £1.5m better off than Bolton simply for having a marginally better goal difference.

Goal difference has proved largely unimportant at the top of the league though, simply because these teams deal in victories and not damage limitation. In tight competition, most teams would look to secure three points first before focusing on their goal difference.

Even so, it’s still a little remarkable that so few important positions, not least the title, have required more than points as a positional discriminator.

This perhaps gives some support to teams at the top who take their foot off the pedal at two or three-nil; the majority of the time you’re better off resting important players to prepare for the next match than trying to ‘improve your goal difference’, if such a dilemma exists.

Some may point to psychological effects of having an inferior goal difference, with the thought of it being worth half a point influencing some teams to play differently. Without going into any great research, I can’t imagine this effect being hugely significant.

That’s not to say goal difference is a useless statistic, it’s usually a pretty good indicator of the direction a team is going, and something to keep half an eye on.

But as a means to separate teams, history has suggested that it’s far more important at the bottom of the table than at the top, and certainly not something for the best teams to concern themselves with at this early stage.

*From 1992-1998 only the title winners qualified automatically, with the Premier League’s allocation increasing from 1999 onwards.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bill McNeal permalink
    22 September 2011 9:36 pm

    The 2007/08 season was practically decided on goal difference, only a late, late Matt Taylor goal for Bolton Wanderers against Chelsea meant that Manchester United won the title by 2 points, as opposed to winning due to a superior goal difference as would have been the case.

    7 occasions that season United scored 4, once they scored 5 and they beat Newcastle by 6.

    I don’t think there would be any psychological effects due to having an inferior or superior goal difference per se, but more that you/your rival are beating teams more convincingly will give not only that team a confidence boost, but will put fear into their future opponents that they too will be destroyed.

    Currently, it could be viewed that Manchester United are sending a clear message to the other 19 teams with their free-scoring ways, and it could be seen that City buckled under the pressure, which only gives United more confidence of going all the way this season. I know it may seem a bit silly so early in the season, but the United players are hardly going to be pessimistic (and City optimistic) after they put 14 past the 3 big London teams.

    • 22 September 2011 9:44 pm

      I agree with you on this season – Chelsea must be looking at the pair of them and wondering if they’re at the same level, and that’s more because of the goals scored than the defeat at OT.

      The 2007/08 example – was that the same day United came from 2-0 down to beat Everton 4-2? I don’t remember it clearly, but I suspect pressures other than goal difference was at hand that day?

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