The only currency that truly matters in football are goals, and these have more of an impact on the outcome of some tournaments than you might think.
When teams are level on points in the standings of some competitions, goal difference can be used to determine the ranking of said teams, and you will usually hear ‘GD’ spoken of a lot more as the football season winds down to its business end.
So what is goal difference, how is it calculated and which competitions still use it?
What Is Goal Difference?
Quite simply, goal difference is the calculation of a team’s goals scored minus the number of goals they have conceded.
The best teams in the league will typically have a positive goal difference, simply because they net more goals than they conceded. By contrast, those in the lower reaches tend to have a negative number as their goal difference – by virtue of the fact they lose more games than they win.
All football leagues, and the group stages of tournaments like the Champions League and World Cup, are decided by the points tallies of the respective teams. But then two or more teams are level on points, goal difference is often used to separate them.
Many years ago, goal ratio was often used – that was the number of goals scored divided by the number conceded. But that was thought to be unnecessarily complex, with the goal difference calculation much easier for the ‘every man’ to work out without reaching for their calculator.
Which Competitions Use Goal Difference?
Some major football competitions have deviated away from goal difference as their tie-break decider, using the head-to-head record of the teams involved as a differentiator instead.
The English Premier League still favours goal difference though, and when that’s level they go to ‘goals scored’ next.
In the Champions League, goal difference is only the sixth metric used to separate teams in the group stage, with head-to-head results and head-to-head goal difference just two of the tie-breakers given preference.
The Spanish La Liga uses goal difference over head-to-head records, and bizarrely if those metrics are both level then the fair play record of the teams involved will be the next set of stats to be considered.
The German Bundesliga and French Ligue 1 also favour goal difference as their tie-breaker, although the Italian Serie A has pivoted away from GD to head-to-head results.
Goal difference and then goals scored are the two main tie-breakers in the World Cup too, with fair play record third on the list.
Why Is Goal Difference Important?
As we’ve learned, goal difference can still play a major role in determining the outcome of some of the world’s biggest football competitions.
It’s not uncommon for two teams to be level on points at the end of the season, and so goal difference can be what separates glory from failure.
Punters that bet on outright markets, such as league winner, top four finish and relegation, also need to be aware that goal difference can ultimately determine the fate of their wagers.
It could be an agonising defeat… or a moment of ecstasy if your pick comes out on the right side of the GD calculation.
What are GD, GF and GA In Football?
When the league tables of pretty much any competition are published, a number of acronyms are used to make life easier for the reader.
Generally, you will see the team name on the extreme length and their points tally on the right, and in between a host of shortenings:
- W – Games Won
- D – Games Drawn
- L – Games Lost
- GF – Goals For
- GA – Goals Against
- GD – Goal Difference
Has the Premier League Ever Been Decided On Goal Difference?
The English top-flight has been decided on goal difference on two separate occasions.
The first was in 1988/89, when the Division One title went down to the last game of the season in a titanic showdown between Liverpool and Arsenal.
With the score level on 1-1 at Anfield, the trophy was heading to the hosts Liverpool. But then up stepped Michael Thomas with an injury-time goal for the Gunners, which stunned the home crowd and ensured Arsenal would win the title on goal difference.
A similar scenario would play out in 2011/12, which will go down as one of the most dramatic campaigns in Premier League history.
Manchester City and their local rivals United were locked on points heading into the final game of the season, but with City ahead by eight in the goal difference count, all they had to do was match the Red Devils’ result to win the title.
United won 1-0 at Sunderland and then heard with relish that City were losing 1-2 at home against QPR.
Some were beginning to celebrate, but Edin Dzeko’s 92nd minute goal halted that. And when Sergio Aguero scored that famous 94th minute winner, City completed a famous comeback to ultimately win the Premier League on goal difference.