The Ultimate Guide To Goal Difference In Football

A football match usually ends with a number of goals, which can grant either team 3 points. To win the game, goals must be scored and either team must defend to keep their goals conceded to a  minimum. 

However, the importance of goals go beyond points alone. You may have heard the term, “Goal difference” thrown around alot but you don’t fully grasp it. 

So what is goal difference, and why does it matter?

Here’s what you need to know:

How do I calculate the goal difference?

In a league format or group stages, accumulating the most points is the basic way to clinch the trophy or progress from the round. However, there may be a stalemate in points accumulated between two or more teams. 

That is where the Goal Difference (GD) comes in. You can think of the goal difference as a statistic in football that measures a team’s performance in terms of goals scored and goals measured. 

By the virtue of this tiebreaker system, goals are used to rank football teams with equal points in league competition. This system was first introduced by FIFA in the 1970 FIFA World Cup as a tiebreaker. Afterwards, it was adopted by the English Football league and has become predominant in several football competitions across the world.

The goals scored by a team are termed “Goals For” (GF), while the goals conceded by a team are termed “Goals against” (GA). A team’s goal difference tally is derived by the subtraction of GA from GF. 

Goal Difference has no other practical uses except for tiebreakers. However, it is a good metric to show a team’s dominance.

As thus, every team must strive to increase their GD by boosting their attacking output to score the maximum amount of goals. Meanwhile, they must also bolster their defensive acumen to  concede the least amount of goals possible. 

This resonates with Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous quote: “Attack wins you games, defense wins you titles.” 

Goal difference is an ever-present statistic on the competition table. It can either be a positive or negative value depending on the balance between a team’s attack and defense. 

A positive value means a team has scored more than they conceded. Meanwhile, a negative value means a team’s defense has let in more goals than the attackers have scored. 

For instance, if a team scored 4 goals across 3 matches and conceded 7 goals, the goal difference would be 4 GF minus 7 GA which is a -3 GD value. On the other hand, if the team scored 7 goals and conceded 4, it would be 7 GF minus 4 GA which gives a GD value of +3.

Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid won the league of records in 2012 with a goal difference of +89. This is the highest goal difference tally ever achieved in a domestic campaign.

Is a higher or lower goal difference better?

Goal difference is only advantageous in tiebreakers between teams that accumulated the same amount of points. As such, it would be best to accumulate a goal difference that is positive and high.

For any team, scoring the most goals possible and conceding next to nothing is the perfect objective for any match. Achieving this means a very high GD which can help to tip the balance in their favor whenever a stalemate occurs.  

In 2006/07, the Eredivisie experienced an unprecedented final matchday. Three teams specifically PSV, Ajax, and AZ Alkmaar having played 33 matches were level on points before the final match with 72 points. PSV had a GD of +46, Ajax with a GD of +48, and AZ Alkmaar had a GD of +51.

On D-day, AZ Alkmaar was in pole position to win the league but they suffered a shocking 3-2 defeat while Ajax won 2-1 and boosted their GD to +48. It would be PSV that emerged as the day’s victors and league champions with a 5-1 win that boosted their GD to +50.

By the final whistle of the final matchday, PSV and Ajax were both tied with 75 points. However, PSV clinched the trophy with a slight goal difference margin of +50 ahead of Ajax’s +49.

However, in some competitions, the head-to-head record between such teams is the preferred tiebreaker in a stalemate situation. Therefore, a team’s goal difference will not matter as long as they have a better head-to-head than their rivals. Such competitions include:

In the Serie A 2017/18 season, there was an interesting battle for the Champions League spots between AS Roma, Inter Milan, and Lazio. By the end of the season, AS Roma clinched 77 points to finish third behind second-placed Napoli (91 points) and champions, Juventus (95 points).

The fourth place hung in a balance between Inter Milan and Lazio who both finished the campaign with 72 points each. During the season, Lazio achieved a better GD margin of +40 compared to Inter Milan’s +36.

However, Inter Milan achieved the better head to head record after beating Lazio 2-3 away that year following the pair’s 0-0 stalemate earlier in the season.

As a result, Inter Milan was able to clinch a spot in the next season’s Champions league group stage and secured a return to the competition for the first time in six years. 

What happens if the goal difference is the same in the Premier League?   

The Premier League is one of the top 5 leagues in the world and the top-tier competition of English football. Every season, 20 teams contest for the chance to be crowned the Champions of England. 

Goal difference plays a massive role in the Premier League rankings. If two teams are level on points by the final matchday, the team with a better GD value will be ranked higher. This could prove very crucial in a title race or qualification race.

The 2011/12 Premier League had one of the most memorable title races. A two-legged race between Manchester United and Manchester City set the country on fire. By the end of the campaign, both teams ended level on 89 points. 

You can find out why there are 2 Manchester clubs here.

On the final matchday, it was the Blues that took the glory with an iconic moment from Sergio Aguero. However, the true hero was Manchester City’s GD of +64 which was superior to Manchester United’s GD mark of +56. 

However, there is also the case where both teams are level on points and goal difference values. In this case, there are other secondary tiebreakers involved to break the stalemate. 

According to the Premier League official website, it states that: “if any clubs finish with the same number of points, their position in the Premier League is determined by goal difference, then the number of goals scored, then the team who collected the most points in the head-to-head matches, then who scored most away goals in the head-to-head”. 

Therefore, if both teams are level on points and GD, the next tiebreaker is the amount of goals scored during the campaign. In the scenario where teams are also level in that regard, the following metrics are used as tiebreakers in order:

  1. Most points in head-to-head matches
  2. Away goals scored in head-to-head matches

In the 2020/21 Premier League season, neither Wolves nor Newcastle experienced the thrills of a title race or battles for an European spot. However, a rare form of rivalry came to exist between both teams. At the end of the domestic campaign, both teams were level points (45) and Goal difference (-16).  

Newcastle was ranked higher due to their GF value. The Newcastle defense conceded 10 more goals than Wolves’ GA value of 52. However, their attacking output bested the Wolves’ goal tally of 36 with a more impressive 46 goals tally. 

Although Wolves had the superior head-to-head record, the final rankings saw Newcastle finish in 12th place. Meanwhile Wolves sat right behind in 13th place. 

What happens if the goal difference is the same in the Champions League?

The UEFA Champions League, formerly called the European Cup, is the world’s greatest and most prestigious club competition, cutting across entire Europe. Every season, 32 teams contest for the chance to be crowned the Champions of the continent. 

In the group stages, the 32 teams are organised into eight groups of four which play each other in a double round-robin system. At the end of the group stages, only the top two placed teams advance to the knockout stages. 

Third placed teams advance to the Europa League Knockout Playoffs and the fourth-placed team are eliminated from Europe.

Goal difference is also an important metric in the UEFA Champions League, but plays it does not play much of a role as a tiebreaker. If two teams complete the group phase level on points, the major tiebreaker is the head-to-head record. According to the official tournament regulations, the foremost tiebreakers are:

  1. Points obtained in group matches played among the associated teams
  2. Superior goal difference from group matches played among teams in question
  3. Goals scored in group matches played among the associated teams in question

Therefore, goal difference will only be used after all aspects of the head-to-head record has been considered. On the occasion that the goal difference is also level, the other tiebreakers are used to tip the balance, these include:

  1. Superior goal difference in all group-stage matches
  2. Goals scored in all group-stage matches
  3. Away goals in all group matches
  4. Number of wins in all group matches
  5. Number of away wins in all group matches 
  6. Disciplinary points total based only on yellow and red cards
  7. UEFA club coefficient

The current edition of the UEFA Champions League had a very interesting group stage which saw the exit of giants and rise of underdogs. Amidst all the chaos, there was a contest that stood out.

SL Benfica and Paris Saint-Germain both competed in Group H this season. At the end of the group stages, both teams were level on points (14). Furthermore, they were equal in all aspects of the head-to-head record since both legs finished with a 1-1 score.

Benfica and PSG also had the same GD (+9) and scored the same amount of goals (16). Thus, both teams could not be separated even after considering 5 tiebreakers. However, Benfica pulled ahead of PSG in the rankings after the away goals record was considered.

SL Benfica finished top of Group H thanks to their better away goal record (9) which was superior to PSG’s 6. This was in many ways due to the 6 away goals scored in a 6-1 domination of Maccabi Haifa on the final matchday. 

 What is the next tiebreaker that is used after goal difference?

Most football competitions have goal difference as the major tiebreaker when teams are level on points. However, they make use of other tiebreakers to tip the scales when the Goal difference is also level. The table below shows the next tiebreaker after goal difference in several competitions.

CompetitionTiebreaker used after goal difference
BundesligaTotal goals scored for the entire season
La LigaTotal goals scored for the entire season
Ligue 1Total goals scored for the entire season
Premier LeagueTotal goals scored in the entire season
Serie AThe higher number of goals scored
Champions LeagueThe higher number of goals scored in the group-stage matches
EurosThe higher number of goals scored in the group-stage matches
World CupMost goals scored in the group-stage matches


Goal difference is an important metric of football competitions with league format. It is derived from subtracting the total number of goals conceded (GA) from total goals scored (GF) during the campaign. 

When two teams are level on points, goal difference is used as a tiebreaker in most of football’s top competitions. However, some competitions prefer the head-to-head record as the primary tiebreaker with goal difference as a secondary tiebreaker.

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