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Goal difference in football explained: Rules, why who has scored the most could decide Premier League title race

Every goal, every point, and every match counts in the Premier League and that is why the goal difference rule stands as one of the most crucial deciders, especially when the title race tightens up at the top of the table.

The rule holds significant weight, as it can determine the fate of clubs aiming to lift the Premier League trophy. Equally, it can decide who is relegated to the Championship or qualifies for a European place. 

At the March international break in the 2023/24 season, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City were all within a point of each other at the summit.

The Sporting News takes a look at how the goal difference rule would be implemented in the Premier League if they finish on level points at the end of the season.

MORE: Who has the best goal difference in the Premier League this season?

What is goal difference and how does the rule work?

In the Premier League, if two or more clubs end the season with equal points, their rank in the table is determined by several criteria, moving on to the next one if the previous measurement can’t separate them: goal difference, total goals scored, head-to-head points, and finally, away goals in head-to-head matches.

Goal difference essentially acts as a tiebreaker when teams finish a season with an equal number of points. The significance of the rule becomes particularly apparent during intense title races, where the margins between success and failure can be razor-thin.

As such, teams involved in title races taking advantage of weaker sides can be important. Arsenal have won 6-0 at Sheffield United and West Ham United since the turn of the year, as well as putting five goals past Burnley and Crystal Palace.

In those four games, they managed to add +22 to their already impressive goal difference. Those could yet be the results that get them over the line this season.

Has a Premier League title race ever been decided on goal difference?

Arguably the most famous moment in Premier League history is Manchester City’s title triumph over Manchester United in the 2011/2012 season, famously clinched by Sergio Aguero’s last-gasp goal against Queens Park Rangers on the final day.

As the season came to the final match, both Manchester clubs were neck and neck in the race for the title. With just minutes remaining in the final matchday, City found themselves trailing against QPR.

Simultaneously, their cross-town rivals, Man United, were leading in their game against Sunderland. The title seemed destined for the red half of Manchester until Aguero’s dramatic intervention.

Many think of it being that goal that won City the title, and while it quite literally did, the reason Roberto Mancini’s side were in such a good place in terms of goal difference was because they had beaten United earlier in the season 6-1 at Old Trafford. 

That scoreline effectively acted as a 10-goal swing in goal difference tally, as City won by five and United had lost by five.

To this day, it remains the only instance when the title has been decided by goal difference and serves as a stark reminder that every goal matters.

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