There comes an inevitable moment in every major tournament and league campaign when the same question—one usually ushered along by throngs of desperate, grasping fans—rises to the surface: “Wait, are we using goal differential or head-to-head?”
Translation: Is there still hope?
It’s a side effect of soccer being the world’s most popular sport. There are hundreds of leagues and tournaments every year, using a myriad of different criteria to resolve ties. It’s kind of a pain in the ass.
The most widely used, including by the World Cup, is goal differential. And here the US team is providing an anxious case study. If USA loses and Portugal wins on Thursday, the two sides will be level on points and tied for the second position in Group G. FIFA has five primary steps to resolve such a draw, the first being goal differential. Here they all are, in order:
1. Goal differential in all group stage matches
2. Goals scored in all group stage matches
3. Points in matches between the tied teams
4. Goal difference in matches between the tied teams
5. Goals scored in matches between the tied teams
It’s lucky for the U.S., then, that Portugal’s goal differential (goals scored less goals conceded) is miserable after being handed a 4-0 drubbing by Germany. Portugal’s advancement in the tournament will require a heavy win paired with a considerable US loss.
Proponents of goal differential argue that it is a better measurement of the merit, the complete performance, of a side. Every single match is taken into account (over the course of a season or stage) instead of one or two, which, it could be argued, might be an isolated result.
Goal differential encourages an attack-minded (read: fun to watch) style of play. Strong teams can’t afford to play too conservatively against lesser opponents, lest they fall behind in the overall tally to a side that scored more in its matches. It also sets up some incredibly dramatic finishes—when teams know they must win by a certain number of goals to claim their prize.
A good example: In 2012, Manchester City won the English Premier League on goal differential in a last-gasp effort from Argentine Sergio Aguero.
And in 1989, Arsenal—needing to win by two clear goals—captured the league title from Liverpool in the dying seconds at Anfield.
Goal differential is not free from criticism. Critics point to head-to-head, a system that only measures the results between the teams involved in a tie: So what if you’ve scored more goals over time, we beat you and that’s what matters. For example, if the USA and Ghana were to be level on points after Thursday (it is possible!)—even if Ghana were to score 10 goals against Portugal to to bring their differential to +9—it wouldn’t matter in a tournament that uses head-to-head tiebreakers, because the USA beat Ghana.
And this actually happens: In the 2012 European Championships, which uses head-to-head, Greece advanced out of Group A after their shock defeat of Russia, a side level on points and with superior overall goal differential. Did Greece not deserve to go through? The two teams played the same amount of matches, and arrived at the same results (one win, loss and draw)—but Greece won the vital matchup between the two. Should Russia be unduly rewarded for the Czech Republic’s abysmal defending in the group’s opening round (Russia won 4-1)? No. In that case, the better team goes through, and Greece should be rewarded for its victory. In head to head, teams always keep their destiny in their own hands.
Over the course of a season, goal differential is more just than head-to-head, which can not only kill excitement but also punishes single unlucky results that aren’t reflective of a broader performance. For example: Let’s say in the video above, that an Arsenal victory would pull them level on points with Manchester United, with Arsenal having a goal differential of +20 that of Manchester United. But earlier in the season, Manchester United beat Arsenal 1-0, and then they drew 2-2 after a highly controversial penalty decision that went against Arsenal. Despite Arsenal having the better season, they’re out of luck. Manchester United wins because of their slightly better head-to-head record. Yeah, not so fun.
So which system is better? It’s simple (or subjective): for competitions that measure the success of a long campaign, goal differential. For competitions that are short and rely on only a handful of results, head-to-head.
But the debate will always rage on. So it’s easier if you just pay attention when it matters.
Oh, and what happens if you exhaust all the available options for a tie-breaker?