Revisiting an Old Friend: Tie-Breakers

Today on my lovely walk to the grocery store, I was able to think about a few things, as I am wont to do while walking. I had been reminded by reading this post at Avoiding the Drop before leaving the house that not all was right in the world and so I mentally revisited the tortuous ground of Spanish league tiebreaker scenarios. This is not a quick and clean set of rules, but RFEF spells them out in Chapter 4, Article 296.2 of their Relgamento General (see page 174):

Si al término del campeonato resultara empate dos clubs, se resolverá por la mayor diferencia de goles a favor, sumados los en pro y en contra según el resultado de los dos partidos jugados entre ellos; si así no se dilucidase, se decidirá también por la mayor diferencia de goles a favor, pero teniendo en cuenta todos los obtenidos y recibidos en el transcurso de la competición; de ser idéntica la diferencia, resultará campeón el que hubiese marcado más tantos.

This translates to:

If at the end of the championship, the result is two clubs drawing, the winner will be the club with a greater goal difference (the sum of goals for and against from the two matches played between them); if there is still no difference, the winner will be the club with the greater goal difference from the whole competition; if the goal difference is identical, the champion will be the club that has scored the most goals.

In case you couldn’t follow that, here is the list, in short that takes affect if the teams are tied on points at the end of the season:

  1. Goal difference in the head-to-head matchups between the two clubs
  2. Goal difference in the league as a whole
  3. Goals for.

Other sites (including The Offside and the AtD post linked above), are mentioning “Head-to-Head points” followed by “Head-to-Head goals scored” or some such variation on that theme, but RFEF makes no distinction between that because, mathematically, that makes no sense. I can, though, see how it would be confusing, but the RFEF is fairly straight-forward about it.

My thoughts on the system have been laid out in the past, especially in the run up to the 2006-07 conclusion that messed with everyone’s head and actually called Article 292.2 into action. While I don’t believe that there will be a tie on points at the end of this particular season, I would still like to reiterate my statements and perhaps put them more concisely than I did before.

Basically, I am more interested in a body of work than I am in what happens across roughly 180 minutes against a particular opponent. That is to say, what has happened across the the entirety of the season (~3,420 minutes) is, to me, more valuable in determining who is the better team. The reason for this is sample size: we play entire seasons in order to eliminate momentary blips that are more common in single instances, but very unlikely across an entire season. Determining an entire league on the back of two matches is akin to claiming that Athletic Bilbao is as good as we are if they can draw with us in our coming meeting. They drew with us at San Mames, after all and obviously head-to-head shows you who is the better team, right? Obviously that is some snarky commentary on the whole concept, but I do think it at least points to the flaws in the system.

Now, I’m not saying head-to-head is not some sort of a marker worth keeping track of, but I believe it should be down the rungs a little bit, as it is in other leagues.* Head-to-head opens up an entirely absurd series of logical conclusions that must be drawn if you open that door and I prefer not to open that door until it is absolutely necessary. Others obviously disagree, but I doubt I will ever support a system that first discards the actual games that caused tie in the first place.

The way to avoid forgetting about the rest of the league is to take overall goal difference (goals scored minus goals allowed) first, then most goals scored, then fewest goals allowed, then, head-to-head record. Any combination of those first three (GD, GF, GA) would be preferable to me — for instance you could easily argue that fewer Goals Allowed is a better marker than more Goals Scored and I’ll admit that on this point I’m defaulting to the norm.

What that means, dear readers, beloved culés, is that in my book, Barça are currently second in the table, 2 goals down in goal difference and 5 goals down in goals scored (but 3 goals to the better in goals allowed). Sorry kids, but when you play like trashwhores, you get ranked like trashwhores (well, relatively, at least) and currently we’re on a silly slide that we can only overcome through hard work. Still, we control our own destiny and that is always wonderful.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

*I am not giving the “everyone else is doing it, so we should do it too” reasoning, merely pointing out a fact.

Categorized as Thoughts

By Isaiah

Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.


  1. actually im for head to head because if two teams are tied at the end of the season then it means its too hard to seperate them over an entire season because comapred to the rest of the teams in the league theyre both just as good… therefor goin by head to head is basically equivalent to playing a 2 legged final which is the best way to seperate the two in my opinion

  2. I agree that head-to-head is rubbish but much like the lack of replays make it oh so interesting. Imagine if Valencia was close, Madrid v Valencia, Barca v Madrid and Barca v Valencia would be absolute NAIL bitters in the second half of the season.

    Again it is a rubbish way to determine a champion and we’ve been hurt by it before but if nothing else it does make for exciting matches.

    Who isn’t already stock piling beer for the 2nd classico?

  3. I dont like head2head deciding the league but if it means the EE experience how we felt a couple seasons ago I wouldn’t complain.Winning outright would be nice though.And I dont know if its just me but absolutely HATE that we are being outscored 🙁 .

    1. i was a fan of rafael sobis until that fateul day he scored in the injury time in camp nou. i was so disappointed with that kid through out the season and then he scores against my team! i cursed him so much till he disappeared for good 😛

  4. no way in hell that we’ll have the same amount of points by Jornada 38. But I suppose this is the only time an article like this can be released.

  5. “in my book, Barça are currently second in the table,”

    Not just in your book, RM are actually in first place right now according to La Liga rules.

    Page 86, article 296, Reglament General de la Liga de Futbol Profesional Española:

    4. Si la competición se hubiese celebrado a una vuelta y el empate a puntos, en la clasificación final, se produjese entre dos o más clubes, se resolverá:

    a) Por la mayor diferencia de goles obtenidos y recibidos, teniendo en cuenta todos los encuentros del campeonato. <———-

    b) Por el mayor número de goles marcados, teniendo en cuenta todos los conseguidos en la competición.

    c) Por el resultado de los partidos jugadores entre ellos.

    This is saying that head to head is not the first tie breaker until both legs have been played.

  6. To quote the Dude: Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

    It’s, like, a pretty good system. You have the whole season to prove you’re the best team by points. If two teams earn the same amount of points, then how do you decide which team is better? You look at who was better when they played each other.

    You’re not deciding who is better over two matches, you’re deciding who is better after they have proved to be essentially equal over the season due to picking up the same number of points.

  7. I’m also for the head-to head. It also makes the Barca-madrid games more interesting.

  8. As pointed out, the whole idea with a league is to find the best team throughout the season. Not in any one game – we’ve got cups for that. Therefore, all measurements that enforces that idea should be more important than those just comparing two teams internally.

  9. I reckon that the head-to-head is logical, especially in scenarios similar to the last season when the calendar was such that EE played the same team as us in the following tour. That is, teams got tired after playing us with a higher chance of thrashing by EE thereafter. I know it’s not always true but that’s one reason for GD and GF being inappropriate.

  10. I support the Goal difference across the season as an indicator of the better team. And I would also like to argue that we were the better team in 2006-07 (And I am pretty proud of the spirit shown by the team in 3-3 performance with Messi’s hattrick where we played the entire second half with 10 men and kept on coming back from behind.)

    I guess the rationale behind Goal difference in two games might be the fact that sometimes teams score tons of goals against weak opponents \ bottom rung teams (Example – ManU is so consistent against bottom teams) and a good team is supposed to show up against the best teams.

  11. Wait a minute… did I misunderstand it or do away goals really not count? So if we lose 2-3 in Madrid and are tied on points after 38 playdays, we would not be champions because of the more scored away goals? Damn. We shall better win in the Bernabéu!
    I thought the 1-0 would have been a great result, just like in the CL… it’s still a good result, but not that good.

  12. I don’t actually believe in “conspiracy” theories but I will make an exception here . It is much easier to CONTROL the outcome of two games rather than the entire season . A corrupt referee can stick it to a club and ruin their season . This has Real Madrid filthy finger prints written all over it !!

  13. In a knock out competition, when two teams draw in the 90 minutes and extra time, we don’t go for number on shots on target, saves, possession, etc… We instead go for penalty shots, which has nothing to do with the teams’ performance throughout the game. The team that played worse may end up winning the title. Do penalty shots give the title to the best team? Not always. But that’s not the point.

    The point is that none of the two teams in 90 minutes+30 extra time proved being too good to lose, or strongER enough to win. You need to pick a team to give the title after all. Penalty shots decide who get the title, not who deserves it. Both teams in this case proved having the minimal requirements needed to be champions.

    Why starting from there? Because any football association that apply the deciding penalty shots after extra time in one of its competitions has no argument to say that head-to-head is not fair to apply in another competition they run. If after giving the two teams 120 minutes, it’s fair to use a method that’s independent of the teams’ performance in the game to decide the winner(penalties), then its more than fair after giving the two teams 12 MONTHS to decide who is better, to use another independent tool like head-to-head to decide who takes the title (not who is better, as they are even).

    How far head-to-head doesn’t really take in consideration the club performance throughout the season?

    Points earned, is the first factor to decide the title winner. The team earns the points by playing against all the teams of the league. Based on that the objective of making the team performance against all teams in the league decides its rank (rather than head to head) is perfectly fulfilled.

    The other conditions follow, if the first one failed to decide (points). the sequence “The way to avoid forgetting about the rest of the league is to take overall goal difference (goals scored minus goals allowed) first, then most goals scored, then fewest goals allowed, then, head-to-head record.” actually bring you back to square one. When you reach “fewest goals allowed” stage you are more or less repeating the same scale of the points, but giving the title for a team that one against Sporting 5-1 for being better than the team that won 4-0, really?

    The combination of points then head-to-head creates the fairest judgment. 1) It takes in consideration the team performance throughout the competition (points), 2) through head-to-head it compares the two teams’ performances against each other (which is also a valid indication to show which team is better). Keep in mind that the table ranking will also promote teams to play in European competitions representing the league/country. For such competitions that’s based on points first (groups) then knockout stages, the team that combine the quality of gathering points+ beating direct opponents (in a knock out style) must be ahead over the rest as it fulfill the needs of the continental competitions more, and 3) When two teams earn the same number of points, it’s important to cancel the impact of the 5-0,7-0 kind of games as it doesn’t really represent the quality difference between two teams. May be the one who won with less number of goals gave a chance for youth after the third goal? Took it easy as they have a game in the midweek? etc…

    Take Valencia as a variable to use in the example. If they play against RM in March, they will be fully focused as they still have everything in the league to fight for. Real wins 1-0. Then Valencia plays against Barcelona in April where they guaranteed a position in the league that they can’t improve or lose, but at the same time they have a midweek game in euro league, they rest some players and lose 3-0. Barcelona wins the league scoring one or two goals more than Real Madrid. Fair? No.

    Taking goals scored or conceded above head to head lead to a trend where in the last 5 weeks of the season lot of games that reach the last 15 minutes with the result of 2-0 changing dramatically in the last 15 minutes to 5-3? Lot of 4-4 draws? Is it happening already where the goals decides the teams ranking? Not that I can prove. Probably its not happening in the best leagues mainly because the continental posts in the league eats up to 6 or 7 positions, which makes it less likely that ant team will have an interest to fix things in that manner. So its less exposed because of an external factor, not because it is perfect.

    Head-to-head may sound as if it cancels all the impact of the league games, but that’s not true. The team’s effort in league games took it to that situation (head2head). If your team was a bit worse then it won’t be in that situation as it will lose the league with one point less. If your team as a bit better it could have won the league with one point more. You earn what you plant.

    The bold quality of the squad (Basically technically and tactically) generates points throughout the league. At the end of the league if things get tight, you need to take more detailed things in consideration to make the difference. Mental strength and showing how much your team has the quality to perform under immense pressure had to play the deciding factor. The clubs ultimate quality do not show by playing against Xerez, but in the Classico.

    Saying so, I am not trying to make a point for Barcelona to be heading the table now (as it’s meaningless). I am discussing a general case. If you ask me, I prefer that the two teams that reach the same number of points in the lead (at the end of the league) plays two deciding games. Let the winner win it all. Show who really want it more. Or else go to the most fair system (which is impossible) the best 4 or 6 teams in any league has to play a mini league between them (they carry the results of the main league with them) and decide the Champion.

    1. Yes, but a post like that is worth the ignonomy of Hectorization!

      Tie-breakers just suck…no matter how you slice it.

      It’s too bad the soccer schedule is so jammed packed, ’cause I’d be in favor an added playoff tie-breaker game to decide league draws. Heck I’d even go so far as to propose a re-match for champions league or worldcup finals draws!

      …or how about unlimited substitutions, sudden death after 120 minutes?

    2. Mmh… interesting arguments raised by you, Ramzi. I always thought that total goal difference is the best way to determine a champion if two teams are tied on points. I didn’t know a different method to handle this situation until 06/07 because every league table is ranked via the goal difference and Spain is the only bigger European league that (still) has head2head comparison. I remember that I was pissed in 06/07 because Barca’s goal difference was almost twice as good as Madrid’s, but being fair, if we were that much stronger against other teams, why didn’t we prevail against the EE?
      You gave lots of arguments against total goal difference, it made me re-evaluate my position towards tie-breakers. I still don’t know which is the best way to determine a “deserved” champion, but I’m less convinced from the usual way of total goal difference now 😉
      Then again there have been quite a few champions with the three-points-rule which didn’t deserve it, but when talking about deserved or not, it’ll always be subjective.

  14. Yes! About time! You tell ’em, Pep!

    “Sport says Guardiola, furious with their performance against Almeria on Saturday, read his players the riot act for over a half hour – with no-one, not even the squad’s heavyweights, escaping his wrath.

    “We need to smarten up or all our hard work will be for nothing this season,” began Guardiola, “we will win NOTHING.”

    Barca players were stunned by the anger coming from Guardiola, who also told his squad not to seek excuses from bad officiating or Liga conspiracies.

    The Barca coach is seeking a reaction from his players and also said fatigue was no excuse: “Everything is mental, when the legs do not respond, it is because you’re not motivating your mind.”

    Guardiola signed off, saying they will remain the best, so long as they run, fight and work as hard as they can.”

  15. I’m glad this is cleared up. I remember in 06-07 when Madrid won the league on the head to head tie-breaker, despite Barca having a much higher GD. That fact confused me recently because I know Barca beat Madrid this year, but every table has Madrid on top even though they are even on points.

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