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Goal Differential and Goals Scored in the Premier League Top Four Race, Explained

The short of it is if Liverpool win their final two games they’re a near lock to finish top four. The long of it gets a little messy.

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On Thursday, Liverpool beat Manchester United, and suddenly their top four hopes seemed revived. On Sunday, all the way up until the 95th minute, it appeared those hopes were set to fade away again as the Reds looked set to slump to a 1-1 draw against an already relegated West Bromwich Albion.

Then, Liverpool won a corner late in stoppage time and goalkeeper Alisson Becker ran forward, heading home from a Trent Alexander-Arnold delivery to become the first goalkeeper in the club’s history to score and—more importantly from a top four perspective—earn Liverpool three points.

It leaves the Reds in a situation where if they win their final two games they are a near certainty to earn a Champions League place. However, the penultimate match of the season for Leicester City and Chelsea pairs the sides Liverpool are up against for a top four finish, and the outcome matters.

From a Liverpool point of view, a Leicester victory or a draw means if they win their final two games they finish top four, full stop. A Leicester victory means Chelsea’s maximum points would be 67. A draw mean Chelsea’s maximum points would be 68. If Liverpool win out they will end with a very nice 69.

Where things could get a little bit tricky is if Chelsea win. That would mean Chelsea’s maximum points would be 70 and Leicester’s would be 69, at which point if Liverpool got to 69 points goal difference would be used as the first tiebreaker, goals scored as the second, and head-to-head as the third.

Premier League rules say if two sides are level after goals scored they will be considered to be tied—but if a determination needs be made for the purposes of deciding the title, European qualification, or relegation, head-to-head record will be used. If it comes to head-to-head, Liverpool have the edge.

To get to head-to-head, though, Liverpool need to match Leicester’s goals scored (the second tiebreaker) while finishing level on goal difference (the first). Leicester currently have a +2 goals scored edge, but if both sides end with 69 points Liverpool are likely to have a higher goal difference.

That’s because to get to a final table where Liverpool and Leicester are tied on points, Liverpool need two wins. If those two wins are +1 victories, their final goal differential will be +23. Meanwhile, if Leicester lose -1 to Chelsea their goal differential heading into the Spurs game will be +20.

That means they would need a +3 victory against Tottenham to equal Liverpool’s goal difference—and even the lowest-scoring combination to get that, a 0-1 loss to Chelsea and 3-0 victory over Spurs, adds +3 to Leicester’s goals scored column and means Liverpool need to score five to equal it.

Those five goals need to come in +1 victories, which means, for example, 3-2 and 2-1 victories for the Reds. If Leicester score a goal more in each game—a 1-2 loss to Chelsea and 4-1 victory over Spurs—Liverpool need to score more while still maintaining the +1 margin for goals scored to matter.

A greater margin—for example 3-1 and 2-1, or 2-0 and 3-2—would boost the Reds’ goal differential and mean Leicester would need a +4 victory against Spurs. The main takeaway should probably be that while none of these results are unlikely individually, they are highly unlikely to occur collectively.

From a probability standpoint, if Liverpool win out they are highly likely to win the tiebreakers—and likely the first tiebreaker—with Leicester City in a scenario where both sides end with 69 points, and if there is something to focus on it is that any goals added to margin of victory makes that increasingly likely.

A pair of +1 wins for Liverpool means Leicester need at least a +3 victory against Spurs (if they’ve only lost -1 to Chelsea) but +1 and +2 victories for Liverpool mean Leicester need a +4 and a pair of +2s mean Leicester need a +5. And none of this will matter if Leicester beat Chelsea or that match ends level.

tl;dr: If Liverpool win out they likely win the goal difference tiebreaker; winning by more than one goal is the best thing they can do to improve their odds; and Chelsea dropping points against Leicester means we stop worrying about this particular set of tiebreaker scenarios.

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