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What are the tie-breaker rules for the Premier League table of standings?

Head-to-head introduced in 2019

The Official Nike Premier League Match Ball with the Chelsea Badge Photo by Visionhaus

After the first five matchdays of the 2021-22 season, Chelsea and Liverpool are top of the Premier League, with identical records: points, goals, everything.

So what happens then? And more pertinently, what would happen in the highly unlikely situation that this would be the case at the end of the season as well, after 38 games, rather than just 5?

I thought I knew the answer, but it turns out, my knowledge was incomplete. The rules have changed a bit in the last couple years!

My working knowledge was largely still correct. It’s still the familiar process of points, goal differential, and goals scored — in that order — which determines the placement of teams in the table of standings. The team with the most points wins. Teams on the same amount of points are separated by goal difference, then by goals scored.

But in cases like we have now, things get more interesting. It used to be that if teams were unable to be separated by those three considerations, they would both be awarded the same position — and in theory, crowning co-champions. But with European places and relegation also at stake, that unlikely scenario would’ve caused a problem. And as the (still ongoing) COVID-19 pandemic reminded us, sometimes even the most unlikely scenarios have to be accounted for.

Evidently, the Premier League have realized this as well, and have introduced head-to-head tie-breaker rules in 2019 (Rule C.17.) — much like many other leagues around Europe. If teams cannot be separated on points or goals, we look at the results between just the two of them, weighting away goals as a last resort. And if teams still cannot be separated then, we would have to have a special one-off play-off game at a neutral venue!

To summarize:

  1. Points
  2. Goal difference
  3. Goals scored
  4. Head-to-head points
  5. Head-to-head away goals scored
  6. Play-off

Since Chelsea drew 1-1 at Anfield last month, we technically have 1 away goal in our head-to-head matchups, and Liverpool have 0 since the reverse fixture hasn’t been played yet.

That sounds a bit unfair, but if the season got interrupted right now, that would still be the process used. The Premier League recently codified this as well in the wake of the pandemic’s disruption of life and football.

In case of a “curtailment”, the teams would be sorted by a similar process, but using averages instead of absolute numbers — however, would defer to absolute numbers if the averages couldn’t separate the teams, which would be the case between Chelsea and Liverpool if the season ended today for some reason.

  1. Points-per-game
  2. Goal difference
  3. Goals-per-game
  4. Head-to-head points
  5. Head-to-head away goals scored
  6. Play-off

And now you know.