Leicester City have won the Premier League, and do you know what this story is like?
Nothing. That’s what it’s like. It’s not like the Miracle Mets of 1969 winning the World Series. It’s not like the St. Louis Rams winning the Super Bowl with a grocery-store-stocker-turned-quarterback. It’s not like the U.S. Olympic hockey team beating the Soviets in 1980. It’s not like Jim Valvano’s N.C. State team winning the NCAA title. It’s not even like Milan High School — the tiny school that inspired the movie “Hoosiers” — winning the Indiana state basketball title.
It’s not like anything we can comprehend in America because the Premier League is not like anything we know in America. The Premier League is the world’s biggest sports league, and it is almost flawlessly designed — or so it seemed — to make sure that a team like Leicester City NEVER wins the Premier League.
See, the Premier League is capitalism in almost-pure form. There is no salary cap. There is no draft. There is as little revenue sharing as possible. There are few incentives to help the small teams. Nobody even pretends that fairness is the goal. In this environment, the richest teams are meant to win and, as the Premier League has exploded in popularity, the richest teams always do win.
This is why Leicester City was a 5,000-to-1 shot this year. No American sports team — not even the Cleveland Browns — face anything close to 5,000-to-1 odds to win a championship. What does 5,000-to-1 mean? The Mirror listed off things more likely to happen, and these included Simon Cowell being the next prime minister (a bargain at 500-to-1) and Hugh Hefner admitting he’s a virgin (at 1,000-to-1, oddsmakers considered this five times more likely than Leicester City winning the Premier League).
There’s no American comparison because 15 months ago it did not even look like Leicester City would be in the Premier League. The Foxes were just promoted to the Premier League last year, and like so many newly promoted teams, they promptly spent 140 days in last place. No team in Premier League history had been at the bottom for that long and avoided relegation. It took the Foxes winning seven times in their last nine matches (a “Great Escape,” as the English fans call it) just to move up to 14th place and enjoy the safety of another year in the Premier League.
Then, in June, seemingly out of nowhere, Leicester fired manager Nigel Pearson, who had been the one credited with turning the team around in the first place (this is a team that, seven years ago, had been playing in the THIRD tier, sort of the Class-AA of English football). After a curious search, they settled on Claudio Ranieri, who had been the manager for FOURTEEN different clubs and had never won a top-level championship at any of them. Ranieri was so uninspiring a choice that it prompted Hall of Famer Gary Lineker, the greatest player in Leicester City club history, to tweet this:
It is so touching and perfect to see that the first response to Lineker’s tweet, from the now-famous Stephen O’Reagan, was: “Crazy. Will he last till Christmas.”
It wasn’t just Ranieri. The Foxes’ best goal scorer, Jamie Vardy, had been playing for a non-league club called Fleetwood Town FC.
The Foxes’ best player — and, remarkably, the Pro Football Association Player of the Year — is Riyad Mahrez. He was playing for a French Ligue 2 club when he first heard about Leicester City. He assumed it was a rugby team.
The Foxes’ heart and soul, Wes Morgan, had spent his entire career playing for local rival Nottingham Forrest.
No, those 5,000-to-1 odds were not a miscalculation. They were based on hard mathematics. Leicester City had almost no chance to win the Premier League. This is a team that has never won a major trophy of any kind. This is a team spending one-eighth or one-tenth of what the top teams pay for players. Lets face it: The biggest and richest sports teams in the world, teams with spectacular histories, always win the Premier League. Always. Teams like Manchester United and Manchester City and Arsenal and Chelsea and Liverpool. For a long time in baseball, small-market teams would grumble about how they had no chance against the Yankees. But the Yankees are just one team, and one team can have a down year. The Premier League has five Yankees.
But again, trying to compare it to baseball is pointless. If the Topeka Train Robbers of the Pecos League won the World Series, maybe that would compare to Leicester City winning the Premier League. If the Cleveland Gladiators of Arena Football would move outdoors, get into the NFL and then win the Super Bowl, maybe that would compare. If Jay Wright’s Villanova basketball team somehow was invited to play in the NBA and they won the title, maybe that would compare.
So instead of trying to put it into context, the better question to ask is: How the heck did this happen?
Fortunately for this, I can turn to my friend Matt Drew, formerly of Opta, the official EPL data provider for the Premier League. Matt is also a huge fan of American sports, and so in exchange for explaining Premier League football to me, I tell him that his beloved San Diego Padres (don’t ask) will be terrible again. Of course, he already knew.
Matt says the Leicester miracle cannot be explained — certainly not well enough — but that there are seven factors that might describe how a 5,000-to-1 shot came in.
1. Stars align
I mentioned above that there are five Yankees in the Premier League. Well, this was the first year in, I don’t know, forever, that all five had down/weird years:
Defending champion Chelsea ran into the Jose Mourinho blues. Mourinho seems to have developed a pattern as a manager. First, “The Special One” takes over a team and wildly (and colorfully) tears things apart and makes huge promises. Second, the team fulfills those promises and wins a championship. Third, Mourinho leaves or the team falls apart or both. This was the inevitable third stage for Mourinho at Chelsea. He was gone before Christmas.
Manchester United, the most successful of all Premier League teams, still have not figured out how to replace legendary manager Alex Ferguson. Manchester United might save the job of Louis van Gaal if they win the FA Cup, but then again, maybe not. If he goes, the Red Devils will have their third manager since Ferguson’s retirement.
Liverpool, one of the England’s greatest teams, are going through what can delicately be called a transition period.
Manchester City have been going through all sorts of weird and inexplicable management issues.
And Arsenal, a team that is always near the top of the table and tends to win the Premier League in bizarre years like this one, just didn’t come together.
It’s an almost supernatural series of calamities happening at once to England’s greatest teams.
Matt says there are numbers that suggest just how lucky Leicester City has been. “They are in the first percentile for shot conversion against, for instance,” he says. And the Foxes have not faced any significant injuries. But perhaps the best way to describe the luck is to point out the 1-0 victories. The Foxes have won 1-0 seven times, most in the league. More importantly, though, they won four consecutive matches 1-0 in late March and early April, when everyone expected the dream to die.
This is not to say that winning 1-0 is pure luck, but it certainly requires SOME luck.
“A Spurs-supporting friend,” Matt says, “has suggested to me that their goal is protected by a forcefield.”
The big clubs play A LOT of matches. They play FA Cup. They play League Cup. They play in Europe. But Leicester City dropped out of the Cup tournaments very early, and they did not qualify to play in any international tournaments. So here, at the end of the season, they are still fresh enough to play the sort of ferocious defense that has marked this magical season.
Matt brings up a good point: Nobody could POSSIBLY have thought that Leicester City would win the Premier League. But the Foxes might not have quite-so-shocking a story if people had dug in a little bit and looked at the team more analytically. “If Baseball Prospectus or Football Outsiders existed for football,” he says, “then Leicester would’ve been the team they annually predict might surprise a few people and finish at .500.”
In other words, the Foxes might have been a 1,000-to-1 shot or something like that rather than 5,000-to-1. It’s a subtle difference, but part of the amazement this year could come from the fact that few appreciated how last year ended for Leicester.
And, of course, it’s likely that other teams underestimated Leicester City for a long, long time, though that might not be that big a factor. A month ago, everyone realized that Leicester City was a real threat to win the League. But the Foxes are still undefeated in their last ten matches with seven victories.
More comparisons? Why not. Vardy’s out-of-nowhere brilliance might be like Kurt Warner coming out of indoor football to instantly become the NFL’s best quarterback. It might be like Jose Bautista, after six middling years for a bunch of different teams, suddenly hitting 54 home runs. It might be like Jeremy Lin coming out of Harvard undrafted and becoming something of a sensation.
But it might be something different from all of them. The single most valuable athletic skill on planet earth is the ability to score goals. If you can score goals — and it doesn’t matter if you live in a Portuguese cluster of islands, in the largest city of Cameroon, 200 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, or in the suburbs of California — you will be found, and you will be paid obscene amounts of money, and you will be treated like an emperor.
And here’s Vardy — overlooked, playing for low-level teams — when Leicester City finds him. He has scored 22 Premier League goals. He has emerged as one of the great goal scorers in the world.
“I have no explanation for this,” Matt says.
Matt says that Leicester City use analytics extensively when it comes to recruiting and signing players. And the signing of Vardy and Mahrez along with the superb central midfielder N’Golo Kante is staggering. Matt (that American sports fan coming out) compares it to the 1974 Steelers draft when the Steelers drafted Hall of Famers Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.
But, yet again, it’s not really comparable. As amazing as that Steelers draft was, it was still a draft — meaning that once those players reached their slot, Pittsburgh could just take them. The signing of Vardy, Mahrez and Kante are staggering because any of the big clubs could easily have outbid Leicester for those players if they were interested.
He is, by all accounts, a decent man from Italy who has jumped all around the football world but had never won the big prize. He was coming off some rough times. He had been named coach of Greece’s national team, but he was sacked after just four matches, the last a humiliating defeat by the Faroe Islands.
Ranieri is a character. He has been known to pretend to ring an alarm bell and shout “dilly ding, dilly dong” when his players drop their energy level during practice (this has inspired Leicester City supporters to sing “Dilly dong, dilly dong!” during matches). He has been known to be hard on players, and he has been known to be friendly and supportive. Everyone talks about how likeable he is.
No one thought he could be the manager of the most surprising and wonderful team in the world.
“It’s important to finish the story,” he said, “like an American movie.”
OK, good idea, is there an American movie that can compare to this Leicester City story? Rocky lost the first fight. Rudy got to play but, you know, he didn’t score the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl or anything. The Karate Kid … that was just the All-Valley Karate Championship.
Well, wait, I just thought of one. Remember when Luke Skywalker fired that proton torpedo into the thermal exhaust port, blowing up the Death Star? What was it that Han Solo said to him after that?
“Great shot kid!” Han Solo shouted. “That was one in a million.”
Right. One in a million.
Eh, actually, Luke had the force. Leicester City still wins.