Leicester City and the richest game in soccer

Last month, Hull City and Sheffield Wednesday played a soccer match estimated to be worth more than 200 million British pounds for the winner. How was it that two mediocre Yorkshire teams play found themselves in such a contest? Because they were playing for the right to be promoted to the super-lucrative English Premier League.

Hull City prevailed 1-0. They are now one of the richest teams in Europe.

Not long ago, being promoted to the EPL carried risk. In order to have any hope of staying up, a team had to spend big on new players. If they were then relegated, they could find themselves in serious debt. Sometimes promoted teams went into free fall, dropping like a stone into the lower reaches of English soccer.

No more. Being kicked out of the Premier League now gets you a parachute payment of around 100 million pounds. This enormous award for failure seems ludicrous. However, encouraging promoted teams to spend freely helps the EPL maintain its high standard.

Two of this year’s promoted teams — Hull City and Burnley — were relegated last year. The parachute payment enabled them to keep their team mostly intact.

Norwich City, the winner of last year’s richest game, was relegated this season. However, the other two promoted sides — Bournemouth and Watford — survived, finishing 16th and 13th, respectively (the top 17 teams stay up). Next year, they will try to establish themselves as solid mid-table teams.

Mid-table status wasn’t good enough for Leicester City. Two years ago, they were promoted. Last year, they were rock bottom in the EPL until late in the season. In mid-April, very late in the season, they were in the bottom three. With a great late run, they managed to finish 14th, six points (i.e. two wins) from relegation.

As this season began, Leicester were 5,000-1 to win the Premier League. Yet, win it they did, finishing 10 points clear of second place Arsenal. (You can go here to see what I wrote in February about the race for the EPL crown).

I rate this the most improbable championship ever in a race I followed in any sport. You could make a case for the miracle Mets of 1969, but that case would have to overcome the fact that, unlike the National League back in the day, the EPL has been the preserve of just a few extremely wealthy teams.

It isn’t just promoted teams that have been frozen out of the title. Since 1995, only four teams, all quite wealthy, had won the EPL — Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City. Since 1998, only one other club had finished second — Liverpool on two occasions.

How did Leicester break this strangle hold? In one sense, they did it conventionally. I believe the formula for success in soccer is to be strong up the middle with one wild-card flank player.

Leicester featured a solid goalkeeper (Schmeichel), one of the top center back pairings in the league (Morgan and Huth), the best central midfield pairing (Kante and Drinkwater), one of the top three center forwards (Vardy), and the player of the year (Mahrez) on one flank.

Leicester’s ability to accumulate all that talent (and more) on a comparatively low budget is the secret of its success.

In another sense, Leicester succeeded unconventionally. Top teams almost always dominate possession of the ball. But Leicester ranked 18th out of the EPL’s 20 teams in time of possession.

Leicester relied on counterattacking football. Break up the opponents play and win the ball (Kante was best in the EPL at this); fast break, often by switching the ball to the opposite flank (Mahrez was the best wide player in the EPL, but Okazaki and Albrighton would also do); and find the pacy Vardy for the finish). Obviously, there was there more to it than that; a good discussion of Leicester’s tactics can be found here.

Leicester benefited from the fact that its competitors at the top played in European competitions for much of the season. Playing against high quality European teams during mid-week can take a toll. Leicester City didn’t come close to qualifying for Europe in 2014-15 and thus didn’t have to worry about those grueling extra matches.

But the EPL’s minnows have had this advantage for decades. Leicester is the first to capitalize on it in years. The top clubs have the money to build squads deep enough to handle the European menu, the domestic cups, and the EPL, assuming they stay relatively healthy.

Health played a role in Leicester City’s miracle season. Until very late in the year, manager Claudio Ranieri’s squad was nearly free from injuries and suspensions. Thus, he was able to play his top 11 game in and game out.

There’s some irony here. When Ranieri managed Chelsea, he was known as “the tinker man” because he was constantly changing his lineup. At Chelsea, one can tinker; not at Leicester, though maybe things will be different when Ranieri builds up his squad for next year in the European Champions League.

Leicester were also lucky that the EPL’s uber-talented teams — Chelsea and Manchester City — under-performed. Chelsea collapsed completely. Manchester City couldn’t quite stay in gear, especially once its manager officially became a lame duck during the winter.

Manchester United and Arsenal were rated as the other two contenders when the season started. But Man U isn’t Man U anymore, while Arsenal remains Arsenal — perennial also-rans.

Tottenham Hotspur made the strongest run at Leicester (and finished the year with the EPL’s best goal difference). But Spurs faltered down the stretch, probably the result of inexperience (this was the EPL’s youngest side) and playing Thursday night games in Italy, Germany, and even Azerbaijan.

Leicester City won the EPL with 81 points. How does this compare with recent championship performances. Chelsea won in 2015 with 87; Manchester City won in 2014 with 86 and in 2012 with 89; Man United had 89 points when they won in 2013. So Leicester’s point total is low, but not abnormally so.

It’s goal difference where Leicester truly comes up short compared to other recent champions. The average goal difference for champions from 2012-2015 was +53. Leicester’s was +32.

Keep in mind, though, that the EPL keeps getting more competitive as it rapidly becomes more wealthy. Last year’s winner, Chelsea, had a goal difference of only +41.

Anyway, the name of the game is winning, so let’s not over-analyze things. I never thought I’d see another minnow win the EPL. It happened this year. Fairly tales can come true.

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