5000-1. It’s a staggering figure, and one that’s seemingly been repeated endlessly over the past weeks and months by every major sports media outlet, and for good reason. Frequent readers of mine will know that I strongly dislike hyperbole in sports, and feel that all too often we jump the gun and wildly exaggerate the latest and greatest feats. However, I do not exaggerate when I say that Leicester City may have just captured the unlikeliest championship in the history of professional team sports.
Before opening day of the 2015-16 Premier League season, you could’ve received the same odds on a bet on Leicester to win the league as a bet on Elvis Presley being alive or confirmed proof of a Yeti or the Loch Ness Monster, among other outrageous proposals. The fact that such long odds existed in the first place is absurd, and should force sports books to change the way they view long shots in the future. For now, though, let’s take a moment to marvel at just how incredible Leicester’s season was.
For starters, this is a team that if not for a miracle run to finish the 2014-15 season, wouldn’t have even played in the Premier League this year. Leicester were bottom of the table for 19 consecutive weeks between November and April, and with a mere nine games remaining in the season still stood dead last, seven points away from safety. However, Leicester managed to win seven of their last nine games, adding a draw and a defeat, for a total of 22 points. That’s three more than the 19 points the club earned in their first 29 matches. By scoring the most points in the Premier League down the stretch, they finished the season in 14th place, six points clear of relegation.
Expectations for the 2015-16 campaign were simply to avoid relegation. No one expected much from the Foxes, and certainly not a finish anywhere close to the top of the table. You have to understand that the Premier League is incomparable to a league like the NFL, where every year there is significant turnover amongst the league’s best teams. The Premier League has no salary cap, meaning the teams with the greatest capability to spend almost always finish at the top. Overwhelmingly, the five clubs that spend the most are Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, and Liverpool. In fact, there is so little parity that over the 10 seasons prior to this year, the only times a team outside of the “big five” finished in the league’s top four were fourth place finishes by Tottenham in 2009-10 and 2011-12. This season, Leicester is spending the 17th most on player wages, more than only the newly promoted Norwich City, Watford, and Bournemouth.
The scatterplot above shows each team in the Premier League, with the money they are spending on player wages this season on the x-axis and their number of league points on the y-axis. As you can tell, it’s been a weird year. While the five clubs that spend by far the most money all reside in the league’s top half, Leicester City have captured the title by spending between three and four and a half times less in wages. Second place Tottenham are spending only half as much as preseason title favorites Chelsea, whose $215.6 million euro price tag has netted them only ninth place. Even West Ham United and Southampton are have managed nearly as good or better seasons while spending only a fraction as much as the perennial powerhouses.
Just how much better are these teams than you would expect, based solely on their player wages? Well, if you use the line of best fit above to calculate each team’s expected points, you get a table that looks like this:
Leicester City is currently over 33 points above their expected performance, making them a genuine outlier. A team playing this much better than they should is basically unheard of, and speaks testaments to the superb quality of the club. Have they been aided by a weaker than normal year for the league? Sure. Any season where the preseason favorite struggles to maintain position in the top half can’t be considered a strong year, but Leicester have lost just three times with only two games remaining in the season. It’s unbelievable.
Early on in the season, much of Leicester’s success was attributed purely to the legendary run of striker Jamie Vardy, who scored in eleven straight matches to break Ruud van Nistelrooy’s Premier League record. However, as the year progressed, heroic performances from breakout Riyadh Mahrez, incredible consistency from N’Golo Kanté, and a defense which has allowed the second fewest goals in the league, among other factors, have proved Leicester’s start to be no fluke. They have been the best team in the league this season, without question. Leicester have done it without the greatest talent. In fact, even now, Leicester is only the 12th most valuable squad in the league in terms of their players’ transfer market value, according to transfermarkt.co.uk. That’s below average for a team who just won the championship. For a team like that, incredible coaching, teamwork, and determination are required to look past the doubters and toward continued success.
There have been doubters the whole way. Even at the midpoint in the season, first place Leicester were only given 14-1 odds at holding on and emerging victorious at the end of the season. In fact, they only had even odds at a top-four finish. It seemed the whole way, the world waited and waited for an “imminent” collapse that just never occurred. Perhaps we need to wonder not how Leicester pulled it off, but why we were so skeptical of them.
Leicester’s 5000-1 preseason odds were so incredibly tiny that I wouldn’t blame you if you blinked the first time you saw them, just to make sure you read it correctly. In a 20-team league, this means that Leicester was supposed to win 250 times less than the average team, which just seems insulting. Crazy things happen in sports all the time, and by giving odds that crazy, sports books are almost asking to suffer huge losses. In Bovada’s preseason NBA title odds for the current 2015-16 season, the worst odds given to any team were 250-1. One of the three teams given those odds was the 76ers, a team that was practically designed to lose as many games as possible. Did the 76ers have any real chance whatsoever to win the title? Nope. But then again, did Leicester?
In the Premier League, which is typically considered to be the strongest soccer league in the world top-to-bottom, no team should have odds any longer than 250 or maybe 500-1. From a soccer perspective, no team is poor enough to have lower than a 500-1 chance at winning. From a money perspective, it’s still just going to be fans of the horrible teams betting at those long odds, and it eliminates the possibility of disaster.
Even now as league champions, Leicester City is still underrated. If you want to make a bet on the team to repeat as Premier League champs next year, you can get anywhere between 25-1 and 40-1. This is for the current champions, mind you. It’s crazy.
Leicester’s improbable run to the title is inspiring, and exactly what will draw even more people to the sport. It reminds us that anything can happen, and that almost nothing is better than a true underdog story. Money can’t buy success. The best players don’t necessarily make the best team. A team widely predicted to be relegated can win the Premier League. What are the odds?