Leicester City are going to win the League and are going to break the triopoly of Man U, Man City, and Chelsea. It’s going to be a dream come true to see Cesc Fabregas giving Claudio Ranieri a guard of honor. Especially since Ranieri was fired by Chelsea in order to bring in the Mourinho era.
Since I have been writing this blog only three teams have won the League. Those three teams have spent the most money on transfers and wages and essentially built the model of spend, spend, spend.
Before the arrival of Chelsea and Man City, Arsenal were the team that broke the mould. We were the team that didn’t spend, that sold our players for enormous prices to Spain*, that bought cheap and sold high, and who had a large salary but certainly nothing like what Ferguson had at Man U. That’s not to say that Arsenal weren’t a big team, we were the famous Arsenal, but rather that in those days a team could challenge for the League without spending obscene amounts of money.
And I mean obscene. For example, in the 2003/04 Invincibles season, Arsenal had the third highest wage at £70m and the second highest transfer spend with £16m. In the previous title winning season 2001/02 Arsenal had the second highest wage bill at £61m and the 8th highest transfer spend with £11m. There were plenty of teams spending money in those years — Man U, Chelsea, Leeds, and Liverpool were up there with Arsenal in total spend — but no one was doing what Chelsea would do starting in the Abramovich era; spend 10x the transfer money of any other team and double the wages.
Manchester United quickly followed suit and 5 years later Manchester City added their oily money to the pot and for the last 11 seasons the three biggest spending teams have won the League.
Until this season.
Leicester have a team that are well organized, they play as a team, their players are ambitious, and they play to their strengths. Leicester have also largely escaped injury, they are finishing at above normal rates, and they have gotten the benefit (early in the season) of referees calls, especially penalties, but none of those facts are abnormal for a title winning team.
Leicester have followed a simple formula for success. They don’t over complicate their system and they don’t ask players to play in ways that they can’t. For example, Robert Huth is not a ball playing center back so Leicester don’t try to build from the center back position. Their center backs are also not fast, so they don’t try to play high up the pitch where they would be exposed. They also have some of the fastest players in the League in Vardy and Mahrez so they play compact, simple football which plays exactly into the strengths of their star players, Mahrez, Vardy, Kante, Drinkwater, and Huth. This is basic stuff, I know, but there are a lot of teams who try to complicate football unnecessarily.
As for injury, there are some that want to sully Leicester’s injury record with insinuations that they are doping. We don’t have evidence of that but we do know that they have a dedicated team of physios who test pitch conditions and set up practices to maximize success. They also didn’t have to play in Europe which made their season simpler and in this all important post-Christmas period they have only played 16 matches whereas Arsenal have played 20. It’s also not that unheard of for a team to field a small team: Chelsea, for example, only used 20 players last season, just 1 more than Leicester this season. United used 23 players two years ago, Man City 21 players three years ago, United 21 in 2008, and so on.
As for their finishing, I have been looking at scoring percentages for years and I have detailed data back to 2008. I can confidently say that the top teams always finish at above normal rate. Leicester are actually not converting at a historically high rate. Their bulk conversion (minus pens) is just 11%, tied with Arsenal, West Ham, and Everton. Last season’s winners were highly efficient: scoring 13% of their total shots. And for two seasons prior to that we actually saw the winning teams convert 14% of their total shots.
The other accusation I see a lot is that Leicester have been awarded too many penalties. But 10 penalties in a season isn’t at all unusual for a title winning team — Liverpool had 12 in their title challenge season, Chelsea had 11 in 2012/13, Chelsea 12 in 2009/10, etc.
Most fans are suggesting that Leicester got lucky this season and some fans are even saying that this is the worst Premier League season ever. Both of those things ring true. Next season Chelsea will have Conte in charge, Man City will have Pep Guardiola, and Man U will probably have Mourinho. All of those teams are going to spend money to bring in new players that fit the systems that their managers want them to play. All of those teams are going to be supremely organized. And Chelsea will also not have the burden of Champions League football.
In addition, there are several up and coming teams: Liverpool are looking like a team with an interesting new identity, Tottenham play a good brand of football, and even West Ham are starting to look like a team that could challenge for 4th place.
And starting next season teams are going to reap an additional £35-40m a season in television revenue.
The League is changing. Teams are getting wealthier and will be able to attract more players like Mahrez and Kante. We are going to see all the games get more difficult from top to bottom. But the question is “will we ever see another team like Leicester win the League?” Do the fundamental changes to the Premier League mean that every team has a chance to win the League if they do what Leicester has done and play to their strengths?
I doubt it. This looks like a one-off, like Leicester were just in the right place at the right time. And if that’s the case, we as fans of football should savor this moment. Because if I’m right, the Premier League is about to revert back to the triopoly of Man U, Man City, and Chelsea winning the title every season.
*Wenger’s magic in the Spanish market is amazing: the sales of Overmars, Petit, Hleb, Song, and Vermaelen more than make up for the cheap prices we got for Cesc and Henry.