The English Premier League has long been dominated by the privileged few. The clubs with the four largest wage bills in the league — Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United — have won all 20 league titles in the past two decades. The most recent exception, Blackburn in 1995, was powered by heavy expenditures including a then-record transfer fee for star forward Alan Shearer. To find a league champion truly outside of the English elite, you have to go back to Brian Clough’s league champions from Derby County and Nottingham Forest in the 1970s. Until, perhaps, Leicester City this season.
The Foxes have a five-point lead on second place Tottenham Hotspur with four matches to play. In my projections Leicester is favored about 75 percent to 25 percent to win the title. If the Foxes can hang on, they will win the club’s first Premier League title in its history. And this was far from a run driven by new-money spending. The largest transfer fee paid out by Leicester in the transfer window–$12.5 million for forward Shinji Okazaki—was only the 41st largest fee paid out by Premier League clubs in the last year. Every one of the clubs in the relegation battle paid more for its most expensive transfer than Leicester. While Leicester’s wage bill this season has not been released, last year the club spent about $83 million on player salaries, which made it the third cheapest roster in the league. It is highly unlikely given Leicester’s lack of major new acquisitions that the club is even in the top half of wage bills in the league this year.
In this economic context, what Leicester has achieved is entirely without precedent. Since wage growth began to skyrocket around the turn of the millennium, no club of Leicester’s profile has come anywhere close to competing for a title. Only once has a smaller payroll club broken 70 points, and very few manage to get above 60. Leicester already has 73 and is on pace for nearly 80.
Leicester’s level of success, measured by the league table, is utterly one of a kind. No club has achieved what Claudio Ranieri’s side has this year. But from another perspective, digging into the underlying numbers, Leicester might not be so unusual.
From a smaller city and without a single league championship in its history, the club earned promotion and quickly set about doing good business. It hired a new manager from the continent, supported him with smart purchases of undervalued talent from the Dutch Eredivisie and the Swiss Super League, whom he integrated with quality players developed from the academy. Halfway through the season this club was in fourth place with the league’s third-best goal difference. It ended the year having scored 54 goals and conceded just 33. (Leicester’s current goal difference is only slightly better, 59 scored to 33 conceded.) This was the story of Southampton just last season.
While the Saints finished in seventh place, the underlying numbers show Southampton was not much worse than Leicester City. While no one disputes the Foxes have played quality soccer this season, Ranieri’s side has also been clinical in front of goal while its opponents have struggled. Since the new year, Leicester has conceded 16 clear-cut scoring chances but its opponents have scored only three of those, a rate about half of the usual expected. Leicester has also been on the fortunate end of the whistle, being awarded a league-most 11 penalties and giving up only three. Leicester City’s expected goals difference of about plus-14 is good for fifth-best in the league, but short of its plus-26 goal difference overall. In the context of expected goals, Leicester City does not appear quite so unusual in recent history.
Perhaps the clearest predecessor to Leicester City is not Southampton but Roberto Martinez’s Everton in 2013-14. Until Leicester, that side was the only one in recent history to break 70 points without paying a large wage bill. (Note Everton in the scatter plot above.) And that season — like Leicester’s — was driven by variance in finishing rates as Everton’s plus-9 expected goals difference shows.
This analysis suggests that Leicester City is not so inexplicable after all, but rather the latest in a line of well-run smaller clubs to perform at a high level in the Premier League. David Moyes’s Everton consistently finished in the top half despite never paying the wages of the big sides, and Southampton has recently overtaken the Merseyside club as England’s model organization. Leicester looks relatively similar to the Saints and Toffees in its underlying numbers. The Foxes have further captured lightning in a bottle with their finishing rates (and especially with opposition finishing) while benefiting from down years by many of the traditional elite.
The lesson of this incredible season is not peculiar to Leicester. Good resource management, smart acquisitions and quality tactics can elevate a smaller club to competitiveness. The examples of Everton and Southampton show this, as well. Once you are competitive, you are in position to take advantage of a run of good fortune should it hit. And Leicester City has taken that advantage nearly all the way to a league title.