How on earth could Leicester City win the English league? They are perhaps the most surprising winners of any of the bigger European leagues ever, even if in England it is possible to argue that both Ipswich Town (1962) and Nottingham Forest (1978) can compete.
But as the British football sociologist Richard Giulianotti said in a lecture some years ago – wrongly as it turns out – when he looked back at Nottingham’s sensational league championship and the two following triumphs in the European Cup: ‘It will never happen again’. The economic expansion of football has made it impossible to oppose the laws of footballing economics. Before this season, 23 years of the Premier League had only given us five different winners. Three of these won on the basis of pretty obscene injections of money from the rich, which gave them economic muscle well beyond what their market value would suggest (Blackburn, Chelsea, Manchester City). What you can say about this money is that even if it hasn’t exactly helped to make football fairer, it has at least made the league more exciting.
Even so, five winners, and there would have been far fewer if the laws of economics hadn’t been set aside by Russian oil magnates and Arab sheikhs. When Nottingham Forest won in 1978, they were the twelfth different league champions in 23 seasons, and the same was true of Ipswich in 1962. English football was much more equal. A group of wealthier clubs separated themselves out in the 1980s, and this was cemented in and by the Premier League.
Leicester have broken the iron laws of footballing economics in a wholly different way. How could that happen? I shall point out four factors.
The first factor, which is very much undervalued in football, is margins. Or just plain luck. Most people think a team can win a cup by luck, or the European Nations Championship (Denmark, Greece), since it’s a matter of very few matches. Received opinion is that it evens itself out over a whole season.
But that’s not the case. Statistical modelling shows that chance events can have a big effect on the final table, even over 38 games. I’ve only seen a few of Leicester’s matches, but those I have seen have been pretty even if we look at the balance of chances of scoring. Without taking away from their achievement significantly, there’s little doubt that Leicester have had a smooth run. Leicester have also been lucky with injuries, and they have also of course had the significant advantage of playing fewer matches in other competitions than their competitors.They were better collectively than individually.
The second factor is the style of play. Leicester are near the bottom as regards completed passes and holding the ball. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the team is made up of poor passers of the ball, just that they take big risks more often and often try to make passes which cut out links and create direct breakthroughs, with correspondingly greater chance of losing the ball. That such a strategy, known in Norway from the glory days of Egil “Drillo” Olsen with the national team, should create champions is nevertheless surprising. Traditionally, this style of play has made it possible for teams doomed to relegation to end up in mid table, but over time it has shown itself to be useless against the very best. The distinctive elements of Leicester’s style of play provides material for yet more thorough analyses in future.
The third factor is understanding about collective abilities. Aided by having few injuries. Leicester used few players during the season, and in addition – and consequently – they could cultivate roles which enabled the players’ particular skills to be fully exploited and in the best interests of the team. Every move on the pitch should ideally have regard to team mates’ plans and movements. Even individual abilities are at the deepest level precisely relational. In Norwegian football we see this most clearly in the great days of Rosenborg, the leading Trondheim side in the 1990s. When the players, who as a team had beaten both Milan and Real Madrid, tried to play for foreign clubs, many of them failed, or at best looked like much more ordinary players than when they were at Rosenborg. They were better collectively than individually. If Leicester’s best players are tempted by ‘bigger’ clubs, I predict that the same will happen to most of them.
The fourth factor is money. Normally, as I have said, this factor will favour the commercially most attractive clubs, but a new TV deal for the premier League represents such a large growth for all that it has diminished the significance of participation in, for example, the Champions League. In the transfer window in January, it was actually the clubs in the lower half of the league who spent the most money. The obscene amounts of money that are in circulation in English football may for the first time have contributed to a certain equalisation.
The last will of course not be a lasting effect. The situation will normalise itself, and Leicester are unlikely to win next year. Meanwhile, the unexpected championship is a fairy tale which English football, the very incarnation of commercial and soulless football, needed desperately.
Copyright © Arve Hjelseth 2016