David and Goliath
Having just finished the book David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, it naturally made me think of times when underdogs defied the odds to win. As a football fan, Leicester City’s title-winning season is one of my all-time favourite stories. Why you may ask? Let’s just say I had a lucky bet one time.
Here I take a look at how Leicester slayed the Goliaths of the Premier League in 2016.
Leicester City almost went down the year before
Leicester City had dramatically escaped relegation the season before, and had just appointed a new manager named Claudio Ranieri, who had never won top division league trophy before. The bookmakers had Leicester at 5000-1 to win the Premier League before a ball was kicked that season. No-one outside of Pluto would have predicted that Leicester would win the league that season. But did exactly that, trumping the footballing giants of Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham. The most commonly-used starting XI cost just £20 million compared to the Premier League winners of the previous four years costing on average ten times more.
So how did a team so far off the pundits’ radar smash the odds to win, and what can we learn from it?
Leicester didn’t look in typical places to recruit, and they didn’t look at typical factors when considering players to bring in.
Clubs in the Premier League usually recruit from the top leagues in Europe and from the Championship league in England. Because Leicester were on a lower budget, their recruitment department went to leagues as low as the fifth division of each European nation in order to find diamonds in the rough. They were successful in finding three truly magnificent signings, some of which would make big-money moves to richer clubs after winning the Premier League with Leicester. Firstly, Jamie Vardy, who scored a league-high 24 goals, started off in the lower leagues in England and only made the move to Leicester City in 2012 at the relatively tardy age of 25, after years of considering quitting the game. Amazingly, he was 27 when he played in the Premier League for the first time. The left-footed winger Riyad Mahrez was signed from Le Havre in France for less than half a million pounds. N’golo Kante, a central midfielder with great natural fitness and could contribute in defence and attack, was also signed from France for around £5 million. Barely anyone had heard of him, not even Ranieri.
The rest of the squad was made up mostly of players that had been released or had ‘failed’ at other clubs in the Premier League. Not only were these players cheap, they also would have the extra fire and motivation to prove themselves after the rejection from their past clubs. Players like Danny Drinkwater and Danny Simpson had been previously discarded by Manchester United, while Robert Huth was sold from Chelsea to Stoke and then to Leicester. Marc Albrighton had just been picked up for free after Aston Villa released him.
Premier League teams have a bias towards players that are in their early-twenties and have strong physical attributes like height, strength and pace. They also favour players that are born in the British Isles or are from strong football nations. Many of Leicester’s signings were professionals that would be considered well past their peak years in their career, while other players like Shinji Okazaki, Kante and Mahrez would certainly have been overlooked by other clubs because of their lack of height, physical strength, or the country they were from. This is why Leicester could pick these players up for cheap, because these over-weighted factors meant that these players were undervalued. That style of recruitment very much reminds me of the film ‘Moneyball’, where a US baseball manager goes against conventional wisdom and uses a new statistical model to revamp his team in a bid to win the championship.
Even looking back though, no-one in their right mind can say that this squad was the best squad in the Premier League. So how did they still win against 5000-1 odds when they weren’t even nearly the best group of players?
Leicester won using a style of play that other teams weren’t willing to utilise.
Typically, football teams that have won the Premier League average 58% of possession, playing short passes. Leicester’s manager, Ranieri, switched this on its head as he favoured a defensive gameplan averaging only 42% possession and focusing on sitting deep and using a counter-attacking long-passing strategy. Not only was this a good strategy to beat almost any team (especially the teams that they ended up competing against at the top of the table), it played to the strengths of the squad Ranieri had at hand.
Ranieri’s two central defenders in Robert Huth and Wes Morgan could easily be beaten in a footrace so he did not want them exposed to the pacey strikers that are so prevalent in the Premier League. Instead he preferred the opposition play wide to cross the ball where the defenders would have the advantage aerially, or to play more patiently through the middle and run into an inevitable tackle. He ordered his back line to position themselves closer to their own goal to cut the space for the opposition to attack.
Shots were easier for defenders to block because they had more men back and were lined up in compact military fashion, with Okazaki dropping into midfield with Drinkwater and Kante when Leicester were without the ball, often only leaving Vardy as the out-ball when Leicester recovered the ball.
Leicester made the most tackles and interceptions in the league that year too, because the opposition players were always coming up against what seemed to be a huge human wall any time they would get close to the Leicester goal.
Whenever Leicester recovered the ball, the players would kick the ball up the pitch with long passes to their enigmatic and energetic striker Jamie Vardy. Even though Leicester’s passing accuracy was the worst in the league at 70%, the passes that did come off gained much more territory than the average pass made by the rest of the teams in the league. This meant that they could not only minimise mistakes made when in possession in their own half, but a higher percentage of their successful passes led to goalscoring chances. Vardy ended up scoring a record 11 league games in a row, and a league-topping 24 in total. Mahrez also scored plenty of goals and made lots of assists with performances that won him the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award.
Whenever Leicester led, they played it even more safe, and often won their matches by just a single goal. This is not exactly a new way of playing football, but it was the first time that I’ve seen this strategy used as a plan-A on a consistent basis in order to win a league.
A reasonable question to ask is – why didn’t any of the other teams with better squads try out this strategy? The answer is that all of the so-called bigger clubs these days are so rigid in the way that they believe football should be played, that they are willing to give up a higher chance of victory in order to play in alignment with their short-passing ideologies. Leicester was a team that had barely survived in the division the previous year, so why would they destine themselves to fighting the same consistent struggle just to please spectators with cookie-cutter football and potentially lose millions of pounds and go down? In my opinion, seeing this style of play was refreshing and entertaining to watch, and Leicester were willing to stand up to be criticised for their long-ball game. In the end, the criticism didn’t come anyway. Everyone loves when an underdog wins.
Keys to being an underdog
These major factors that produced Leicester’s famous win in 2016 showed that even the biggest underdogs can win. They just need to change their way of thinking, see what other people aren’t seeing, be pragmatic enough to challenge the unwritten laws of the game, and use past hardships as a driver for success. Add in the courage to face potential scrutiny for the unorthodox strategy, and the fortune of the competition underestimating the underdog, and you have the ingredients to replicate a modern-day David versus Goliath.
What ways can you implement these strategies in areas of your life where you are an underdog? Which new areas could you look to find your next job, recruit, romance or social interaction? Which unpopular strategies can you apply to make sure you’re not playing the Goliaths at their own game? What’s your favourite underdog victory of all time?
I’d love to know in the comments section below.