Following Leicester City’s 3-1 away victory at Manchester City this past weekend, the bookies have installed the Foxes as title favourites for the first time, 25 games into the season. But does their meteoric rise to the summit owe much to the failings of the Premier League’s “elite” clubs in 2015/2016?
Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not looking to denigrate the club’s achievements this season, which have been truly remarkable. In the era of the Premier League, the Champions’ League and the runaway capitalism of modern football, the prospect of a club from the lower reaches of the Premier League mounting a sustained challenge for the title was believed by many, including me, to be impossible, as testified by the bookmakers taking this long to acknowledge Leicester’s credentials. The top clubs have the lion’s share of the money, and so logically they should have the best players, the best team, the best squads, and the experience of winning that comes from repeatedly sitting at the top table. Recent evidence can be provided by the wealth-backed rise of Manchester City and Chelsea, and the monotonous domination of Manchester United and Arsenal in the 2000s, two of the highest earning clubs by revenue at that time. Leicester’s insurgency harks back to the days when a provincial club could rise up a division and make a challenge with a good manager, an effective gameplan and a little luck, as evidenced by Nottingham Forest and Derby in the 1970s and 80s. Money wasn’t as important back then.
The achievement is all the more miraculous because they were almost relegated last season. On a smaller budget than the rest of their title competitors, they have enacted the greatest turnaround since the money started rolling into the English game with the advent of the Premier League in 1992. The table below shows that no team has ever come close to matching Leicester’s season-on-season improvement (please note that promoted teams are not included due to an absence of comparable previous season data).
The collapse of the Elite
The evidence above demonstrates what a remarkable season it has been for Leicester, but there is a caveat, which comes when we look at the other end of the spectrum. The table below shows the foot of the season-on-season improvement table since the 1992/93 season.
For as impressive as Leicester’s points per game (PpG) improvement of +1.04 has been, the collapse of last season’s champions Chelsea has been even more pronounced, with the club scoring an average of 1.09 points fewer per game this season, the steepest season-on-season fall since the advent of the Premier League.
This got me thinking about Leicester’s ascent, and the question of whether they would still be title favourites at this stage of the season had last season’s successful teams lived up to expectations. Chelsea’s fall from grace has been unprecedented and unexpected, and while the warning signs about an impending Manchester United collapse have been several years in the making, there is no doubt that they have the financial resources to compete at the very top with just a little planning and foresight which has been curiously missing in this mediocre season. Manchester City and Arsenal are still in contention, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if either team were able to turn it around and claim the title, but they are certainly labouring this season. Indeed, those four clubs – the financial elite, last season’s top four – have all scored fewer points per game this season than they did last season.
Again, I’ll make it clear that Leicester’s season has been astounding, with a PpG high enough to have earned a top four spot in each of season since the Premier League was formed, and a league title in seven of those 23 seasons. But there is no doubt that the strongest clubs have underperformed. The chart below shows the range and average PpG of the preceding season’s top four clubs.
The data shows us that as the Premier League has ‘matured’ (e.g. more money getting concentrated into the top clubs coffers), the performance of the previous season’s top four has strengthened, with the average PpG amongst the four clubs displaying an upward trend over the course of time. This indicates that the teams at the top of the table each season were continuing to amass points following season to an even greater extent as the money increased. Until this season, when the form of last season’s top four has plummeted. The average of 1.66 PpG between Chelsea, Manchesters City and United, and Arsenal is the lowest from a previous Premier League season’s top four since the breakaway of the league. As we’ve already seen, the influence of Chelsea’s disastrous title defence cannot be underestimated, however even if we remove their score, the remaining three teams’ PpG stands only at 1.81 PpG, which is the lowest since the 1997/98 season.
The rise of Leicester should be celebrated by all, because the hope of a competitive league and an unpredictable ascent of an underdog sustain many of us, and the knowledge that it is happening here and now for the last time in no-one knows how long should be cherished. But throughout it all let’s not forget the role that the elite clubs have unwittingly played in this wonderful story, because their ineptitude has cleared the way for Leicester to charge on ahead. Their collective gift to football has been to squander their advantage, and for that we must be at least temporarily thankful.