5000-1. Five THOUSAND to one. If you live somewhere with legalized sports betting, those were the odds you could have gotten by betting on Leicester City to win the English Premier League before the 2015-2016 season began. At this time one year ago, Leicester City was in dead last place in the Premier League; every expert, pundit, and observer of the league predicted that Leicester would be relegated. If you’re in last place, that late in the year, you’re going down. However, Leicester pulled off their great escape. They won six out of the last eight matches on their schedule (after only winning four league games from August through April), and ended up finishing in a surprising, and respectable, 14th place. Everyone lauded the plucky Foxes for avoiding relegation, but nobody thought they could do it two years in a row. Go back and check any expert’s preseason predictions. Everyone thought Leicester would finish in the bottom 3 and head back down to the Championship (England’s 2nd division).


I wrote about Leicester a few months ago, back before Christmas. I mentioned the magic of Riyad Mahrez, the goalscoring and general unlikeliness of Jamie Vardy, the widely criticized offseason hiring of manager Claudio Ranieri. Back in early December, Leicester’s position at the top of the table was a “nice story.” It was quirky. It was cool to see a team other than the established and/or well-moneyed teams doing so well. Even then, the consensus went, it couldn’t last. The naysayers pointed out how favorable Leicester’s early season schedule had been, and they said the Christmas period of the schedule (while most European leagues take a break over the holiday period, the Premier League packs the matches in, testing even the fittest and deepest squads in England) would challenge Leicester’s relative lack of depth. The Foxes survived the Christmas period, and though they didn’t exactly thrive, they didn’t falter. More importantly, the established powers around them didn’t take control, either. Manchester City’s defense remained suspect with captain Vincent Kompany out with a calf injury. Arsenal’s goalscoring dried up as they dealt with a lengthy injury list of their own. Chelsea sacked Mourinho, and the damage to their season had already been done. I’d mention Manchester United, but I’ve dozed off every time I’ve tried to watch them play. Tottenham have an exciting young squad and maybe the best young manager in England in Mauricio Pochettino, but they’re Tottenham.
Leicester kept it together, and while even the most pessimistic observers were coming to grips with the fact that the Foxes were probably going to finish in the top 4 and earn a spot in next year’s Champions League, the Premier League title was still a bridge too far. And so it went heading into last weekend, when Leicester City traveled to Manchester City. This would REALLY be it for the Foxes. Man City would whip the Foxes; order would be restored. Nobody told Leicester. They jumped to a 3-0 lead over the sky blues by doing what they’ve done all season: ceding possession, playing defense that is compact and organized, and counterattacking with the kind of precision and quality you usually only see by playing EA Sports FIFA on “amateur.” Sergio Aguero scored a late consolation goal in front of a rapidly-emptying Etihad Stadium, but it came much too late. Final score: Manchester City 1 – Leicester City 3.
I’ve tried to come up with ways to provide some context for just how unlikely Leicester City’s title contention is, and I’ve come up short every time. The 1980 US Olympic hockey team, the ’69 Mets, Villanova in 1985…all great underdog stories. Those teams were Goliaths compared to what Leicester are up against (ok, maybe not the ’80 Olympic team).
Leicester City’s ENTIRE SQUAD cost around 55 million pounds (GBP) in transfer fees. That’s roughly the same amount Manchester City paid Wolfsburg for midfielder Kevin De Bruyne last August. All told, Man City’s squad cost about 420 million GBP in transfer fees (that’s before we get to actual player salaries; those figures aren’t as readily available for public consumption, but there’s no doubt the wages City pays its talent are just as staggeringly lopsided as the transfer fees).
I can’t help but go back to Leicester’s preseason betting odds. 5000-1. The longest odds to win next year’s Super Bowl are on the Browns, at 250-1. Oddsmakers think it’s 20 times more likely the Browns will win Super Bowl 51 than Leicester would win the title this year (I know that’s not exactly how odds work, but still…). Maybe you’re skeptical because the NFL is a salary cap league, built on the premise of league-wide parity. So let’s take a look at World Series futures. The Braves and Phillies are the biggest longshots to win the 2016 Fall Classic. Both are listed at 350-1. The same bookmakers that listed Leicester at 5000-1 offered odds of 2500-1 that Arsenal fan and television personality Piers Morgan would replace manager Arsene Wenger in the Emirates dugout at some point this year. Leicester lead the Premier League by 5 points through 25 matches of the 38 match season; Wenger remains employed by Arsenal.
Ranieri has done a tremendous job of keeping his team grounded. During their hot start, the manager and players all repeated that avoiding relegation was their only goal. Once they were clearly safe, and the “we’re just trying to stay up” routine wouldn’t cut it anymore, they still wouldn’t get too far ahead of themselves (“one match at a time” and such). The British bookmakers now have Leicester as the odds-on favorite to win the league. When that was mentioned to Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri after the win over Manchester City, the sly old Italian demurred. In his post-match press conference, Ranieri said in his thick Italian accent, “I don’t believe in the bookmakers. The bookmakers at the beginning predicted that the first manager sacked would be Ranieri.”
Upsets happen all the time in soccer. It’s always been that way, with the low-scoring nature of the game, where one fluky deflection or referee’s decision can swing an entire match. But that’s one game. Teams don’t get lucky over the course of an entire season. The structure of the league ensures that. Every team plays a double-round robin against each of the other teams in the league (nineteen matches at home, nineteen matches on the road). There are no playoffs in the Premier League. Every so often, we see teams in the U.S. that underperform in the regular season, then claim a championship by getting hot at the right time. The 6th seeded Steelers of 2005, the LA Kings entering the Stanley Cup playoffs as an eighth seed, a wild card MLB team riding a couple of hot arms to the World Series. In soccer, you have to prove it over the course of a grueling nine month season. The cream rises to the top. Through 25 matches, the Leicester City Filbert Foxes have proved themselves to be the best team in England. They have 13 matches left to pull off what many serious people have said would be “the greatest story in the history of English football.” This Sunday morning, the Foxes travel to Arsenal for another huge test of their title legitimacy. I’m done doubting them.


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