Learning from the Improbable Triumph of Leicester City

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A year ago, the Leicester City Football Club was at the bottom of the English Premier League (EPL). In August, bookmakers set the odds against Leicester City winning the league at 5000 to 1. One wag compared that to the odds of Elvis being found alive.

In many professional sports, money is the name of the game and the EPL is no exception. But Leicester City didn’t outspend other teams. In fact, their budget for players is about 12 percent of the budget at Manchester City and 17 percent of the budget at Chelsea.

The players on other teams are often household names making huge salaries. Leicester City’s players seemed like a rag-tag bunch. Jamie Vardy was the team’s top goal scorer this season. Just six years ago he was playing part time for $43 a week while he worked in a factory.

The manager’s professional resume didn’t offer much hope, either. Claudio Ranieri has been a team manager for twenty-nine years. He never won a major championship. Before he was hired by Leicester City, he was fired by Greece, after only four matches where the team had one draw and three losses. The final loss was to the Faroe Islands. I’ll give you a moment to look up where they are.

So how did they do it? How do you go from the bottom of the league to the top in a single season? How do you do it with a budget that’s a fraction of the teams you play against?

Some of the usual reasons for success apply

There was hard work. Ranieri’s mother said that he was comfortable with the team because they “train like true professionals.” There was also some luck. Some of the top teams were a little off their usual standard this season. Great success rarely comes without hard work and a little luck.

It wasn’t brilliant strategy

Strategy is over-rated. Ranieri’s strategy was described by several commentators as “old-school.” It was simple, straightforward, and used the strengths of the players. Every other club knew what Leicester City was going to do, but they couldn’t stop them. Success didn’t come from brilliance. It came from execution.

Analytics played a role

One thing that Leicester City had was great scouts. These folks pored over the statistics. They spotted value in players that other clubs didn’t want. They looked for speedy players and players with specific skills. And that’s one of the places where Ranieri made a difference. It might not be the difference you’re thinking of.

The manager played a role

Ranieri wasn’t a scout, but when he took over at Leicester City, he kept most of the staff that were already there. That kept the backroom team intact, the team that found the undervalued players.

Ranieri was also a manager that players wanted to play for. At a particularly tough part of the season, he gave his players a couple of weeks off to “recharge.” He showed he trusted them.

He also built on his players’ strengths. The man who was known as “Tinkerman” at a previous club for all the moves and shifts and changes he made, only made a few at Leicester City. But the moves he made seemed to put players in a position to do better.

That’s the funny part. Ranieri couldn’t make the manifold “Tinkerman” moves he’d made before. He didn’t have the depth. He had to play it simple and that was what worked.

Great success is part alchemy

Great success is always part alchemy. It’s the product of a place and a time and a mix of people and circumstance and luck. Even the alchemists don’t know for sure why it worked the way it did. And that’s the case with the improbable triumph of the Leicester City Football Club.

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