There are many different ways of telling the amazing story of Leicester City, different points in time to start the story and different theories behind its remarkable nature.
Rightly, many of the stories cite the years in the faceless doldrums of multiple owners, managers and seemingly endless amount of players on a conveyer belt passing them in and out of the club. However this story is less about those years. Instead, this one focusses on the last three years and why and how this remarkable story can be made more understandable, but no less remarkable. This isn’t to take away anything of its beauty or its captivating magic. Instead, it is an attempt to explain and truly appreciate what is remarkable about what is happening. To understand what seems, at first look, too close to story books than reality.
This reading of Leicester’s rise is not complex and it is not controversial – it just seems it isn’t being told at the moment. It goes like this. Leicester City are not simply a plucky band of brothers who, for one improbable moment, have the alchemist’s touch and can turn up to Premier League grounds across the country and leave the victor. No. They are winners. They have been winners for several years, they have been laying down the foundations of a winning mentality for three years, bolstered by owners who have been laying foundations for Champions League football, and this mentality was provided extra steel during a harrowing period of not winning football matches last season. Put simply, Leicester City (in the last three years) are more used to winning football matches than Manchester United, than Arsenal, than Tottenham Hotspur and many other top teams (admittedly not so for Manchester City but they are experiencing their period of transition now).
The difference is that Leicester have been winning football matches in the Championship and then from the bottom of the Premier League, not at the top of the Premier League. So the majority of fans and pundits simply see a plucky team of inflated Championship players. Their winning tendency has been forgotten or missed because of the barren spell they endured for six months last season – this period of losing is Leicester City’s dominant identity in the national consciousness and hence ‘the Great Escape’ was remarkable. A bunch of losers remarkably won a freakish number of football games in a terribly short period of time.
There is another way to see this period. Leicester City were promoted as run-away champions of the Championship in 2014 with a record haul of points, winning 31 of their 46 games. They passed their way through teams, scored countless team goals that were notable for their quality and dominated possession. The team was balanced, fit and focussed. The season before that they were seconds away from the Play Off final, only for a remarkable five seconds of football that turned victory into defeat courtesy of Troy Deeney’s speedy counter-attack (did we make a note for the future watching this effective tactic?)
But hold on. What does it matter if you win the Championship? What on earth has that got to do with the globally captivating Premiership with its oligarchs, WAGS, Lambos, £50m Sterlings and Big Four domination? Well, the last time I checked the psychology books, winning is not relative. That is, a team of winners remains a team of winners even if they start playing against those who are superior in skill. Check your Malcolm Gladwell, your Matthew Syed or your Jim Collins. Winning and successful behaviors are mentalities not based on skill – they are based on behaviors and mentalities. Those who thrive and ‘win’ – in education, in business – feel and believe themselves to be ‘winners’. Those with far superior skills/intellects at elite institutions (Harvard, Cambridge, Chelsea, BCG) are mostly small fish in big ponds. Supremely talented yes but, relative to those in their proximal eco system, most of them are unremarkable. They are not quite losers but they define themselves by their relative lack of talent/intellect to those exceptional ones around them and they definitely do not define themselves in their ability to emerge victorious. They are surrounded by others more talented than themselves and rarely have the chance to win. Instead they must console themselves with the idea that they are close to the winners…the real winners, the most talented and remarkable people in the world. However this consolation is not the same as actually winning.
Over the last three seasons (2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 so far), Leicester City have won 52% of their football matches. Take away their tortuous period of propping up last season’s Premier League, from November to April, and then the numbers increase to a significant 60%. This is higher than all other teams around them in the Premier League, with the exception of Manchester City. Arsenal are on 59%, Chelsea 57% and Tottenham 53%. Manchester City have the highest win ratio of these top sides with 64% over the last three seasons.
To any potential critic of this argument, the clear flaw is the ignoring of a period of 20 games last season when Leicester could not buy a win. However, this argument is based on the idea that this barren spell is exactly what has super-charged Leicester’s winning mentality. Leicester have benefited hugely from the galvanizing period of losing because they believed it would change because, after all, they were winners. If you have the mentality of winning (or losing) it applies to all you do. Now, here is the remarkable bit about this team and their bullet-proof spirit and tenacity. While all the world saw a lowly team of losers being beaten week-in, week-out last season, what actually was happening was that a team of winners were being put through a six month long team-building activity. ‘You are winners, you just need to keep believing that youare winners, keep adapting to winning ways and you will prevail’ could have been the name of the activity.
Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of ‘Outliers’ relies on 10,000 hours of focussed activity being required to develop an exceptional skill. Let’s see….six months of toiling against the flow of things and still believing you are the winner amounts to about 5000 hours. Wrap the rest of the season around it and you are closer to 8000 hours. Add in this season so far and you are over 10,000 hours of focussed winning. This isn’t taking into account the season before (13/14) where they actually were Champions in the Championship.
What was remarkable about the ‘Great Escape’ was that the group of men, and those around them, did not once believe they were not good enough because that did not resonate with their identity as winners. Better still, they figured out what they needed to change to win again. They adapted, evolved. They believed something was wrong because they were no longer winning. That was not the natural order of things in their eyes so they figured it out, just in time.
To illustrate the point and to show the difference take Aston Villa’s plight this season. Aston Villa today are not a team of winners. Villa have been slowly descending into cycles of losing behavior for four years (or more). They have only won 52 League football matches in the last 6 seasons (going back to 2010/2011). That leaves them with a win ratio of 24% over the last six seasons, and 23% over the last three.
As a result of this, neither Villa or their fans believe they are good enough to stay up – which is not to say they will go down but you get the point. They are not being beaten and returning to the dressing room convinced they will win the next game because ‘that’s what they do’. They lose and they wonder if they are good enough after all. They probably wonder if they care as the core of the team is not strong and what core there is is part of the problem.
In huge contrast, Leicester City have won a title in the last three years. Admittedly, not the Premiership title. But the core of the team, and many at the club, have experienced a whole season being better than those around them. They have then been forged together through the intense heat of losing, to emerge stronger still. Claudio Ranieri has never seen such team spirit… and he has seen a lot of team’s spirits.
And that, ladies and gentleman, is what is remarkable about Leicester City. They are a team of winners who have had the most remarkable period of team building last season who have been misunderstood by most who play them. Add to this the diligent, though awkward, rebuilding of Nigel Pearson, the shrewd scouting of Steve Walsh and now the tanned, smiley Italianate wisdom of Cladio Ranieri and you have a hell of a club, not just a team.
The team in the Premiership with the most remarkable confidence, spirit and winning mentality are not plucky underdogs and yet have been seen as such mistakenly. So my prediction is that you might pass out if you are holding your breath and waiting for them to choke, to let the pressure get to them because, in their eyes (and in their hearts/heads) they have been here before. They win, that’s what they do.