Leicester City Champions

How the hell did that happen?!

It has been over a year since my last post however the miracle of Leicester’s Premier League Trophy win has awoken me from my slumber to try and answer the key question that everyone – including Leicester’s fans – are asking: How The Hell Did That Happen?!

Well the final league table reveals that Leicester did indeed end the season with the most points out of all 20 teams – and the Premier League’s complicated “points = good” algorithm means they finish as champions:

Final_Table_16

 

And you can be sure that, unlike some of our more illustrious petro-chemically enhanced clubs, Leicester have in no way bought that title – at £53million, their entire squad was assembled for less than the cost of Kevin De Bruyne. Now I like Kevin De Bruyne. But not that much.

LCFC_Earned

Well said mate.

 

As for the Leicester fans, they’ll be shaking their cardboard atmosphere-enhancers all the way to the bank:

SEASON TICKET

Losing 3 games all season (both Arsenal games and away to Liverpool in case you were wondering) and at a fraction of the cost of their ‘rivals’ is pretty damn impressive – but how damn impressive? The first insult being hurled at Leicester is that this season has been comparatively poor in terms of the points needed to win the league. How does Leicester’s triumph rank alongside the last 20 winners of that lovely shiny trophy?

Table_Winners

So, pretty low down the list – in fact the Leicester title-winning team of 2016 would’ve only finished third in Chelsea’s record breaking season of 2005. However they still bettered the records of some pretty notable teams, including Manchester United’s treble-winning team of 99 and Arsene Wenger’s first championship-winning side at Arsenal.

Next up, the armchair-fan brigade insist that Leicester have been handed the title due to the poor form of all of England’s usual suspects:

BIG5

All five teams have seen a downturn in points this season, with Chelsea’s fall from grace being most dramatic – they finished up a hilarious 27 points worse off than last year. Man City lost the next highest number of points – 13. How careless of them. However it’s worth noting that Leicester’s total this year would still have placed them above all but the champions Chelsea last season.

So how did they do it?

Arrivederci Tinkerman

Much has been made of Claudio Ranieri’s transformation from his ‘Tinkerman’ days at Chelsea to the ridiculously minimal changes he has made at Leicester this season. LCFC have made only 27 changes to their starting eleven ALL SEASON – second in the Premier League era only to the Manchester United team of 92-93 (26 changes).  This has all been made possible by Leicester’s unprecedented lack of injuries and their squeaky-clean disciplinary record:

INJURIES & CARDS

How very Gary Lineker.

Buongiorno Mahrez and Vardy

An absolutely vital cog in the Leicester machine has been PFA and Leicester Player of the Year, Riyad Mahrez. The now common story of Mahrez’s rise from the depths of Le Havre’s reserves to the golden boy of the Leicester fairytale is just another almost unexplainable factor in the How The Hell Did That Happen question. His record at Le Havre was patchy at best. In fact his record for Leicester, up until this season, gave no indication they had a world-beater on their hands:

Riyad Mahrez Career Stats

Shooting boots well and truly found.

As for Vardy, he was pretty prolific in 2011/12 – with Fleetwood Town. Bought by Leicester based on that season he proceeded to stink out the Championship and the Premier League – until this season when his goals per game ratio shot up from a miserly 0.15 to 0.67, propelling Leicester to the Premier League title.

Jamie Vardy Career Stats

 

Between them, Vardy and Mahrez accounted for 60% of Leicester’s goals and 40% of their assists. Vital.

In fact Mahrez and Vardy aren’t the only so-called ‘journeymen’ Leicester players to supercharge their careers this season:

According to the excellent http://www.transfermarkt.com, 60% (14 of 23) of the players in Leicester’s squad have seen a rise in their market value this year, with the largest rise being Mr Mahrez – from €1.25 million last season to a come-and-get-me €20 million this year.

On The Pitch

So Ranieri has shown complete faith in a starting eleven, put together on a shoestring budget, some of whom are now worth almost twenty times their value at the start of the season. That faith and increase in value must be built on some pretty impressive game stats then? Well, in terms of wins and points, obviously! But look a little deeper and Leicester’s title win begins to look even more miraculous:

In terms of possession and pass completion – usually the key indicators of a decent side – Leicester finished 3rd bottom and 2nd bottom respectively, below all three relegated clubs in both tables! So that’s the hipster tiki-taka stats out of the window. For their title win, Leicester went old-school – kept it tight at the back, and scored a load of goals:

 

Leicester weren’t the highest scorers in the division however scored the most number of goals both on the counter attack and on penalties – does that tell us something about their style of play?

Last Season

Lest we forget that Leicester shouldn’t really have even been in the Premier League at all, never mind winning the damn thing. At Christmas 2014, LFC were rock bottom of the division – usually a sure sign of impending doom. On the 3rd April 2015, they were still 7 points from safety at the bottom of the table. Then, the miracle began. Leicester won 7 of their final 9 games to finish fourteenth and survive easily. They became only the third team in Premier League history to survive after being bottom at Christmas. What happened next blew all of our tiny little minds.

A swing of 40 points, and +41 in goal difference tells the story of how Leicester transformed from relegation dogfighters to champions in the space of a season.

So…How The Hell Did That Happen?

Are we any further forward in solving one of sports greatest mysteries? In researching this piece I simply assumed that it would become blindingly obvious, that the numbers would provide the eureka moment and we could all finally understand how the hell this happened. But no. Looking at the game stats, Leicester were shocking in possession and couldn’t pass for toffee. In this Barcelona-dominated era, King Guardiola has these stats enshrined as the holy grail of performance. Little Leicester just blew that clean out of the water. And they didn’t paper over the cracks by simply spending a load of dubiously earned dollars on a team of mercenaries in order to win that trophy. Yes, they had some players who had the season of their lives (so far). But would you swap Jamie Vardy for Harry Kane? Or Sergio Aguero? What about Mahrez for Ozil or Sanchez?

The fact is, there is no solitary key ingredient to Leicester’s march to the title. Instead, the perfect storm of solid team performances, inconsistency from the usual powerhouses, a settled first eleven and a couple of players with the knack of scoring when it mattered provided the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and they took it – making an absolute mockery of the billions of pounds spent by so-called bigger clubs to even reach the ‘magical’ fourth place nevermind win the league. Leicester proved that the good old-fashioned footballing values of teamwork, solid defence, and scoring goals can still reap rewards. So what happens next for Leicester? A period of domestic and european dominance? A spectacular fall from grace resulting in an even more spectacular relegation? Or a gentle slide back into mid-table mediocrity? Ask any Leicester fan if they even care. What about the rest of the league? Will they curb their spending, knowing that the league can be won on a shoestring? Take more of a chance on unknown, unproven players from the lower leagues? Maybe do some work on their defence? Unfortunately I think we all at least know the answer to those questions.

Advertisements

Champions League Data

Another great Tableau visualisation, this time on this year’s Champions League stats so far: https://public.tableau.com/s/gallery/whos-boss-european-football You may need to brush-up on your Spanish skills but thanks to Google Translate, the stand-out stats for me are:

  • Luiz Adriano is spoliling the annual Ronaldo/Messi show with 9 goals in the competition. Of course, the Real Madrid and Barcelona players can still add to their totals, whereas Shaktar Donetsk were eliminated in the Quarter Finals after a hammering from Bayern.
  • The Pep Effect – Bayern Munich lead the way in terms of Goals, Possession, and Pass Completion.
  • Cristiano Ronaldo has taken the most shots. Shock.
  • Until their capitulation in the Quarter Final second-leg, Porto were the last unbeaten team in the competition.
  • A striker leads the way in metres covered – Edinson Cavani of PSG.
  • With a pass-completion rate of 92%, Giorgio Chiellini of Juventus is the competitions most accurate passer. Solid.
  • Cesc Fabregas is the King of the Assist, even in Europe.
  • Bayer Leverkusen are by far the dirtiest team in the Champions League.
  • Eden Hazard spends most of his time on a football pitch getting kicked.

The Premier League?

Is the Champions League party over?

Manchester City’s inevitable exit to Barcelona means that, for the second time in three years, there are no English participants in the Quarter-Final stages of the Champions League.

This spells a huge turnaround in fortunes for the English Premier League aka “The Best League in the World” (copyright Richard Scudamore). The graphic below shows that the Premier League have a pretty patchy record overall in the Champions League, however in a five year period from 2004-2009, English teams accounted for 12 of the possible 20 places in the final four of the competition, including two winners and four losing finalists:

English CL Progress

That dominance of the final stages of the CL effectively ended when Manchester United were outplayed by Barcelona in the final at Wembley in 2009. Apart from another final appearance from Man Utd in 2011 and the infamous Chelsea win of 2012, the ascendancy has shifted to a handful of Spanish and German clubs, accounting for 15 of the 20 final four places between 2009 and 2014:

CL Final Four

The pattern has continued this year, with all four of the English teams knocked out in the Round of 16, leaving Germany and Spain to make up half of the eight quarter-finalists.

So what factors have contributed to the English decline?

Spanish/German dominance of international football

Spanish-German Trophy Winners

The resurgence of Spanish and German clubs in the CL has coincided with their country’s dominance of international competition – between them they have won all four major international trophies since 2008. In that time, both international sides have featured large contingents from single successful CL clubs – Spain/Barcelona and Germany/Bayern Munich. Does success in the Champions League lead to success at International level? Or vice-versa? Some would point out that both countries have bred their own ‘Golden Generation’ – a highly-skilled group of players who have played together from a very early age. Both groups, it seems, were destined for greatness. There have been mentions of a ‘Golden Generation’ in England before – Fergie’s Fledglings, the West Ham academy of Lampard, Ferdinand, and Cole – but only the Man United win of 1999 can be in any way attributed to any of those players. That United win didn’t lead to any kind of sustained European success, and certainly wasn’t translated onto the international stage – with England flopping miserably at Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup in Japan.

The Inexplicable Failure of Manchester City

mancityfailure

Manchester City’s recent successes in the Premier League have turned them into Champions League regulars however their record in that competition is nothing short of terrible. How can a team dominate so regularly in The Best League In The World yet suffer so badly in the Champions League when coming up against poorer and so-called inferior opponents? While Man City’s results in the CL continue to be poor, so will England’s overall average.

The “Round of Arsenal”

ArsenalCL

The Round of Sixteen has now officially been renamed (by myself) “The Round of Arsenal”. Five years in a row, Arsenal have reached the Round of Sixteen. Five years in a row they have been knocked out at that stage. Now some would say that they have been extremely unlucky coming up against the elite of European football in those ties – Bayern Munich (twice), Barcelona, AC Milan, and now Monaco. Yes they are tough draws, but Arsenal have finished second in their group in all but one of those seasons, inevitably leading to a draw against one of the big boys. Their inability to top their group has cost them dear in the knockout stages.

The Decline of Italian Football 

Since Jose Mourinho’s Inter won the trophy in 2009-10, no Italian team has made it past the Quarter Finals of the competition (until this year – thanks for ruining that stat Juventus!). That is in rank contrast to the early years of the Champions League, when either AC Milan or Juventus were finalists in the first six years of the competition, both winning one and losing two. That was followed by a Carlo Ancelotti-inspired purple patch for AC Milan between 2002 and 2007 where they won two further trophies and appeared in another final and a semi-final. However, since the Inter win of 2010, there has been only three quarter-final appearances by Italian clubs. This downturn in fortunes means that one of European’s traditional powerhouses are no longer serious contenders in the Champions League, narrowing the field considerably and providing the Spanish-German clubs even more opportunity to dominate.

Retirement of Alex Ferguson

ManUCL

Manchester United are England’s most regular Champions League entrants with 19 appearances. During Alex Ferguson’s time at the club, they won the trophy twice and reached at least the quarter finals in 12 of the 18 seasons they entered. You can say what you like about old purple-face but he had a pretty decent record in Europe. Since Ferguson’s retirement, they are no longer even guaranteed a place in the competition, never mind a quarter-final spot. Out of the competition all together this year, they are in a race against time to finish fourth this season to avoid missing out for two years in a row for the first time in Champions League history. The fall from grace of the major English competitor in the CL (and the failure of their neighbour replacements) has had a major effect on the Premier League’s impact in the competition.

All of these factors have, in my humble opinion, contributed to the English clubs’ recent lack of success in Europe’s premier club competition. But as we saw at the beginning of the post, the Premier League recovered from very average beginnings in the Champions League to dominate the trophy for the second half of the last decade. Are we now experiencing the trough after the peak? And can English clubs turn this around and start challenging again? The five billion pound influx of TV money from the recently renewed Sky/BT rights deal certainly won’t hinder Premier League clubs from competing in the transfer market. It’s likely that the Best League In The World won’t rely on a highly-trained crop of outstanding talent, innovative coaching, or investment in grassroots to achieve Champions League success. In order to compete they need Rupert Murdoch’s money – billions of it.

Newcastle United – specialists in failure.

For my first post, I will be looking into the spectacularly mind-blowing underachievement of my beloved Newcastle United as later this year we mark the SIXTIETH anniversary of their 1955 FA Cup Final win – their last domestic trophy. I must promise at this point that this blog will not turn into a series of gloomy rants on the state of NUFC – that would be too depressing for all involved.

Last month saw the publishing of Deloitte’s annual ‘Money League’ – a list of the twenty richest clubs in world football, ordered solely by revenue. Newcastle United this year re-entered that list in 19th place after a five year hiatus from the top twenty brought about by the disastrous relegation of 2008/9. Now anyone who has kept even half an eye on football in the modern era knows that to be successful nowadays you need money. And lots of it. Manchester City and Chelsea have proved that with a bottomless budget you can turn middle-of-the-road clubs into Champions. So money=success and success=money right? Well for the vast majority of clubs, yes. But for Newcastle United, in the Top 20 richest clubs in the WORLD for 7 of the last 10 seasons, the answer is a resounding no.

Let’s begin last season. As we already know, NUFC were the 19th richest club in the world last season in terms of revenue. How did this equate in terms of team performance?

Graph1.1Source(s): Deloitte; http://www.worldfootball.net

As you can see, out of the top twenty teams, NUFC finished in the lowest place – 10th in the Premier League. In fact, only three other teams out of that top twenty finished outside of the top five in their respective leagues – Man Utd, AC Milan, and Spurs. Now it could be argued that, with revenue of 518 million Euros and a finishing position of 7th, that Man Utd were the most spectacular failure on that list. As much as it warms my heart to include the words ‘Man Utd’ and ‘failure’ in the same sentence, unfortunately I can’t see the end of that particular era just yet.

So we’ve already established that NUFC were the worst-performing of the world’s richest clubs last year. Was this just a bad season? Unfortunately not. For a clearer picture of the consistency of Newcastle United’s staggering underachievement over the years, look no further than the number of domestic trophies won by the rest of that list since Newcastle’s last triumph in 1955:

Graph2.1Source(s): Deloitte; http://www.worldfootball.net

That is simply ridiculous. There is no club in the world in the modern era that has earned so much revenue and has seen so little success. But the world is a big place, full of rich and glamorous clubs. How do Newcastle compare against their fellow clubs in the English Premier League?

Graph3.1Source(s): http://www.worldfootball.net

Thank-you Hull City and Crystal Palace for making me feel a little better. But with all due respect to those clubs (ok, ok, – utter disrespect) they are small clubs in terms of revenue, support, and worldwide reach – no-one would really be surprised if they never won the league or either of the cups. However, ‘small’ clubs do win trophies – check out some of the clubs who have seen domestic success since NUFC’s last trophy win:

Graph4.1Source(s): http://www.worldfootball.net

Swindon Town??!! I certainly don’t begrudge any of those teams their place in the sun (except the 1973 FA Cup Winners of course) – it just gets harder and harder to accept that Newcastle aren’t among them. And it’s not just me. As well as being amongst the richest clubs in world football, Newcastle are also consistently one of the best supported. Last year, they were the thirteenth best supported club in Europe. And the crowds come to see successful, winning football teams right? Well, for almost every other team in the top twenty, yes. For Newcastle United (and Hertha Berlin!) supporters, it must be the pies:

Graph5.1Source(s): http://www.worldfootball.net; Wikipedia

Ah, the strange case of Hertha Berlin. Kindred spirits of Newcastle United. Both enjoy consistently large support. Both are specialists in failure. German champions in 1930 and 1931, Hertha then suffered greatly in the post-World War II carve-up of Berlin and the subsequent construction of the Berlin Wall. After a (trophy-less) period of relative success during the 70s, they spent most of the 80s and 90s in the second tier of German football. In fact, when Hertha were promoted in 1997, it ended Berlin’s six-year-long drought without a Bundesliga side which had made the Bundesliga the only top league in Europe without representation from its country’s biggest city and capital. So a one-club city with a population of 3.5 million in a football-mad country would certainly explain Hertha’s large attendances, if not their lack of trophies. To compare, Newcastle is currently England’s 19th largest city with a population of 252,000.

So far, so bad – but is there hope for Newcastle? Recent successes by Chelsea, Man City and PSG across the channel have shown that a wealthy benefactor can dramatically improve a club’s fortunes. And Mike Ashley, the owner of NUFC, is pretty damn wealthy. A billionaire in fact – and one of only a select few Premier League club owners who appear on the Forbes World Billionaires List 2014. So how did the other billionaires do? Let’s look at last season again:

Forbes_RankSource(s): http://www.worldfootball.net; Forbes

Of the billionaire-backed teams, Newcastle are again bottom of the list. There are some obvious omissions from this list due to Forbes’ policy of only including in their list individuals rather than families. That excludes Sheikh Mansour and the Qatari Royal Family who own Manchester City (1st), the much-loved Glazier family (Manchester United – 7th) and the Liebherr family in charge at Southampton (8th). All finished above Newcastle, and have done pretty consistently since Ashley took charge.

So how is it that a cash-rich, well supported club cannot win trophies when all clubs of a similar wealth and support can? Do we blame spectacular mismanagement on and off the field? The ongoing backlash against the Mike Ashley regime is, in my humble opinion, the very least he deserves. But that man and his team have won just as many domestic trophies as all of his predecessors since 1955 – ZERO. Newcastle United are an anomaly, a freak, a statistical outlier across world football. And, it seems, for that particular football club, no amount of money and support can change that.

Footnote: I am in no way writing-off the glorious Fairs Cup (aka UEFA Cup aka Europa League) victory by Joe Harvey and his boys in 1969 – its sometimes the only thing that keeps you going through the dark days of a home loss to Stoke City. This piece only concerns domestic success a) because it is the 60th anniversary and 60 is a nice round number and b) because I’m too lazy to trawl through every team’s European records and include them here.

full_Newcastle_team_Fairs_Cup_19