April 20, 2016

LINSEY | Preseason Expectations and “The Leicester Precedent”

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Sports fans love their predictions. Before a major sports season, everyone from a casual fan to a lead ESPN analyst has ideas about how the season will play out. In American sports, there is enough parity that every team in the league is relatively similar in talent. Logically, a five-team division finishing in the exact reverse order from your prediction happens from time to time.

In many European sports, however, the opposite is true — division order is much more predictable. In soccer, four or five teams consistently have a huge financial advantage over the rest of the 20-team league, and thus can buy more talented players than their competition. In particular, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool have historically been three of the most successful teams in England. Chelsea and Manchester City have recently joined the elite after huge investments from Russian and Middle Eastern oil tycoons, respectively. As a result, these teams regularly occupy the top five positions in the league, preventing other teams from reaching these exalted spots. Other teams such as Tottenham Hotspur, Everton and Southampton have knocked on the door in recent years, but 2011-2012 was the last season one of them finished in a top position (Tottenham finished fourth that year).

Naturally, most fans picked a combination of those five teams for the top four spots coming into this season. Finishing in the top four is crucial for the big clubs since a top-four position yields automatic UEFA Champions League qualification. Many tipped Chelsea to retain the English league championship, while others backed Manchester City to win their third crown in five years. Manchester United fans projected the team to improve on a fourth-place finish in their first year under Louis van Gaal. Arsenal and Liverpool supporters also had reasons to expect better seasons this year. The one thing many people agreed: there was virtually no chance for other teams to finish in the top four spots. Certainly no one expected not one, but two lesser-financed teams would top the league with five games to spare, and occupying the highest two spots, nonetheless.

These two teams are Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City, and they both have very different circumstances that allowed them to likely claim Champions League berths this year. Tottenham Hotspur currently sits in second place. They possess an extremely talented English striker in Harry Kane, the league’s top scorer with 24 goals. The rest of the roster is full of more promising young talent, including midfielders Eric Dier and Dele Alli. They also have a strong defense led by Belgian center-backs Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. Manager Mauricio Pochettino deserves plenty of credit as well for leading a stunning youth revolution at Spurs.

Meanwhile, over in the East Midlands, Leicester City is achieving the sports miracle of our generation. Before the season, oddsmakers gave the Foxes 5000-to-1 odds of winning the league championship. For perspective, these same oddsmakers felt it was more likely that Elvis Presley was still alive or that Kim Kardashian would be elected U.S. President in 2020. Leicester has spent the majority of the last decade in the league below the English Premier League, only being promoted two seasons ago and just barely avoiding relegation last season. Many, including yours truly, thought they would be relegated this year. However, they sit in first place after Claudio Ranieri continued their form from the end of last season and turned little-known Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez into global stars. The whole team has been outstanding. They have had that little bit of luck that you need to be champions, winning four games in a row at one point by the score of only 1-0. They also had very few injuries, enabling them to play most of their stars all season. The Foxes continue their improbable lead of the league and are odds-on to lift the trophy.

I will not go into the reasons for the downfall of some of the traditional elite — that is a whole other column. Here, I wanted to isolate the teams causing a major surprise this season in the English Premier League. Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur have put together incredibly impressive campaigns to upset the traditional order. No honest sports fan could have predicted how well these teams would do this season.  Leicester has set a precedent that any team can win the title. Every team will believe they can “pull a Leicester” and win the league next year, regardless of their finances. It will be exciting to see future teams emulate Tottenham and Leicester. Who will they be? We will find out in the next few seasons.