You’ve seen the stat by now: Leicester City came into the 2015–16 Premier League season facing 5,000-to-1 odds to win the title, and with two games remaining, the long shot is paying out. After a 20-year, four-club hegemony at the top, Leicester are the English champions, inspiring downtrodden fans from Newcastle to Newark to wonder, “Hey, why not us?”
Because you’re not that lucky.
“Teams will run hot and be lucky somewhat regularly,” Ted Knutson, a former analyst for Brentford FC in England and FC Midtjylland in Denmark, told me. “The last year that [Sir Alex] Ferguson won the title [with Manchester United] was really unlikely. They were like the fourth- (maybe the fifth-) best team in the league.
“When a team’s gotten lucky before in England, it’s been a powerhouse team,” said Knutson. “You haven’t seen a group of underdogs come up and do this. And so [Leicester] definitely did get lucky, but they did it off of a stout defense and good counterattack.”
To oversimplify all of public soccer analytics into one obvious sentence: Individual goals tend to occur randomly, so it’s good to shoot a lot and bad to give up a lot of shots. Teamwide conversion rates even out over time, so the way to be consistently successful is to, well, consistently put the ball on goal. Since 2009, no team has won the title with a margin lower than 1.9.
This year, Leicester have taken fewer shots than their opponents. However, they’ve made up for it in the quality of their chances. Their expected goals number, which applies a fractional goal value to every shot a team takes and concedes, pegs them as the fifth-best team in the league. The qualitative jump they made — from last place in mid-April 2015 to a legitimate, top-five team — is still incredible, but plenty of noise pushed them to the head of the table.
Like the Kansas City Royals of the past two years, soccer teams can outperform their underlying numbers across multiple seasons. In addition to Ferguson’s last few United teams, Atlético Madrid, thanks to unmatched set-piece scoring and a “Beware of Dog”–style defense, have been doing it for the past couple years. But United and Atlético are both big clubs with historically great managers.
Beyond their conversion rate, Leicester had plenty other variables fall their way: Their players missed only 61 games to injury, while the league average was more than double that. Last year’s defending champs, Chelsea, ate their own tail. Manchester City turned their manager into a lame duck. And Manchester United continued to trot out the most mediocre attacking team money can buy.
Of course, to win a title in any sport, you need plenty of luck. And it’s not as if Leicester hasn’t done anything right: They hired Claudio Ranieri, an accomplished foreign manager, instead of a lower-level Premier League retread. They bought Riyad Mahrez (17 goals, 11 assists) and Jamie Vardy (22 goals, six assists) for less than €2 million combined. And their steep, vertical counterattacking style — win the ball; quickly play it long and straight — created plenty of high-quality chances while protecting the defense from counters to their counters. But unless they’ve solved the sport, Leicester won’t be able to turn a shot deficit into a 30-goal margin two years in a row.
Leicester isn’t really showing us a blueprint for breaking up the concrete competitive stratification across the top levels of Europe. The lesson is simpler than that: soccer is weird. When a season is 38 games long, you usually have to be great, but if enough things go your way, you might only have to be good enough.
“They do good stuff, they have good personnel, and they have a good manager,” Knutson said. “From there, everything is gravy.”
This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on May 2, 2016.