From 5,000-1 outsiders to champions – the Leicester City story is the most remarkable in Premier League history. The Foxes are set for a potential £150 million boost for winning the title. The sum comprises Premier League prize money, Champions League participation cash, and increased match day revenues from ticket and hospitality sales. Leicester will also enjoy a higher valuation of sponsorship assets, and a growth in their global fan base. So how did they do it?
Leicester knew they could not compete with the bigger clubs, so they had to be smarter. Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal have won all the Premiership titles in the past 20 years. They get most of the television revenue and they have built some of the biggest stadiums, so they can buy the best players and pay them better wages. Last year’s Premier League winners, Chelsea, spent £215 million assembling their squad, roughly 10 times the cost of Leicester’s team. Leicester’s wage bill has since risen from £36 million to £57 million, but that it is still only around a quarter of Manchester United’s from two seasons ago. Leicester’s incredible Premier League triumph has been built around carefully chosen raw talent. The PFA player of the year Riyad Mahrez cost just £400,000, whilst diminutive midfielder N’Golo Kante set them back around £6 million – both relative unknowns until this season – and a striker in Jamie Vardy who was still playing non-league football four years ago. But this squad of freebies, basement buys and unknown imports have shocked the football world.
Last season Leicester looked pretty useless. They had just achieved one sporting miracle, somehow avoiding being one of the three clubs that were relegated, despite being bottom for most of the season. Leicester won seven of their last nine games, an amazing feat for a struggling team. But miracles don’t tend to happen twice, and things were getting tougher in the off-season. The Foxes lost their manager, Nigel Pearson, and arguably their best player, an elderly Argentine by the name of Esteban Cambiasso. In Pearson’s place, the club’s Thai owners hired a much loved and well travelled Italian coaching veteran, Claudio Ranieri, who has never won any major league anywhere in the world. Given all that, the 5,000-1 odds did not look foolish. However surviving in adversity brings with it hardiness, resilience and a shared mutual experience that can be used as a springboard to greatness if the lessons learned during it are used effectively.
So how have Leicester achieved the change in just one season? Luck has played a role most certainly. The big clubs have all had appalling seasons: Chelsea, who sacked their manager, finished in tenth place; Manchester United in fifth place and Liverpool, the other ‘big club’, in eighth. All have been hit by injuries and all have played a vast number of games in Europe and the various domestic cups. Leicester, by contrast, have had very few injuries and perhaps were fortunate to get knocked out of the domestic cups so quickly. Ranieri has thus been able to field the same team week after week, whilst building a strong cohesive team spirit and an interdependency that is rare in professional football teams. Training is easier and instinct drives the tactics of the team.
So having a plan and ensuring that you have the team to effectively deliver that plan is part of the secret, and the astonishing job Leicester have done in acquiring the right players at bargain prices should not be underestimated. The club’s scouts found Vardy playing non-league football and paid £1 million for him, while Riyad Mahrez, a pencil-legged Algerian, was plucked out of the French second division. Several of Leicester’s players have been brought in on free transfers, because they had been rejected by their previous clubs, mostly for being too old. Under the Italian ‘tinkerman’ Ranieri, its players seem unusually team-like and free of the sort of egos that burden many football stars who have been brought up through systems that have treated them amazingly and mollycoddled from a very young age. Leicester’s players maintained their perspective and a strong desire to succeed for each other and the team. Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, an ever-present in the season said: “Words cannot describe the love I have for my team-mates. I dreamt of this since I was a boy and I will be forever grateful to you all.”
Interestingly Leicester’s scouts were obsessed with statistics in order to buy their bargains. N’Golo Kante, the midfielder they bought last summer, was not well-known, but he had topped the French leagues two years in a row for the number of interceptions he made. The numbers also detected that Mahrez had a rare ability to dribble past people. Another focus of the scouts has been speed: Leicester have several of the fastest players in the Premier League. So with the ability to win the ball and then attack quickly together, Leicester had the key ingredients for their success. Those ingredients had been selected on data, and not gut feel. Therefore real tangible evidence was used.
Once they had secured the players, they followed their statistics relentlessly, with match data kept on tablets. The team looks at what players do in the 10 seconds before and after they touch the ball. Leicester players even seem to foul scientifically, slowing down their opponents by taking turns to obstruct them, so that few of the Leicester players get booked or sent off, which allows them to maintain the spirit of the team.
Some of these science-based ideas pre-dated Ranieri, but he has embraced them as a leader, becoming the Frederick Winslow Taylor of football. In business history, Taylor is the first proper management expert, the man credited with inventing stopwatch management, management consultants and business process experts. Before Taylor started sharing his ideas at the end of the 19th century, nobody had assumed there was much of a science to business. But Taylor, a mechanical engineer by training, argued you could improve productivity and companies by measuring how long it took factory workers to do individual tasks (hence the stopwatch), and then redesigned workplaces and management practices. It was Taylor’s scientific ideas that Henry Ford and other American industrialists adopted and spread round the world extremely successfully.
However, for Leicester it was not just the science, leadership has a human dimension and that meant getting the most out of every individual and the team. Ranieri promised to buy Pizza for clean sheets; tokenism some might say but gold dust when building a coherent team with shared values and challenges. Teams also need to enjoy what they do and they need have fun whilst they do it. I think the level of fun is obvious in Ranieri and the team, even down to gathering in Vardy’s kitchen to watch the pivotal match at Stamford Bridge between Chelsea and Spurs. Manager Ranieri, who took charge at the King Power Stadium in July 2015, said: “The players have been fantastic. Their focus, their determination, their spirit has made this possible.”
In true servant leadership style, the Italian said: “It’s an amazing feeling and I’m so happy for everyone”. Ranieri went on to say: “I’m a pragmatic man – I just wanted to win match after match. Never did I think too much about where it would take us.” His feet were also firmly placed upon the ground. Ranieri as their leader said his players deserved to be champions, adding: “Every game they fight for each other and I love to see this in my players.”
Ranieri built his team around the rapid counter-attack. This in itself is another innovation. Football teams have always counter-attacked, but few have based their game so completely around it. In most matches, the team that keeps control of the ball more scores most goals. Teams like Barcelona and Arsenal are famous for never letting their opponents have possession. Not Leicester. In their last match in April, Swansea had possession 62 percent of the time, but Leicester still won 4-0. Leicester’s tactic is to let their opponents have the ball, wait until they make a mistake and then attack at remarkable speed (Hence all those quick players and the unusual disciplined approach). This is also honed with self-belief, positivity and confidence that enables the other team to have control for a period with the knowledge that footballers are human and inevitably there will be a mistake when the other team will cede the ball. Vardy who was playing non-league football at Fleetwood Town four years ago, scored 22 of Leicester’s 64 league goals this season said:
“It’s an unbelievable feeling. I’ve never known anything like it we were scrapping to stay in the league last season and on Saturday we’ll be lifting the trophy. That gives you an idea of how much hard work has gone into this season from every single player and member of staff. It’s the biggest achievement in the history of a great club and we all feel privileged to be part of it. It’s even more special to have done it with these lads. Every minute of hard work we’ve put in on the training pitch has been worth it for this moment.”
So what seven lessons can business learn from Leicester’s experience:
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