Behind the unpredictable Premier League year that put Leicester top of the pile

Level playing field? Jamie Vardy causes panic in the Manchester City defence. EPA/TIM KEETON

Few Premier League seasons have produced as many upsets as the one currently unfolding. In August, Leicester City began the English football season at 5,000/1 to win the top-flight league, Chelsea were favourites for the title, while last year’s promoted trio (Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich) were strongly tipped for relegation. Yet with 10 games to go it is Leicester who are (still) top of the league, Chelsea languish in mid-table, while other high profile “mega clubs” have so far failed to sustain a title-push (see Manchester United and Liverpool).

Alex Ferguson famously tried to explain football’s twists and turns with the elegant phrase: “Football!? Bloody hell!”. But dig a little deeper and there are concrete factors that can help us to explain this trend to unpredictability in England’s top-flight division.

The most powerful explanation is linked to contemporary patterns of player recruitment, and what appears to be a more even spread of playing talent across the Premier League. Such a trend was, indeed, mooted earlier this season by then Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho in reference to lowly Bournemouth’s capture of Ivory Coast winger Max Gradel. With the money on offer from the current/impending Premier League TV deal (soon to sit at £5.1 billion) all Premier League clubs, it would seem, are now able to exploit a global labour market of playing talent in ways not previously envisaged. A relaxation of UEFA Financial Fair Play (FFP) restrictions also suggests that future spending across the Premier League will remain lavish.

BBC, Author provided

You can see from the chart that by February this year total spending passed the £1 billion mark for a single season. While high fees may seem typical for the biggest clubs competing at the top, it is worth noting that within this figure Bournemouth and Sunderland sank around £15m (each), while Norwich spent more than £21m in January’s transfer window alone. Stoke City, a team which has never finished higher than 9th in the Premier League, recently outperformed Italian giants Lazio on the Deloitte 2015 rich list. Subsequently, they are now signing players of a higher calibre than before (including Swiss star Xherdan Shaqiri, and ex Barca forward Bojan Krkic) while other “mediocre” PL clubs have resisted efforts to prize away their top talent.

Regulating the game

The ability of top-flight clubs to spend big on foreign talent, coupled with advances in scouting technology and capacity, has resulted in a league dominated by foreign talent. In recent seasons English players in the EPL have accounted for less than a third of the total playing time.

As a counter-weight to encourage the uptake of British players, regulatory changes have included the Elite Player Performance Plan, passed in October, 2011, which allows top-flight clubs to offer standardised (many would say heavily reduced) compensation fees when recruiting young talent from non-elite academies.

This means that even average Premier League clubs operate with incredible resources and recruitment options, resulting in the relentless expansion of top-flight squads, incorporating layers of reserve and youth team football. For the year ended May 31, 2015, Everton’s playing, training and management staff averaged a total of 98 according to data from Companies House, while an average of 38 employees worked in the club’s Youth Academy alone (this for a team that finished 11th out of 20). The FA’s controversial decision to allow Premier League B teams to compete in lower league competition, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, indicates the authorities are more willing to accommodate mammoth squads of playing talent rather than impose restrictions on squad sizes and the stockpiling of talent.

Has Billy Beane changed how British clubs look at scouting? EPA/JEFF KOWALSKY

The proliferation of star players, or more importantly potential star players, has resulted in interesting moneyball-type twists on this season’s Premier League narrative. Developed by Billy Beane, moneyball is the theory that sporting data can be used to source, sign and cleverly combine players currently undervalued in the transfer market, thus allowing clubs with less resources to compete.

With enough due diligence (as with baseball’s Oakland A’s), it is possible for clubs to scout and secure the right combination of undervalued talent at the right time, allowing teams to punch far above their expected weight. First perfected in England by Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, sophisticated scouting of foreign and local talent is now viable for all clubs in the PL division – not least as even those who finish bottom receive £60m in broadcast revenue.

Holding on

Moreover, once stars emerge, healthy revenues have allowed most Premier League clubs to hold out for radically inflated prices on their players, thus allowing them to build in ways not previously possible. West Brom’s resistance to sell Saido Berahinho to Spurs, despite a player protest and a bid in excess of £20m, is a case in point. Accordingly, the efficiency of the market is stalling, and the landscape of successful clubs is undergoing something of a change.

In Leicester’s case their success is largely based upon a squad of previously underrated players who have flourished in a single period: Riyad Mahrez (a reported £330,000 signing from Le Havre), Jamie Vardy (£1m from Fleetwood), Danny Drinkwater (undisclosed) and N’Golo Kante (a still trivial £5.6m) would now command a collective value of somewhere between £50m and £100m. Whether or not Leicester’s title tilt remains a one off remains to be seen, although the potential for such seasons to emerge again should remain intact.