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Making the Unlikely Likely: What We Can Learn from Leicester’s Win

By Dipak | 26th May 2016 | Posted in Inspiration and Education

I know, I know – describing Leicester City FC’s winning of the 2015/16 Premier League as the “Leicester Effect” is a bit of a cliché. Calling it a “perfect storm” is another one. Bell Telephone would beat out Western Union. Dyson eventually beat Hoover, Electrolux, and many others in the vacuum cleaner game. Netflix quickly overtook Blockbuster. All highly unlikely events. Yet they happened.

King Richard III

The factors at play for Leicester FC – low injury rates, a great manager, a lack of European football, the unearthing of several barely-heard-of gems in the transfer market, the “Big 4” not performing well, supernatural forces (Richard III being found in Leicester), the occasional bit of luck – are all further things you can stick into the cliché bin.

But sometimes there’s a good reason why certain phrases become overused, especially when it comes to sports: because they describe quite accurately what happened. In fact, the idea of “doing a Leicester” (i.e. to succeed despite overwhelming odds) is very likely to become a huge part of everyday lexicon over the next several months. Smaller teams’ managers and players will ask, “Why can’t we do the same?”

History is replete with these sorts of David vs. Goliath moments. Of course, in most cases, Goliath wins, but on the odd occasion David does – and these are the victories that stick in the memory. Nottingham Forest winning the Champions League twice in 1979 & 1980. Goran Ivanišević winning Wimbledon in 2001. Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson in 1990.

These events give us hope that, on the right day and with the right strategy, even underdogs can come out on top. Beating bigger potential clients to the contract may well become the expectation for the small players everywhere, regardless of the sorts of resources your competitor has at their disposal.

Yet, as those of us in the world of business know, Leicester-style victories happen all the time, even when overwhelmingly unlikely. Those who work on the small victories and keep them coming in consistently tend to become big businesses themselves.

So, the question becomes, “How do I get these results consistently?” Alas, there is no one simple answer, but there are answers. These answers come in the form of statistics, economics, psychology, and other sporting successes. I would like to show some of these explanations to you in true internet fashion – with a list:

The Barriers to Entry, Exit, and New Entrants

The football world is full of oligarchs buying their way to victory. The invention of the Premier League compacted this issue. The promise of lucrative television deals was a huge temptation, and more often than not, teams with the biggest budgets and largest followings won. For many, this heralded the end of truly competitive football and the chance for smaller teams to win the biggest prizes.

When a particular style of play becomes de rigeur, someone out there will always try and find a way to beat it, usually by being smaller, faster, cheaper, and more efficient. In football, there are extremely high barriers to entry, and the barriers to exit are equally high. The established teams quickly acquired a stranglehold – a monopoly, even

This means that small teams have to remain competitive, or potentially face severe financial ruin. Notwithstanding the controversy surrounding their finances, Leicester FC themselves were saved from financial ruin in 2002 after relegation.

Short-term gain at the expense of long-term sustainability is seen as a given, and elite football leagues throughout Europe have been filled with “incumbents” – big players who are too busy focussing on day-to-day success to realise the potential threat new entrants may bring. Even Kodak didn’t know what they had on their hands when they developed digital cameras in 1975.

So, with Chelsea in freefall, Manchester United trying to build a post-Ferguson identity, Manchester City playing poorly, Liverpool staving off mid-table mediocrity, Spurs being perennial underachievers, Everton facing a similar fate to their neighbours, and Arsenal unable to break their mental shackles, the time was ripe for someone else to take the mantle.

The football market was in dire need of some new entrants. Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City helped end the inevitable Man United/Liverpool/Chelsea/Arsenal result, but even these victories were bought with the help of “financial doping” and large follower bases to work with. The football market has been crying out for disruption.

Enter Leicester. The perfect new entrant. Built on a shoestring budget by Premier League standards, they won the 2013/14 Championship, just about saved themselves from relegation in the 2014/15 season and, perhaps most crucially, played a completely different style of football from everyone else.

Leicester are quite similar to the Airbnbs, Amazons, or Ubers of the world. There is no doubt that many football fans are tired of the debt-ridden structure of football management, just like many were tired of the (at times) exorbitant hotel, travel, and entertainment prices. Leicester, like these companies, will increase exponentially in popularity due to their recent win.

Anyone who has been watching the Premier League over the past few seasons would be wise to note how well some of the lesser-known teams have been playing their own distinctive brand of football. Southampton, Swansea, and West Ham have been outplaying many teams over the years, albeit on an inconsistent basis. Stoke, despite being branded by some as “anti-football”, have stayed in the Premier League since promotion in 2008 thanks to their physical approach.

Leicester no doubt learnt from the others, and gave up possession-style football for directness and counter-attacking. Leicester ranked amongst the lowest in the league for possession, passing accuracy, and number of passes in 2015/16. Their most direct comparison in terms of football style is Atlético Madrid.

Basically, Leicester dared to be different, felt comfortable in being so, and caught everyone by surprise when they did it, despite the fact that there have been proven successes already using similar tactics.

Landlord's Game

This is why new entrants to any market – and especially those who choose a completely different approach – are the most dangerous. This is especially the case when incumbents are underperforming and fans facing increasing disillusionment with their clubs – or big brands are failing to impress..

In other words, Leicester’s tale was bound to happen at some point, and will likely happen again, due to the fact that football has become such a stultified market. New ways of doing things have to be discovered, otherwise the sport becomes monotonous, boring, and ceases to advance. Leicester just happened to be the ones in the front seat of the roller coaster on this occasion.

The Sakuraba Effect

Every so often in sports, there comes someone who defies all expectations. For me, someone who symbolises this is the fighter Kazushi Sakuraba, aka “The Gracie Hunter”, aka “the IQ Wrestler”. This is a guy who, at welterweight, fought some of the greatest heavyweights in the world (at a time when Mixed Martial Arts had no weight classes), and won. Sure, he suffered his share of defeats too, but at his peak, even when he lost he put the big guns through the wringer.

Kazushi Sakuraba ゾーヒョー

This is because Sakuraba fought smart, and had fun doing it. He would do things no serious martial artist would think to do in a professional fight. He spanked people! He cartwheeled over them! He would spin his opponents round in circles! This was Sakuraba’s thing. He was, after all, a pro-wrestler as well as catch wrestler. He liked to entertain people.

Yet, everything Sakuraba did – even the fun stuff – was for a reason. He would work out his opponent’s weaknesses and put them on the defensive. He didn’t care if you outweighed him by fifty pounds – he would find a way to challenge you, and utilise techniques to startle and shock his opponents. Spanking deadens nerves; cartwheels can pass guards; spinning his opponents round in circles disorientates them.

If you look at Leicester’s success this season, it could be argued it was very Sakuraba-like. Here is a welterweight taking on and beating past & present middle- and heavyweight champions. Leicester’s players and manager had fun being on the ride, never took themselves too seriously, had an extremely modest outlook, took advantage of their opponents’ weaknesses, had a solid tactical nous, and did pretty much whatever they wanted outside of the pitch. (Sakuraba was and still is a notoriously heavy drinker and smoker, and Leicester’s players certainly had more liberties granted to them than most Premier League players.)

This style of non-management is the opposite of what’s found in most of the world’s biggest clubs, which are filled with micromanagement and statistical analysis. Yet, this light-touch managerialism hides within it a certain pragmatism as well as liberalism. Players are trusted to settle into their roles and fulfill them for the sake of the team. They begin to work on what they’re best at, which improves efficiency. Adapting to and defending against different styles of play is not as difficult, as there is no fixed, ideal way to play.

This shows in the way Leicester have competed throughout the season. Free-flowing and scoring quite liberally in the first half; conservative, highly defensive, and grinding out results in the second half. The businesses who stay alive over the years do the same – they learn how to roll with the punches and find unlikely ways to win, even when in losing situations. The word for this is tenacity, and it is here that the little guys can shine.

Combine a ferocious sense of self-belief and the unwillingness to give up, and you can get a group together that is above and beyond the sum of their parts. Indeed, the small size sometimes gives such organisations an advantage. Fewer hierarchies to traverse, less bureaucracy, lower staff turnaround, people that are willing to “pitch in” even in areas where they’re uncomfortable, and not necessarily as affected by huge social & economic changes elsewhere in the world.

In this way, small businesses that find a niche and last fifty years could be said to be more successful than businesses that rise and fall in a blaze of glory within ten. In the animal world, businesses like these are akin to honey badgers – ferocious and able to steal prey off of even the biggest of opponents thanks to the number of adaptations they have. Small businesses, like small football clubs, can use these adaptations to their advantage. In this way, they are able to surprise and beat those several times larger than them.

This is even more the case should the smaller team be an unknown quantity, as fewer people know precisely what they’re dealing with and how to react against it. Therefore, don’t be surprised if Leicester do well in the Champions League next season and/or end up qualifying for it again – assuming that the team stays relatively the same, improves, and doesn’t let ego or fear get the better of them.

Wise Investments and Good Decisions (Eventually)

Perhaps one of the most important and little-known factors in the current success of some of the Premier League’s smaller clubs is that they invest wisely. Rather than just bringing in star players with their newfound television money, they put money into training & medical facilities, keeping their best players together, scouting, and infrastructure. There are, after all, lots of different ways to create and maintain value.

Many clubs found that nurturing talent is as important as winning silverware. This way, a more sustainable footballing culture can be developed. Leicester are no exception to this, and probably learnt a hard lesson when they were relegated from the Premiership over a decade ago.

Leicester FC were forced to go back to the drawing board and find a way to win without breaking the bank. All businesses must learn to do the same. You can win lots of big clients, but you’re not winning if you’re overspending on your budgets and have nothing substantial to show for it at the end of the day or end up going bankrupt in the mid- to long-term.

The Black Swan and Concentration Inequalities

Concentration inequalities can be sorted according to how much information we need from the random variable in order to use them. They provide bounds on how a random variable deviates from its expected value. This means that, with the appropriate sample size, we can approximate the value of the outcome of an event.

This means one can safely assume that, in most cases, the biggest clubs are statistically more likely to win over the course of several games. Yet, in Leicester’s case, all this went out of the window. Series after series of random events occurred, and Leicester won the league, on 5000-1 odds. Improbability does not equal impossibility.



There is always the chance that you will get significant results from random effects. The question then becomes: what exactly is a random event? Then the follow-up, if a random event happens over-and-over again, is it truly random? Perhaps the thing that is going wrong here is what precisely is being measured.

Businesses everywhere have the same issues. Simplistic measurements are used to determine success. You could have a million Youtube views, but this means nothing if your audience isn’t engaged with your content. Therefore, having several thousand viewers who watch your videos all the way through could be more valuable, as they’re more likely to actually convert.

As mentioned earlier, Leicester has some of the least-glamourous stats around in terms of possession and passing. Yet, they did more with less. In some ways, this exposes sports statistics to some extent. They are not truly double-blind, and people come into sporting events expecting and assuming certain things to happen.

We face these sorts of problems all the time when looking at website analytics. We only know what a user’s final interaction with a particular campaign was, and we do not necessarily see the whole picture. For example, perhaps a viewer didn’t click on your advert, but it still made an impression on them, and they looked at your website at a later date. We can approximate this using attribution modelling, but it is still extremely difficult to know. Cookies get measured, not people.

However, these Black Swan events are probably not as unpredictable as we may think. Conditional probability plays a huge part in sports, as it does in marketing. Winning produces winning. Neglecting the base rate is a common fallacy, and we are probably not using Bayesian reasoning properly. Leicester are more used to winning than we think they are – they just needed the time and space to show us and the perfect storm to surf upon.

The Premiership, thanks to it becoming a more even playing field since the new Sky TV deals, has become more competitive. Seeing black swans will become more common, because we will actually start to measure them appropriately and not just simply treat them as freak statistical anomalies that we need to collectively get over. Bigger and more comprehensive data sets demand that we treat the black swans with the measurements they deserve, regardless of what’s in the trophy cabinet.

Of course, this neatly leads us onto another fallacy: hindsight bias. However, this is problematic, as there were and have been objective bases for predicting such an outstanding result as Leicester winning the Premier League, even if the likelihood of the event occurring is improbable.

Hank Scorpio

The Little Things

As the great Hank Scorpio once said, “You can’t argue with the little things.” This is the case with regards to Leicester’s victory, too. Every game won was a pleasant surprise. Another step away from relegation and potential financial ruin. All teams outside the biggest bunch feel much the same way. Just staying in the Premier League is enough to help make ends meet, let alone the thought of winning the darn thing. Loyal fans don’t expect miracles.

Once relegation was avoided, there was no pressure to perform. Early exit from cup competitions allowed better recovery times, and may have given Leicester the chance to perform to their full capacity regularly. This is the equivalent of Homer suggesting hammocks for overworked workers and in the process improving performance as workers get rest and relaxation time. Injuries were avoided, and excellent training facilities helped maintain a consistent level. Hank Scorpio took over the East Coast, Leicester the Premier League.

The results in the end spoke for themselves. In Leicester FC, we saw how well-versed journeymen athletes can become legends in their own right when the right people and circumstances allow their creativity to flourish. Making room for this sort of creativity is essential for productivity and ensuring that you can get the best out of even a seemingly average bunch.

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