Something special is happening in the Premier League. With fewer than two months to go in the English season, lowly Leicester City -- a 5,000-to-1 underdog before the season began in August -- are five points clear atop the table. The most recent projections by quant Michael Caley give Leicester a 63 percent chance of winning their first top division title, while the Pinnacle betting market places Leicester's chances (after adjusting for the vigorish) at just above 59 percent.
Selfishly, as a longtime Leicester supporter (Really! No, really!), this is an exciting development. This is the sort of season that makes you want to waste time rooting for your seemingly-hopeless team, that slim chance that almost literally everybody on the planet who cares to make a projection about your team is wrong. It's the season that will launch a billion "hater" arguments in a billion comment threads around the Internet.
It seems safe to say that nobody expected a (relatively) ragtag bunch of players who only survived relegation by the skin of their teeth last year to compete for the Premiership title. It's a team built mostly upon scraps. It's one thing to note that Jamie Vardy was signed out of non-league football, as so many have, but even he cost around £1 million, which was a not-insignificant figure for a Leicester side that were in mired in midtable obscurity in the Championship at the time. Star winger Riyad Mahrez came in for £375,000 out of the French second division. Industrious midfielder N'Golo Kante, who made his debut (and scored) for the French national team this week, was a bargain at £6.8 million. Leicester's core starting 11 cost just above £24 million in transfer fees, or roughly what Manchester United paid for Marouane Fellaini. (Or Anderson, if you prefer a different villain.)
It's also worth noting that among the entities who didn't really believe Leicester was going to be this good was, well, the club themselves. Many of their larger investments in the past three transfer windows have failed to make inroads into the first team. Striker Andrej Kramaric, the club's record signing last January at £6.75 million, left on loan this January after scoring just two goals in the league. While Kante and striker Shinji Okazaki have played critical roles in Leicester's run to the top of the table, fellow summer signings Gokhan Inler and Yohan Benalouane cost a combined £10.5 million and have suited up just nine times between the two of them, with Benalouane already shipped off on loan to Fiorentina. These were players brought in to play meaningful roles who simply haven't been able to crack the starting 11.
One of the biggest reasons why those players weren't able to break into the team is also likely the most important factor in getting Leicester to the top of the league. There are a few reasons why Leicester has been able to punch over their weight this year:
They've been remarkably healthy. It's actually staggering just how consistent Leicester's starting lineups have been this year, especially given that their manager is Claudio Ranieri, who acquired the "Tinkerman" moniker for his desire to rotate his tactics and players in years past. Eight players in Leicester's starting 11 have suited up for 85 percent or more of Leicester's minutes in the league so far this season. The rest of the league is averaging just above three such players in their respective teams. Even the other spots haven't been beset by injuries; Okazaki rotates with Leonardo Ulloa, while Christian Fuchs took a few weeks to win the starting spot at left-back and Danny Simpson missed time with a suspension after being red carded.
It has helped that Leicester hasn't made a deep run in the FA Cup or League Cup (and don't have to worry about any European competitions until next year), saving their starters' precious minutes for their league run. Leicester have a few irreplaceable players -- there's nobody on the team who can emulate Vardy, Mahrez or Kasper Schmeichel in either style or ability -- and those three have been in the lineup just about every week without fail. They've even been lucky to miss out on a player they wanted; summer target Charles Aranguiz chose to sign with Bayer Leverkusen and promptly tore his Achilles before the season started.
They're drawing a disproportionate number of penalties. As Mike Goodman noted in his piece on Leicester last month, the Foxes already have drawn 10 penalties this season, while allowing just two penalty attempts to the opposition. Nobody else in the league has had more than five cracks from the penalty spot. Even for a team with as much pace as Leicester, that's a remarkable total: Consider that they drew only four penalties in 38 matches a year ago with many of the same players.
They've been great in close matches. With the Premier League awarding three points for a win and one point for a draw, it's critical for teams to win close contests. Settling for a point is fine if the goal is to get to 40 points and avoid relegation, as was Ranieri's motto for most of the season, but to win a title, you're almost always going to have to pick up a lot of 1-0 and 2-1 victories.
Leicester have been better in those sort of matches than anybody else in the league this season. They've only firmly taken hold of the title picture by winning their past three matches, each of which has been a 1-0 victory. What looked like a leaky back line in the fall has tightened up dramatically. Early in the season, Ranieri was so desperate for a shutout that he promised the team pizza if they could keep a single clean sheet. Across their first nine games, Leicester allowed a total of 17 goals. From that first clean sheet (against Crystal Palace) forward, the Wes Morgan-led rear guard has allowed just 14 goals in the ensuing 22 matches. Quietly, they've become the fourth-stingiest defense in the Premier League. Admittedly, advanced statistics suggest that they're ninth in terms of Caley's expected goals allowed (xGA) model given the shots they've been allowing, but they've been good enough to get by.
All of this has added up to a remarkable -- and, truthfully, unsustainable -- performance in close matches. In their 24 games that have been decided by one goal or fewer, Leicester has come away with 13 wins, nine draws and just two defeats this season. They've taken away 48 of the 72 points available to them in those fixtures, an even two-thirds, or 66.7 percent. That's well ahead of Liverpool, second-placed in this category, having picked up 56.1 percent of the points in these same close contests.
Their 66.7 percent isn't a record point percentage in close games, but it's not far off. Going back through the inception of the Premier League, just 16 other teams have produced a similar-or-better performance in one-goal games, most recently Chelsea last season. That Chelsea side also won the title. That's not a coincidence. Ten of the 16 previous teams to come away with that point percentage in close games also have won the title, and four of those remaining six teams only failed to win the title because a team with a similarly-impressive total did so instead. Nobody has managed to pull off that sort of feat in consecutive years since 1994, though, which doesn't seem to suggest that Leicester can do this in the years to come. Chelsea, as you may have noticed, aren't doing so well this year; they've picked up only 41.3 percent of the points in their one-goal games this season.
The league is more winnable this year than it has been in seasons past. A lot of things had to go wrong for the giants of England to put Leicester in a position to win the league, and that has happened this year. Chelsea suffered the Jose Mourinho third-season blues and sacked their manager. Liverpool went through an uneven run early in the year before sacking Brendan Rodgers. Manchester City hasn't been able to overcome their defensive woes with Vincent Kompany injured and are seemingly running in place in advance of Pep Guardiola's arrival this summer. Manchester United have been a mess for stretches of the campaign. Arsenal did an Arsenal. Only Tottenham have really been able to stay healthy and had steady leadership, and it's no coincidence they're competing with Leicester for the title.
Because so many of the country's biggest teams are struggling, Leicester may very well be able to sneak into their unlikely title without the sort of point total typically needed to win the league. Caley's most recent projections suggest Leicester's most likely outcome is to finish atop the league with 77 points. That would be the lowest point total for a Premier League champion in nearly 20 years, with United winning the Premiership during the 1996-97 campaign with just 75 points. During the 2013-14 campaign, for example, 77 points wouldn't have been good enough to get Leicester into the Champions League, as it would have left them in fifth place.
What makes Leicester's feat even more impressive, of course, is that it comes in an era where the elite clubs of England are doing as much as possible to preserve the status quo. Amid the backdrop of this unlikely title (and subsequent trip to the Champions League), European power brokers are suggesting that the continent's most popular clubs should be given an annual trip into the lucrative European competition, regardless of their placement in the league the previous year. Financial fair play attempted to prevent clubs from finding rich owners to fund exorbitant spending sprees, essentially grandfathering in the massive losses incurred by Chelsea and Manchester City during their cash-fueled rises earlier in the aughts. (City were fined £42 million, but it didn't appear to stop them.) Even the new English academy setup is designed to reward and sustain teams who currently have productive youth setups.
The top 10 out-of-nowhere champions
If Leicester win the title, it'll be a glorious victory for fans of underdogs and unlikely heroes. Will they be the most unlikely champions in modern professional sport? There's no easy way to compare performances across different sports in different eras, because everything from the scoring system to the nature of the playoff structure dramatically impacts the definition of how a team improves.
So, to try to get an admittedly more arbitrary sense of where Leicester stood in relation to other unlikely heroes, I went through several major championships and found their most unlikely titlist by looking at year-to-year improvements, both in terms of point (or win) totals and where the team ranked in the standings. I normalized point and win totals for whatever the league's modern scoring system and schedule looks like, so for the Premier League, I created adjusted point totals assuming three points for a win and one point for a draw across a 38-game schedule. (I'll use the actual, real-life raw numbers below and mention the adjusted numbers where necessary.) This was really tough with the NHL and its various changes throughout the years; there, I went with the point percentage statistic and scaled it to 82 games. I also ignored penalties for off-field punishments.
I analyzed teams since 1970 (where available) in 10 leagues. That included six soccer competitions: the Premier League, the old English First Division (from 1970 through 1991), Spain's La Liga, Italy's Serie A, Germany's Bundesliga and France's Ligue 1. I also looked at the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball. In most cases, the unlikeliest champion was pretty obvious. The harder part was ranking those out-of-nowhere titlists across the different sports, and I think you can put most of them in just about any order you want.
Let's run through those 10 unexpected titlists here, starting in Italy, where we have to stretch the term to find a giant staggering forward into the top spot:
10. Serie A: AC Milan, 1998-99
1997-98: 44 points, 10th place
1998-99: 70 points, champions
There just aren't many surprises in Serie A. Milan are the only team to come from the bottom half of the table to win the league since 1970; in fact, they're the only team to finish lower than seventh in the league and win Serie A the following year. They're also still, you know, Milan. The last true surprise package in terms of winning a title might be Sampdoria during the 1990-91 campaign, but even they finished fifth the previous year. This Milan team benefited from a new manager, having sacked Fabio Capello in favor of Alberto Zaccheroni, and found a new top scorer by replacing Patrick Kluivert (who scored six league goals in his lone season with Milan) with Oliver Bierhoff (who chipped in 20).
9. Major League Baseball: Boston Red Sox, 2013
2012: 69-103, last place in the American League East, 24th in MLB
2013: 97-65, tied for best record in MLB, World Series champions
In a similar vein to AC Milan, it's hard to pick a big-market juggernaut like the Red Sox as an unlikely champion. (And it actually doesn't seem crazy to compare Capello to Bobby Valentine.) No World Series winner has improved its win total by more than 28 wins, though, as the Red Sox did during their 2013 season. Zero of the ESPN experts making predictions before the 2013 season suggested that the Red Sox would win the AL East, let alone claim their third World Series victory in 10 years. Then again, I suggested that the Ravens would win the AFC in 2015, so I promise you that predictions are tough.
The 1969 Mets would be a better choice if they were within our time frame; they narrowly miss out, and their adjusted win total actually saw them improve by 27.4 games, just behind the Red Sox. The 2002 Angels (24.0-win improvement), 1991 Twins (21.0 wins) and 1988 Dodgers (21.0 wins) are also in the running.
8. NHL: Carolina Hurricanes, 2005-06
2003-04: 28-34-14-6 (46.3 percent point percentage, 75.9 adjusted points), 22nd in NHL
2005-06: 52-22-0-8 (68.3 percent point percentage, 112.0 adjusted points), tied for third in NHL, Stanley Cup champions
You could put an asterisk on this one, given that the lockout took away the 2004-05 NHL season and meant that Carolina's remarkable run to the Cup was actually during a three-year span. That extra year might have been enough to, say, give star 21-year-old center Eric Staal and similarly-aged goalie Cam Ward an extra year of physical development from the 19-year-olds they were two years prior. If you ignore the lockout year, the gong would go to the 1993-94 Rangers, who improved by 32.3 adjusted points from a disappointing 1992-93 team.
7. La Liga: Atletico Madrid, 1995-96
1994-95: 35 points (in 38 games), 14th place
1995-96: 87 points (in 42 games), first place
Going from 14th to first is a massive improvement no matter how you measure it, but those point totals make it look like a larger leap. 1994-95 was the last year La Liga awarded two points for a win instead of three, and they added four more matches the following year. The adjusted point swing for Atletico saw them jump from 48 points in 1994-95 to 78.7 points in 1995-96. Atletico did double that year, with newly-signed striker Luboslav Penev leading the team in goals. The heart and soul of the team, of course, was current club manager Diego Simeone, who would leave for Inter Milan a year later. Real Madrid actually improved by 36.9 adjusted points when they won the title in 1985-86, but they only hopped from fifth to first. Fourteenth to first seems like more of a leap.
6. NBA: Boston Celtics, 2007-08
2006-07: 24-58, last in Atlantic Division, tied for 28th in league
2007-08: 66-16, best record in NBA, NBA champions
Perhaps not quite as inspiring of a story as Leicester in terms of overcoming with the talent you have, the Celtics improved by 42 games the old-fashioned way: getting two of the 20 best players in the league. Adding Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett gave the Celtics a Big Three before having a Big Three was popular. The problem with not picking the Celtics is that the second-best candidate in terms of win improvement would be the 72-10 1995-96 Bulls, and all they did was get back Michael Jordan. Even they improved by only 25 wins from the previous season; the Celtics are very obviously the pick here.
5. NFL: St. Louis Rams, 1999
1998: 4-12, last in the NFC West, tied for 25th in the NFL
1999: 13-3, second-best record in NFL, Super Bowl champions
Improving by nine wins and taking the Super Bowl is one thing, but remember that the Rams were even further written off before the season when they lost starting quarterback Trent Green to a torn ACL during the third preseason game, turning things over to Kurt Warner, a 28-year-old backup with 11 career pass attempts. Warner promptly won league MVP as the Rams claimed an unlikely Lombardi trophy by a single yard. Of course, Warner's Rams would be on the other side of one of these stories two years later when Tom Brady would be dragged by the 2001 Patriots to a Super Bowl upset, but even those Patriots improved by only six wins. The second-unlikeliest champion would actually be the 1981 49ers, who improved from 6-10 to 13-3 and came up with "The Catch" en route to a Super Bowl victory.
4. Ligue 1: Montpellier, 2011-12
2010-11: 47 points, 14th place
2011-12: 82 points, league champions
Montpellier has become a common reference point for people trying to put the Leicester victory in context, and indeed, it's both recent enough and similar enough to make for a logical bedfellow. Like Leicester, they finished in 14th place before making their stunning run to an unlikely championship. Their starting 11 cost just £6.25 million, including a bargain-basement price of £1.7 million for striker Olivier Giroud, who had emerged from years in the lower divisions during the previous season and shockingly tied for the league lead with 21 goals while making his debut for the national team. Their second offensive weapon was, like Mahrez, a young North African player with the freedom and flair to attack off of the wing, Moroccan international Younes Belhanda. They got a massive boost from an unlikely veteran centre-back in 34-year-old Hilton (he of just one name), just as Leicester have enjoyed a renaissance season from 31-year-old Stoke castoff Robert Huth. They're the closest analogue we have to this Leicester team.
3. Premier League: Leicester, 2015-16
2014-15: 41 points, 14th place
If Leicester win the title with 77 points, they would be a massive outlier in terms of Premier League history. No team has won a Premier League title after finishing outside of the top three the previous year, let alone all the way down on the dark side of the table at 14th. The biggest single-season leap a Premier League champion has made in points is the 18-point improvement Manchester City made when they famously claimed their first Premier League trophy at the death during the 2011-12 campaign. Leicester would double that mark if they hit 77 points. The biggest single-season improvement by any team before this year -- regardless of their finishing position -- is when Liverpool crept up to third and improved by 24 points during the 2005-06 season, a move which preceded their Champions League victory the following year. Leicester, on 66 points, already have toppled that record. Now, they just need to finish their run toward the championship.
2. Bundesliga: Kaiserslautern, 1997-98
1996-97: 74 points, first place in the 2. Bundesliga (promoted)
1997-98: 68 points, first place in the Bundesliga (league champions)
It's tough to top the sort of meteoric rises the Leicesters and Montpelliers of the world have gone on during the past few years, but one obvious way is to get promoted and subsequently win the league title in your first season at the highest level. Kaiserslautern pulled that off from 1996-98, winning the German second division and then immediately following that by producing an unlikely title win in the German top division. They benefited from a very weak league that year; their league-leading total of 68 points would have won the league just once in the ensuing 16 years. Current leaders Bayern Munich already have topped that figure with seven matches still to go.
Kaiserslautern's star striker was Olaf Marschall, who scored 21 goals in a league where only one other player (Ulf Kirsten, 22) scored more than 14, but the most notable player on the team in hindsight was 21-year-old Michael Ballack, who was making his Bundesliga debut as a rotation contributor in Kaiserslautern's midfield. While Kaiserslautern pipped Munich to the league title by two points, the German mammoths got their revenge the following year by knocking Kaiserslautern out of the Champions League.
1. English First Division: Nottingham Forest, 1977-78
1976-77: 52 points, third place in the Second Division (promoted)
1977-78: 64 points, first place in the First Division (league champions)
Even Kaiserslautern, though, have to look up at Leicester's local rivals for the unlikeliest league title. Forest were about to embark on a meteoric rise which would culminate with Brian Clough's side winning the European Cup in each of the two subsequent seasons. (The most unlikely Champions League winner would probably be Red Star Belgrade in 1990-91, if I were including that competition.) Kaiserslautern at least won the second division before repeating the feat in the German top division. Forest finished third in the Second Division and were promoted by only a sole point over both Bolton and Blackpool. A year later, they were champions of England.
The excuses about it being a weak league don't apply here either. Forest's adjusted point total for a 38-game schedule with three points for a win would be 80.5 points. That would have won the league in each of the six previous seasons and five of the next six campaigns. They had the league's stingiest defense by 10 goals, allowing just 24 goals in 42 matches. Their goals allowed figure was 2.43 standard deviations below the mean; the only defenses that have been more impressive by standard score since are the Arsenal defenses of 1998 (2.56 standard deviations below the mean) and 1990 (2.73, a defense that allowed just 18 goals in 38 matches during David Seaman's debut season with the club). Given what Clough and his side were able to accomplish and what little warning the world had, they have to be the most unlikely champion of the modern era.