Back in August 2015 Leicester City had narrowly avoided relegation in the Premiership and began the new season as rank outsiders to become champions of the English Football Premiership. In May 2016 they achieved the impossible and were crowned champions for the first time in their history at odds of 5,000- 1!
So how exactly have they pulled off this remarkable feat? Is it all luck? A magic formula? There are a number of lessons we can take away from Leicester’s success.
1) Servant leadership
There was a significant backlash when Leicester announced it would be managed by Claudio Ranieri this season. Gary Lineker, one of the club’s most famous former players, openly denounced the move. Some fans wondered whether the Italian coach would even make it to Christmas.
Against almost all odds, Ranieri has built on and sustained Leicester’s success in the lower leagues. While Premier League managers are known for is their massive egos, Ranieri is radically different—he’s actually nice.
The 64-year-old Italian has worked for some of the biggest teams over the past 30 years, but has yet to clinch a major title. (His previous stint in English soccer ended when he was let go by billionaire Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich a year after he bought the club, even though Ranieri led Chelsea to second behind a near-perfect Arsenal team.)
Ranieri was able to build a strong relationship with his team, because he listened to them, The Times argues. Ranieri told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera:
I have great admiration for those who build new tactical systems, but I always thought the most important thing a good coach must do is to build the team around the characteristics of his players. So I told the players that I trusted them and would speak very little of tactics.
This is an example of “servant leadership,” Simon Hartley, sport psychology coach and author of Stronger Together: How Great Teams Work, told Quartz. Ranieri recognised his job was “to serve the team” so he could “enable the team to perform as well as possible,” Hartley said.
The manager limited the amount of tactical changes he made to the team, a radical departure from his coaching style at Chelsea, where his constant squad rotations earned him the nickname “The Tinkerman.” At Leicester, he has used the same players, in the same formation, more than any other team in the Premier League.
Seven of his starting 11 are essentially guaranteed places each week, according to the Daily Mail. Ranieri has enforced rest days, and ignored the kinds of food his players guzzle down their mouth, even keeping his promise to take the team out for pizza after they kept their first clean sheet of the season.
Ranieri has focused on nurturing the talent he already had at his disposal, and taking calculated risks on players that others may have passed on. “To find a coach that can bring out that quality in people in premiership soccer calibre is no easy feat,” Hartley adds.
2) The power of teamwork
While Leicester has talented soccer players, none are superstars. “The guys in Leicester City, on their own, probably aren’t going to achieve this kind of success individually as they would together,” Hartley notes.
Leicester currently has one of the league’s top scorer in Jamie Vardy, who has found renewed life under Ranieri, but the team he has created is not just about one player. “Everybody understands the movement before they are doing the movement,” Ranieri says.
Besides the fact that Algerian midfielder Riyad Mahrez has racked up almost just as many goals as Vardy, he’s also assisted in 10 goals this season, and the team has been exceedingly disciplined all season. Not a single player has been sent off, and only two players have missed games through suspension.
US sports have had their Moneyball movement, where teams—starting in baseball—use statistics and mathematical modeling to get better understanding of the true value of a player.
“People have tried to replicate Moneyball with varying success, but soccer is perhaps the worst of all sports to try to replicate that in.” Soccer lacks the same sort of repetitive actions that create the data points for statistics that baseball has, making it more difficult to identify particular attributes of players that are undervalued.
But Leicester has tried to bring a culture of analytics to the sport, filming every training session, every match—giving updates to Ranieri in real-time—and exploring new statistics, like the repeatability of a goal scored, and the number of chances created in a match. “It’s part of the culture within the club and by exposing players to data, they are becoming familiar with it and the insights it can bring,” Leicester City analyst Peter Clark told the analytics firm Opta in a blog post.
4) …find undervalued talent
What’s even more remarkable about Leicester’s rise to fame is the fact they did it at a fraction of the price of their competitors. Its tremendous run has shone light on an idea often overlooked in the Premier League—value for money.
Leicester City’s wage bill speaks for itself—it gets the most points per pound spent of any team in the league. Back when they were in the league below the Premier League, Leicester bought Jamie Vardy for only £1 million ($1.45 million)—or 1/49th of the cost of streaky striker Raheem Sterling. Had Vardy moved in the winter transfer window, it was reported that he would cost his new club £30 million. Mahrez was bought for just £400,000; N’Golo Kanté for about £5.6 million.
Leicester brought in a host of players in the summer, but the vast majority of them were seasoned veterans, rather than rising stars. Leicester’s squad happens to be the oldest of the teams currently in the top five in the Premier League, with an average age of over 26. The club paid a total of about £27 million for the players it brought in—a little bit more than Chelsea spent just on one player, Pedro, in the same transfer window.
5) …Tactics and psychology
As well as being a master tactician Ranieri has also perfectly judged the psychology. He kept things simple, lifting the pressure from his side and focusing relentlessly on the next game, admitting only recently that the title was in sight with his “Dilly-ding, dilly-dong” rallying cry.
In contrast to his nickname, Ranieri has resisted the urge to tinker with his side and has had some luck along the way with a lack of injuries to key players. Yet his interventions, both between and during matches, have often been decisive.
Recognising that his Italian reputation for tactical complexity went before him, he told Il Corriere della Sera that he made a pact with his side on his arrival: “Always show me everything you’ve got and every now and again I will explain a little football to you.”
Eschewing the trend for possession football exemplified by the great Barcelona sides of the past 15 years Leicester have been resolute in defence and lightning quick to attack.
When they destroyed Manchester City 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium in February, one of several defining moments in this title race, they did so with only 35% possession.
6) …Commit egocide
For many managers in sport and business, you sense it is about them. Jim Collins in Good to Great highlights the importance of what he calls Level 5 Leadership.
The essential ingredient for taking a company to greatness is having a “Level 5″ leader, an executive in whom extreme personal humility blends paradoxically with intense professional will. He identifies the characteristics common to Level 5 leaders: humility, will, ferocious resolve, and the tendency to give credit to others while assigning blame to themselves. ( How often do you see this in the football world when the tendency is to blame everyone around them, especially the Ref!!)
With grace and unshakable bond with his players the one-time ‘Tinkerman’ has proved his critics spectacularly wrong with Leicester’s first top-flight title. He has created history and at the same time provided some valuable learning’s that we can all benefit from.
At the King Power Stadium, where the stands have rocked all season, faith has never wavered. For proof that Leicester has taken Ranieri to its heart, look no further than the two-minute film released last week of him welling up as he watched tributes from its streets.
Businesses can adopt these simple principles too. When leaders understand what great team players look like, and how to recognise those who work ‘off the ball’, their people are far more likely to play for the team, not just in the team.
Neale Lewis is a Gazelles Certified Coach and Scale-Up expert who works with fast growing mid market companies around the globe.