What the luck? How the ‘mediocrity magnet’ explains Leicester’s struggles

In Depth

Leicester City stunned the football world when they won the Premier League last season, only a year after being promoted.

At the start of the season, English bookmaker William Hill had offered 5,000/1 odds on Leicester winning the Premier League, the same odds they offered on Elvis Presley being alive and Barack Obama playing on England’s cricket team. It was a sporting miracle.

This season, however, the Foxes are struggling at the wrong end of the table.

There are reasonable explanations for their collapse, including the wear-and-tear from playing in the Champions League with a thin squad and the lack of financial resources to compete in the transfer market. But there is a simpler and more compelling explanation: Leicester were lucky in their miracle season, and luck comes and goes.

Last season, 28 of Leicester’s 38 matches were decided by one goal or less; the Foxes won 14, drew 12, and lost two. After 21 games into the current season, Leicester have played 13 one-goal matches, winning only two, drawing six, and losing five.

But this is not meant to denigrate the Foxes or play down their achievements last season. All football teams are buffeted by chance.

Lucky bounces, untimely injuries, and questionable calls. Penalties given and not given. Balls hitting the woodwork and ricocheting wide or bouncing into the goal. Shots deflecting off players into the goal or onto the foot of a striker who scores – or a defender who clears.

In sports like football, where luck is important, exceptional athletic performances typically involve good fortune, which means that the exceptional performance exaggerates true ability. Because good fortune cannot be counted on indefinitely, great performances are typically followed by not-so-great performances. Not necessarily bad performances, just performances that are less exceptional.

It is as if there is a mediocrity magnet in that extraordinary performances are typically followed by less extraordinary performances. This mediocrity magnet is called regression to the mean.

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To a large extent, football clubs have separated into the haves and have-nots – the sharks and the minnows. The super clubs are the richest and the most successful: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Arsenal, Manchester City, and Chelsea.

However, the mediocrity magnet is a powerful counter-force. While the top Premier League teams are generally in the hunt for silverware, their successes still fluctuate year to year as balls bounce strangely, cards fly, and injuries weaken.

Of those Premier League teams to have recorded more than 80 points in a season, 70% do worse the following term – some by staggering amounts. Chelsea went from 87 points in 2014-2015 to 50 in 2015-2016. Manchester United went from 89 in 2012-2013 to 64 in 2013-2014. Leicester are well on their way to joining this list.

The mediocrity magnet cannot be explained away by complacency or lack of focus, because of those teams that score more than 80 points in a season, 70% did worse the season before too.

Extraordinary seasons are usually preceded and followed by less extraordinary seasons. It is not that something special happened the season before and the season after, but that something special happened during their exceptional season. They were lucky – and luck is fleeting.

The logic of regression is simple but powerful. Even though our lives are filled with uncertainties, we are inclined to discount the role of luck in our lives – to believe that successes are earned and failures are deserved.

We see a golfer win the British Open, conclude that he is the best golfer in the world, and expect him to win the next tournament. We see a student get the highest score on a test, conclude that she is the best student in the class, and expect her to get the highest score on the next test. We see a worrisome medical test result, conclude that the patient has a disease, and prescribe a treatment.

If the Open champion loses the next tournament, we might conclude that he wasn’t focused. If the student with the highest test score does not do as well on her next test, we might conclude that she did not study as much. If the patient with the worrisome medical result fares better a month later, we might conclude that the prescribed treatment was effective.

If, instead, we recognise that luck may have played a role, we are less likely to overreact.

We will understand that several golfers are good enough to win a tournament and several students are good enough to get the highest test score, and they take turns doing so – not because their abilities fluctuate week to week, but because their luck comes and goes. We will understand that medical test results fluctuate even if the patient’s condition does not.

The key to not being deceived by regression is to look past the luck – to recognize that when we see something remarkable, luck was most likely involved and luck is temporary.

Dr Gary Smith is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Economics at Pomona College in Claremont, California. His latest book is What the Luck?: The Surprising Role of Chance in Our Everyday Lives, published January 26 by Duckworth.