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Leicester City won big by spending small

A title or half a central defender? What would you choose?

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Leicester City v Everton - Premier League
Leicester City: 2015/16 Premier League Champions
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

As Leicester City prepare for a Matchday 21 trip to Anfield, the Foxes’ opposition is dominating the headlines. While Liverpool enter the match with the second most goals scored in the league (second only to Manchester City), the Reds are in the news not for their prolific scoring, but for their prolific spending.

The long-rumored transfer of Virgil van Dijk to Liverpool has finally been completed, with the center back preparing to join the club on a record transfer fee for a defender: £75 million ($100M).

The van Dijk transfer led current Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho to state that the £286.3 million his club spent to bring players to Old Trafford during his tenure was simply not enough to keep up with the £361.1 million spent by Pep Guardiola to buy a completely new team for bolster Manchester City.

Couple these expenditures with the £120+ million Liverpool spent to add Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mohamed Salah, and others this summer and Naby Keita next summer, and the cumulative transfers of Liverpool, Manchester United, and Manchester City since both Mourinho and Guardiola arrived in Manchester total over £840 million. (Based on today’s exchange rates, the amount is well over $1.1 billion.)

Club supporters point to the fact that the net spending is not as bad as it seems, as all three clubs have also sold players to offset a (small) portion of their purchases. But make no mistake about it, the two Manchesters and Liverpool have spent a lot of money to try to win the league.

One look at the Premier League table justifies their collective spending, as all three clubs are currently in the top four in the league, and all three have reached the knockout stage of the Champions League. A question that arises from this level of spending is how can other, smaller clubs be expected to compete with these big spenders? But since huge expenditures for the Big Six are nothing new (they are just reaching new levels), the more interesting question is this:

How did Leicester City ever win the league?

By now the 5000:1 storyline has been drummed into the consciousness of all Premier League fans, but those odds aren’t the most amazing numbers from Leicester’s title run. It’s the amount the Foxes spent in assembling the team that won the league. Below is a graphic that was posted by NBC Sports before Leicester City’s match with Manchester City on December 29, 2015.

Leicester City - Manchester City: transfer fees compared

The transfer fees Leicester paid (if any) are mind boggling when you consider this club won the title. Marc Albrighton and Christian Fuchs: free. Danny Drinkwater, Riyad Mahrez, Wes Morgan, Kasper Schmeichel, and Jamie Vardy: all $2M or less. The most expensive (and well worth it) player in the entire starting 11 that day was N’golo Kante at $8.5M. In fact, if you took the cumulative fees to acquire Leicester’s starting lineup for that 0-0 draw with Manchester City, then doubled those fees, you’d have what Liverpool spent on Virgil van Dijk alone.

With $35M to spare.

Leicester City showed that it is possible to be successful without spending a small country’s GDP adding players to your roster. The 5000:1 story was a result of scouting, not spending. But Leicester understandably changed transfer tactics after lifting the trophy and collecting the accompanying payday. The Foxes broke a club record transfer fee when they signed Islam Slimani for £27.45M. The following summer, after the Champions League money rolled in, Leicester City surpassed the £20M mark twice when they signed Kelechi Iheanacho (£24.93M) and, eventually, Adrien Silva (£22.05M). While the jury is still out on Silva since his transfer was delayed, it is safe to say that neither Slimani nor Iheanacho have yet lived up to what each cost.

But the combined fees for all three of those players is still less than Liverpool spent on van Dijk. And that sheds light on the heart of Leicester City’s transfer dilemma.

The Foxes showed they had the ability to scout well. A professional club does not go from the Championship to the Premier League to Premier League Champions over three seasons without having a keen eye for undiscovered talent. But this ability to out-scout other clubs and win the league title came at a price. Kante’s release clause (£20M) was triggered by Chelsea in summer 2016 (he was eventually sold for £32.2M). Drinkwater was signed away by Chelsea in summer 2017. Liverpool supposedly targeted Ben Chilwell. Rumors had both Vardy and Mahrez on the way to other clubs after winning the title. While it appears Vardy is staying, the Mahrez rumors persist. And it’s not just players. Leicester also had scouts poached by Arsenal and Everton.

When other clubs are buying the newly-discovered players and luring away the people who found them, what else can a club with a title behind them and the Champions League in front of them do but spend? And once a club spends big, fans expect a big-money transfer in every window. The Foxes can still find a hidden gem, but that gem better be eclipsed by a superstar who every fan knows (or at least a double-digit transfer fee to makes the fans believe that player is great).

And what are other clubs to do when an upstart takes a title that six clubs believe belongs to only them (even when two of those clubs have zero league titles between them)? Do what they do best:

Spend more.

The smaller clubs find the talent. The bigger clubs try to take the talent away. (If the players won’t leave, then perhaps the scouts who found them will.) And when a smaller club happens to break through, as Leicester City did in 2015-2016, that smaller club will have no choice but to try to spend at big-club levels to keep pace.

In Leicester City’s case, this strategy has had mixed results. But it also seems to have forced the Foxes to reevaluate their transfer-window strategy. In a sign of the times, even at £75M there were clubs fighting for Virgil van Dijk’s signature. Leicester City were not one of those clubs as the Foxes simply can not spend £75M on one central defender in one transfer window. But the club’s history shows it does not need to spend big to win big, as Leicester City’s one league title is one more league title than two of the Big Six clubs have won, combined.

To look at it another way, if you are a Foxes fan, ask yourself this: who would you rather have?

Virgil van Dijk for £75M, or Harry Maguire for £12.3M.

Me, too.