Is this the secret behind legendary seasons for teams such as Leicester City, Man City and Arsenal’s ‘invincibles’?
A great team spirit really can be more important than superstar players in the Premier League, according to new research.
Leicester City’s extraordinary title triumph – dubbed the biggest miracle in sporting history – was put down to a strong bond within the dressing room.
Now scientists have proved it is the vital part in the jigsaw across football and other sports – including cricket, basketball and baseball.
Study corresponding author Professor Satyam Mukherjee said: “Our results show prior shared success between team members significantly improves the odds of the team winning in all sports beyond the talents of individuals.”
He found prior success as a team predicted the odds of future wins in four major sports leagues – and even a multi-player online game.
Psychologists have long recognised team success requires a combination of talented individuals and good group dynamics – but their relative importance is debated.
So Prof Mukherjee and colleagues analysed data on teams from football’s Premier League, the IPL (Indian Premier League) in cricket, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association and an internet battle arena game.
They calculated both the average player skill level for each team – based on statistics such as the number of goals or points scored per game, assists, or earned run average.
And the team’s earlier success based on the number of games won and lost over the preceding years was also taken into account.
This was important – as well as overall team skill, according to the findings published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
Prof Mukherjee said: “This suggests when competing teams are matched in their skill level, prior experience of playing and winning together may be the factor that makes the difference towards victory.”
It backs the idea Leicester’s ‘never-say-die’ approach was the ultimate factor in how the 5,000 to one outsiders became champions of England two-and-a-half years ago.
They cost around 24 million pounds to put together – about what Manchester United paid for Marouane Fellaini.
But manager Claudio Ranieri inherited players that already had an almost unbreakable sense of togetherness forged in a successful batle against relegation the previous season.
They understood their initial target was merely to stay in the top flight – before realising wealthier rivals were perhaps not as focused as them.
Striker Jamie Vardy had come from non-league football, midfielder Riyad Mahrez from the French second division and defender Robert Huth was sold by Stoke.
The study used data from all Premier League football matches played between seasons 2005–2006 and 2013–2014 – two years before Leicester’s win.
It used the number of goals, shots and assists per game as indicators of the individual skills of a player.
Similar scoring indicators across the NBA, MLB and IPL assessed the average talent players and teams – as well as participants in the online game Defense of the Ancients 2 (Dota2).
Prof Mukherjee, of Northwestern University in the United States, said: “Debate over the impact of team composition on the outcome of a contest has attracted sports enthusiasts and sports scientists for years.
“A commonly held belief regarding team success is the superstar effect; that is, including more talent improves the performance of a team.
“However, studies of team sports have suggested that previous relations and shared experiences among team members improve the mutual understanding of individual habits, techniques and abilities and therefore enhance team coordination and strategy.
“We explored the impact of within-team relationships on the outcome of competition between sports teams.
“In this work, we propose that when the goal of a team is to defeat another team, the attributes of team members and their successful prior interactions directly determine the outcome of the team.”
Other famous unexpected football triumphs include Wimbledon winning the FA Cup in 1988, beating the mighty Liverpool just 11 years after entering the Football League, and Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest winning the European Cup in 1979 and 1980.
Prof Mark Beauchamp, of the School of Kinesiology at The University of British Columbia in Canada, reviewed the findings for the journal and described them as “intriguing.”
He said: “Understanding what enables teams to flourish has been the focus of considerable interest across domains of human behaviour.
“A study finds that, in addition to recruiting and retaining highly skilled members, shared prior success significantly contributes to enhanced team performance.”
By Ben Gelblum and Mark Waghorn