How Often Does the Favourite Win the Premier League?

Chelsea & Arsenal
Chelsea & Arsenal (Cosmin Iftode / Bigstockphoto.com.jpg)

At the time of us writing, the new (2020-21) Premier League season is just around the corner. Whether you intend to have an ante post bet on who will win this year’s Premier League or not, an interesting question to ask is how often does the favourite actually win the Premier League?

Anyone with even the vaguest interest in football in England will know that Leicester won the title, famously as 5,000/1 outsiders in 2016. That tells us one thing at the very least with absolute certainty: the favourite does not always win. Well, thankfully, we can tell you a bit more than just that though. We’ve crunched the numbers and looked at the history and we’ve now got a detailed picture of just how well favourites get on when it comes to the title race.

Before we look at that, a slight disclaimer: accessing historical odds information with 100% accuracy isn’t easy. In a perfect world, we would have the average odds of the favourite on the day each season started, taken from, say, 10 of the biggest UK betting sites. We would then have analysed the data for every single Premier League season and perhaps even earlier in the days of the old First Division.

This just isn’t possible; but the information we have got is garnered from a range of reliable historical sources and references the odds in July or early August before the start of the new season. We’ve got odds for each Premier League campaign since just before the start of the 2010-11 season, so not a huge sample, but it is in some ways better for that because it gives us a more accurate picture of modern trends and probabilities. So, let’s see how often the favourite wins the Premier League and, of course, whether or not backing the favourite is a profitable ploy in the long term.

Premier League Favourites: Have They Won?

Man United Victory
Man United Victory (sportsphotographer.eu / Bigstockphoto.com)

The table below shows the results of each season since Manchester United were crowned champions in 2011 and is subject to the caveats mentioned above.

Season Favourite in July/August Odds of Favourite Title Winner Odds of Winner (if Not Favourite) Rolling Profit/Loss Backing Favourite
2010-11 Chelsea 13/8 Man Utd 5/2 -1
2011-12 Man Utd 7/4 Man City 7/2 -2
2012-13 Man City 6/5 Man Utd 5/2 -3
2013-14 Man City 23/10 Man City NA -0.7
2014-15 Chelsea 15/8 Chelsea NA 1.175
2015-16 Man City 15/8 Leicester 2,000/1* 0.175
2016-17 Man City 9/4 Chelsea 6/1 -0.825
2017-18 Man City 7/4 Man City NA 0.925
2018-19 Man City 4/6 Man City NA 1.591
2019-20 Man City 4/6 Liverpool 5/2 0.591
2020-21 Man City 4/5 TBC TBC TBC

*Leicester were priced at 5,000/1 by some bookies but 2,000/1 is a fairer reflection of the average odds that were available

So, we can see very clearly that the favourite does not always win and here are some key takeaways from this analysis of the most recent 10 completed Premier League seasons.

  • Favourites have won four out of the 10 seasons featured
  • Favourites have returned a level stakes profit of almost 0.6 units
  • City were favourites in seven out of the 10 seasons
  • They were beaten favourites four times and winning favourites three times

Why Does the Favourite Not Always Win?

Chelsea loss
Cosmin Iftode / Bigstockphoto.com

Anyone with any knowledge of betting knows that the favourite does not always win in whatever sport or event on which bets are place. If they did, even at crazily short odds, bookies would soon go broke. The simple reason favourites do not always win is that nobody can know the future. People can predict it with varying degrees of accuracy but nothing is 100% certain. Without being too morbid, there is not even an absolute guarantee you will make it to the end of this sentence… you made it!

Odds as a Probabilistic Predition

Odds are simply the reflection of a probabilistic prediction about the future. If we remove any margin for the bookie, an outcome that is predicted to have a 50% chance of occurring is ranked an even money bet. In some scenarios, such as the Grand National (horse racing), or the Open Championship, for example, that would make it a huge overwhelming favourite, deemed far more likely to win than any other selection in the field.

However, it would still have a 50% chance of losing, meaning it would be a favourite failing to win half the time. Favourites lose, regularly, at much shorter odds too and for the same reason. A Premier League may be the best in the land by a long way, with the most talented squad and the most successful manager but there is no guarantee they will win.

Rarely a Huge Favourite

The Premier League is unpredictable and is effectively a 20-horse race, meaning there is rarely a huge, huge favourite. Real outsiders (like Leicester) winning the title is very rare but each year there are five or six teams who seriously believe they can be crown champions, each striving to overcome the favourite. Football is especially unpredictable as it is a relatively low scoring game, which means that luck, which is wholly random, has a bigger impact on it. A team could hit the post five times and dominate a game but lose thanks to the other side’s only shot (a deflection of course) of the match.

Whilst the old adage tells us that these things equal out over the course of the season, that illustrates a misunderstanding of chance and probability, or is just a huge oversimplification. Luck, be it simple fortune or a refereeing mistake (believe it or not, they still exist in the era of VAR), equals itself out over an infinite number of games, not nice and neatly during a single season.

In theory, there is nothing to stop a single team having outrageous fortune and winning the league despite objectively being one of the worst sides in the division. That’s probably unrealistic but luck is certainly enough to tilt things away from the “best” side over the course of a long season with so many unknowns.

Chaos Theory

And, of course, that is before we get into the issue of some teams over-achieving whilst others underperform. Once again this boils down to our inability to predict the future, so whilst the bookies’ odds are usually a very accurate indication of how things might pan out, they are not perfect.

Footballers are individual humans and each game consists of hundreds of actions, so chaos theory means it just is not possible for us to be absolutely sure who will win a given game, match, tournament or league. Which is rather fortunate because sport would be quite boring without the almost impossible occurring on a weekly basis!

How Do Favourites Fare in Other Leagues?

Ronaldo in La Liga
Ronaldo in La Liga Match (LevanteMedia / Bigstockphoto.com)

Of course, it is not just the Premier League that is unpredictable, nor is it just English football that is subject to chance. In general, many UK fans assume that part of the EPL’s appeal is its unpredictability and there may actually be some truth in that. The Premier League usually has at least three and sometimes four or five teams who kick off the season thinking they can win the title. In contrast, in other “Big Five” leagues, there is often just two teams, at most, set to fight things out.

The table below shows which clubs have won the title in the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1 over the past decade.

Division Teams to Have Won Title (2011-2020) Percentage of Titles by Most Successful Team Number of Teams to Win
Premier League Man City (4), Man Utd and Chelsea (2), Leicester and Liverpool 40 5
La Liga Barcelona (6), Real Madrid (3), Atletico Madrid 60 3
Bundesliga Bayern Munich (8), Borussia Dortmund (2) 80 2
Serie A Juventus (9), Milan 90 2
Ligue 1 PSG (7), Lille, Montpellier, Monaco 70 4

Juventus have now won nine league titles in a row and were favourites for most if not all of them. This picture is repeated in other nations too of course, with Celtic having won nine in a row in Scotland but they and Rangers usually dominate, and a similar pattern occurs in other countries, such as Netherlands and Belgium for example.

Because these leagues have fewer competitive teams, betting on who will win the title is more predictable. This means that favourites do tend to win more frequently, although certainly in Spain punters tend to have to choose between Real and Barca, the favourite and second favourite usually (in whatever order).

However, such one or two team dominance can be cyclical. Juventus might be the top team in Italy right now but that is not always the case and at different times there have been brilliant battles between three or four clubs at the top of Serie A. Of course, we should also not ignore the fact that there have been periods in history where one club has been very dominant in English football too.

Aston Villa and Sunderland, much as their current fans may doubt it, shared nine titles between them from 1892 to 1902. More recently Liverpool won England’s top division 11 times between 1973 and 1990, including eight titles in 11 years from 1976. And then of course Sir Alex Ferguson’s Man United added 13 championship trophies to the Old Trafford cabinet from 1993 until 2013.

In those more recent periods, Liverpool and Man United were favourites for the majority of their successes. Ultimately the bookmakers and the market do a very good job of predicting, via the available odds, who will win the title. The favourite certainly doesn’t always win, but they do more often than not. Blindly backing the market principle each year is certainly no guarantee of making a profit. However, it should at least give you an interest for most of the season, most of the time, whilst also tending to fare much better than most alternatives in terms of overall profitability.