Euro 2020(1): Valeriy Lobanovskyi – Ukrainian Football’s Scientific Godfather
As some of you may or may not be aware, Ukraine play England at football tomorrow evening. With this in mind, from our Parking the Coach series, here’s the story of the godfather of Ukrainian football, Valeriy Lobanovskyi, as told by Edward Carter.
Association football stubbornly refuses to be purely categorised as an art form. Even when played at its most aesthetically pleasing, football remains a game that prizes gusto over brio. It is, in the final analysis, always fundamentally an exercise in mathematics, an activity, a sport and a business built on results and results alone.
Nevertheless, popular analysis of the finer displays of the game nearly always focus on the artistic aspects rather than the scientific. Football inspires such passion and emotion within its fans that many of us tend to bristle whenever it is suggested that success in mastering the intricacies of this, the beautiful game, may be best accomplished in using scientific methods.
Science lacks a heart: it prizes empirical data over passion and bears no truck with any romantic notions of beauty or grace. To try and master football on these terms would be to vacantly watch an artist paint their latest work, to measure their use of materials and the total yardage of their line, without subsequently stopping afterwards to look at the finished product. Science renders football a loveless and stark exercise in probability; a lumpen series of upfield passes that plays the percentages but leaves the heart cold.
None of these arguments would have chimed with Valeriy Lobanovskyi, the great Ukrainian coach of Dynamo Kiev and the Soviet Union whose use of deep scientific and mathematical analysis of the game of football gave it some of its most dazzling talents and stylish, effective performances. Lobanovskyi, who died at his post in 2002 following a stroke during Dynamo’s match with Metalurh Zaporizhzhya, has a very good claim indeed to be the greatest football manager, coach and theorist ever to have been produced to the East of the Iron Curtain.
As strange as it may seem to invoke the Cold War in an article about football management, the ideological battle that so defined the Twentieth Century is absolutely central to an understanding of Lobanovski’s story. One of the more interesting things about the conflict between East and West was that, working in independence and isolation of one another, the best minds nevertheless usually ended up coming to the same, or similar, conclusions. Never was this more abundantly demonstrable than in the relative performances within the sporting arena. There, the rules are clearly established. It is an object lesson in the fact that the true greats innovate within the boundaries that they are given.
This is, however, to get ahead of ourselves a little. Valeriy Lobanovskyi was born in Kiev, then a part of Stalin’s Soviet Union, on January 6th 1939. A talented player from an early age, he was enrolled in 1952 at the romantically-titled Football School Number 1 aged 13, graduating to The Football School of Youth in Kiev three years later. Two years after that, in 1957, he signed professional terms with Dynamo Kiev.
Lobanovskyi was also a gifted and enthusiastic scientist and mathematician, growing up in an era of huge upheaval of technological thinking and material possibility. He combined his football with a study of engineering – specifically, of heating engineering – a subject which sufficiently piqued his interest that, disillusioned following his playing career, he gave serious consideration to resuming as a career. Fortunately for football, and more specifically for Dynamo Kiev, plumbing’s loss was to be their gain.
As a player at Kiev, Lobanovskyi was a member of an increasingly successful team. Within four years of his arrival, in 1961, Dynamo had won the Soviet Top League for the first time. Lobanovskyi was one of the club’s star players, a ponderously-paced outside left who more than made up for his lack of speed with exceptional technique. His particular speciality was from dead balls: his left foot could conjure corner kicks with so much backspin that the ball would drop almost vertically, like an apple falling from the branch of a tree. He was also a noted specialist at Olympic Goals, that is, goals scored directly from a corner kick.
In spite of his abundant flair, however, he was a studious and serious player. As part of the celebration of Kiev’s first title, some members of the squad paid a visit to a local scientific research institute. When quizzed by the workforce there about his and his team’s great season, Lobanovskyi was dismissive. Sometimes the team had played poorly, he argued. Their success was merely a consequence of scoring more points than the rest of the teams, who were weaker and had made more mistakes. It was an instructive vignette, an insight into the dissatisfaction and continual striving for success that characterised Lobanovskyi’s approach to the game. He argued to one scientist at the plant was that his future ambition was, in fact, no different to his – to make changes for the better, leave a legacy to improve the lot of future generations. Cups, leagues and medals were but trinkets, reminders only of the past.
There was, nevertheless, more success for Lobanovskyi as a player at Kiev: the 1964 Soviet Cup. However, it was to prove a pivotal year in Lobanovskyi’s career. At the beginning of the season, Vyacheslav Soloviov has been replaced as the manager by Victor Maslov, a pioneering strategician. Maslov would bring great success to Kiev, with three league titles and two cups during his six year spell.
However, it spelt the end for Lobanovskyi. Opinion is divided as to precisely why this was: some even speculate that there was an argument stemming from the straight-edged Lobanovskyi’s refusal to take a celebratory shot of vodka with the rest of the team as a bonding exercise.
Far more likely, however, was that it was a purely expedient tactical decision: Maslov, in much the same way as Sir Alf Ramsey did at the same time to the West of the political divide, had realised that the W-M, the 3-2-5 formation that had dominated football thinking for the previous three decades, was dead. Maslov’s solution was to create the 4-4-2 – no small legacy to have in football circles – which, combined with his high pressing game, revolutionised the sport.
Maslov’s teams were expected to attack and defend as one, a “defender” being defined purely by whether or not their team was currently in possession of the ball. Lobanovskyi, an old-fashioned left-winger, was an outside forward of the type that such tactical innovation had made obsolete.
Whatever the exact circumstances that led to the split, Lobanovskyi played only 9 games under Maslov. At the end of the season, after seven years, 144 games and 42 goals for Dynamo, he was packed off to Chernomorets Odesa. There, he would play 59 times and score 15 goals in two seasons before moving to Shakhtar Donetsk. In two seasons there, he played 50 games and scored 14 goals, but his heart was not really in it any more.
By 1968, his playing career was done. Lobanovskyi, tired of football, was just 29 years old. His thirtieth year would be spent in a dalliance with a return to engineering, having studied at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute. It was a time when, in the Soviet Union as well as in the West, the potential of computing had started to revolutionise every area of human endeavour. For Lobanovskyi, who once claimed that “all life is a number”, it proved a formative period.
In 1969, Lobanovskyi was lured back to football by the manager’s chair at Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, where he would spend four seasons. Initially, results were not particularly noteworthy, but in his third season he steered Dnipro to promotion to the Soviet Top League and in his fourth they finished just a point behind Dynamo Kiev.
Lobanovskyi was proving a formidable manager. Haughtily disciplinarian and distant from his players, he was particularly noted for his meticulousness of preparation. “It is impossible to rely on luck or accidents in modern football”, he once argued, “it is necessary to create… a collective of believers who subordinate themselves to the common playing idea”. For Lobanovskyi, soccer was data. If something worked, or if it did not, he needed to understand why. The best way to do this, to his mind, was by the gathering of empirical proof.
Such a radical idea was not unknown in the West. Graham Taylor’s vertiginous rise with Watford drew significantly on the statistical analysis of Charles Reep – something of an eccentric freelancer – and the more conventional Charles Hughes, who introduced the unloved concept of “the position of maximum opportunity”. Hoofing it forward, in other words. Chucking in a floater.
However, by the time Lobanovskyi was offered the job at Dynamo Kiev – thanks, in no small part, to meddling in sporting affairs by the Central Committee – he had assembled his own four-man analytical unit whose data gathering was far more subtle and detailed, its possibilities and variations far more complex.
Central to his thinking was Anatoliy Zelentsov, a professor of Bioenergetics whom Lobanovskyi first encountered during his time at Dnipro. Lobanovskyi would be responsible for selecting the team and establishing the tactical shape and plan; Zelentsov took responsibility for player conditioning. They were joined by Oleg Bazylevych, a former Dynamo player and teammate of Lobanovskyi’s, who was in charge of the actual day-to-day player coaching on the training ground; and Mykhaylo Oshemkov.
Oshemkov’s role was “informational support” – data gathering and analysis, fundamentally – a role which is now pretty well standard at every major football club in world football; albeit one that is (on the whole) hushed up so as to prevent the gusts of simultaneous exasperated snorting from the terraces from blowing the players off their feet.
Strategy was devised on three levels: firstly the players received individual coaching as regards their own tactical responsibilities. Secondly, the opposition were analysed and discussed and specific tasks to counteract their threat were implemented. Finally, there was an overall strategy – a goal for each game, each week, each month, each individual competition.
Lobanovskyi quickly realised that, due to human fallability, 100% application was impossible and that as a consequence, damage limitation and precise focussing of efforts were instead the ultimate goal. Football as a dialectic was Lobanovskyi’s key principle. Each player, each team or each tactical system could not exist by themselves; they must necessarily be dependent on the contrary action of the opposition. Thesis and antithesis.
To this end, Lobanovskyi stressed three major concepts. Preparation – where his ultimate goal was that his team would be capable of anticipating their opponent’s every move and fluidly move to counter it without so much as a word from the sidelines, or even concious thought on their own part (“Don’t think! Play!” was one of his more damning wails from the dugout).
Lobanovskyi also stressed Flexibility, his term for the pressing game pioneered by Victor Maslov. Varying the size of the effective playing area so that it suits your own team’s strategy and at the expense of your opponent’s plan. Finally, he demanded Universality: that is, all eleven players attacking as a unit and all eleven defending as a unit, mindful of their roles and positions for when transitional phases of the game arise.
If you are thinking that this has more relevance for philosophy undergraduates than it does for footballers, you probably have a point. It was a magnificently all-encompassing theory, a totalitarian regime which could not have been more Soviet in its conception. And football players, Communist ones or otherwise, tend to be thick. As such, Lobanovskyi’s great masterstroke was in deskilling the process, essentially in brainwashing his charges by incessant demands and drills that they would become magnificent football players, whether they realised it or not.
With Oshemkov’s data at one hand and Zelentsov’s understanding of human physicality and potential at the other, he established lists of demands for each individual position on the field. Numbers and lengths of passes, completion rates, headers, numbers of shots, distances covered, possession and recycling were all optimised, quantified and turned in to a series of easily measured numerical targets.
The beauty of this system is that there is no way for a player to not know what he is supposed to be doing and that there is nowhere to hide. After each game, Oshemkov’s analysis of the performance would be posted on the dressing room walls in place of the pre-match target sheets. Here was immediate feedback about who had done well and who was shirking their responsibilities.
It was the death knell for instinct, subjectivity and selfish interest. It was the birth of the football management simulation computer game. Lobanovskyi would have been devastating on Championship Manager; he even favoured the 4-1-3-2 formation which proved so popular and successful with its devotees.
If this all sounds shatteringly loveless, it did not play out that way on the field. Lobanovskyi drilled his side to the extent that they could play without thinking, any intellectual aspects of the match ahead having already been explored and anticipated beforehand, but his goal was not mechanical football. He did not attempt to stifle individuality – bear in mind that, during his playing days he had been an archetypal winger, all tricks and imagination – but rather to harness individual skill so that it best served the collective. Rather than a squad of automata, Lobanovskyi’s coaching produced players of the pedigree of Oleg Blohkin, Igor Belanov, Sergei Rebrov, Vasily Rats and Andriy Shevchenko.
In his first year at Kiev, they finished second in the Soviet Top League. In 1974, his second season in charge, they won. It proved to be the first of twelve national league titles won by Lobanovski during his 23 year tenure, spread over three managerial spells in the next 30 seasons. Additionally, Kiev won nine Soviet (later Ukrainian) national cups; as well as the European Cup Winner’s Cup twice, in 1975 and in 1986.
Lobanovskyi’s success could not go overlooked by the powers that be and, duly, he also spent three spells as the coach of the Soviet Union national team. Unfortunately, his extraordinary totalitarian system was not so easily translated to the international game. For starters, he had far less time to work with individual players, to educate them to his way of thinking.
Where possible, he would fashion his team from his Dynamo squad but the labyrithine excesses of Soviet politics meant that this strategy was of only limited efficacy. Players brought in from other clubs were completely stunned by Lobanovskyi’s methods. No wonder, then, that returns were limited. His first spell in charge, from 1975 to 1976, saw the USSR win bronze at the Montreal Olympics. His second, however, saw the team disastrously fail to qualify for Euro 84 in France, eliminated by a 1-0 loss to eventual semi-finalists Portugal in the final qualifying game in Lisbon.
The other great Soviet coach of that era was the Belarussian Eduard Malofeyev. Malofeyev was everything that Lobanovskyi was not: he prized individual brilliance and flair, he was eccentric, impetuous, instinctive and unpredictable. The two men were responsible for the stewardship of the national team for much of the 1980s.
Under Malofeyev, a stylish but inconsistent USSR team qualified for the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico. However, on the way they incurred two losses, a 1-0 defeat to the Republic of Ireland at Lansdowne Road in September 1984 and a swashbuckling, breathless 4-2 defeat to the eventual group winner Denmark at Parken in June 1985, considered by some to be one of the greatest football matches ever played.
For the finals, Lobanovskyi was preferred. This was perhaps a blessing in disguise for the players about to face the heat and altitude of Mexico: Malofeyev once pushed his Dinamo Minsk team out to train in the blazing noon sun of a 50°C summer’s day in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, figuring that when they kicked off their crucial match at 6 p.m. that evening the heat would present them with no further problems. He was right, in this instance and Minsk won comfortably. However, it is impossible to imagine Lobanovskyi ever assenting to anything so bewilderingly unscientific.
In Mexico, Lobanovskyi’s team started well. The won their first match, against Hungary, 6-0 and topped their group which included the European Champions, France. However, they were famously defeated in a remarkable Second Round match during a tropical thunderstorm in León: despite a hat-trick from Belanov, the Soviet team succumbed to a 4-3 defeat after extra time, thanks to a dazzling team display by a largely unfancied Belgium. Nevertheless, Lobanovskyi retained his position for Euro 88 in West Germany, a tournament which saw the Soviets reach the final before being undone by the sensational brilliance of Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit.
By this point, the Soviet Union was in complete upheaval. Perestroika and Glasnost were in full effect and the overall impact on the USSR was shattering. With the Dynamo Kiev team being broken up by the increasing freedoms of the end of the Gorbachev era, Lobanovskyi was no longer able to dovetail the two roles with anything like the same success. While Kiev won the Soviet Top League in 1990, his mish-mash Soviet team finished bottom of their group at Italia 90.
It was the last time the famous shirts bearing the letters “CCCP” would make an appearance at an international football tournament. For Lobanovskyi, it was too much. He resigned both posts and would spend much of the 1990s feathering his nest with lucrative managerial posts in the Middle East, with the national teams of the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
By 1997, Dynamo Kiev had once again slipped from the perch that Lobanovskyi had done so much to establish and, that January, the great man was convinced to return for a third spell at the club. He was a much changed man. Doughy and clearly aged, his glazed, podgy, expression made him look more like Alfred Hitchcock than the chiseled product of great schools of Soviet theoretical thinking. However, his abilities were completely undimmed and he immediately brought success, winning the Ukrainian League in 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2001, the Cup in 1998, 1999 and 2000.
The one year his side failed to win the national title was the season that they were distracted by European exploits, reaching the semi-finals of the Champion’s League before bowing out to Bayern Munich. International football again came calling, Lobanovskyi guiding Ukraine to within one match of qualifying for their first World Cup in 2002, only to lose out to Germany in the play-offs.
On 7th May 2002, Lobanovskyi suffered a major stroke following Dynamo’s match with Metalurh. They won, of course. He would die six days later during surgery attempting to redress brain damage he had suffered during the haemmorhage, aged 63. A minute’s silence in his honour was held two days later in Glasgow before the European Cup Final between Real Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen. Valeriy Lobanovskyi was perhaps not the man you would want to invite to your dinner party but he was undeniably the man you would want to do your taxes, or manage your football team.
He was a giant of the game, one of its very best theoretical thinkers and a coach who history has shown to be way ahead of his time. For all his distance and cold, professional relationship with his players, two interesting stories are perhaps the most instructive. Igor Belanov, who won two Soviet national titles, the Cup Winner’s Cup and was voted the 1986 European Footballer of the Year under Lobanovskyi’s tutelage, named his son Valeriy. And on 29th May 2003, just over a year after Lobanovskyi’s death and the day after AC Milan had won the European Cup against Juventus at Old Trafford, Andriy Shevchenko flew to Kiev. There, he left his winner’s medal on Lobanovskyi’s grave.