How science and innovation made Valeriy Lobanovskyi Eastern Europe’s greatest manager

How science and innovation made Valeriy Lobanovskyi Eastern Europe’s greatest manager

The feature is part of The Masterminds

After he exploded with delight at having slotted the winning penalty past Gianluigi Buffon, Andriy Shevchenko paused for a moment deep in thought. Even as the rigid disciple he was, he couldn’t contain the ecstasy of finally clinching the Champions League title, but once the burst of euphoria had subsided, his mind turned to more sombre contemplation.

Standing on the Old Trafford pitch as a European champion, his moment was the culmination of years of meticulous planning, and the mastermind behind the plan was all he could think of: The “father and God of Ukrainian football”, in his own words, Valeriy Lobanovskyi.

A few days later, Shevchenko paid his own personal tribute to the indomitable character – who had passed away a year before AC Milan’s victory over Juventus in 2003 – by visiting his grave in Kyiv to show his mentor his medals. His obedient return had a feel of a son returning to pay tribute to his father, with a bond of such unshakable loyalty that is rarely found in modern football.

To describe Lobanovskyi in purely familial terms, however, would be to gloss over what made him great. Igor Belanov, one of his most celebrated pupils from his first stint in charge of Dynamo, had a far less sentimental connection to his boss: “My relationship with Lobanovskyi wasn’t hostile, but it wasn’t friendly either. It was simply professional. But he did a lot for me. We had our quarrels, but we were aware that we were doing a great hang.”

To ignore his deep connection would be to subscribe too lazily to the rigid disciplinarian stereotype of a Soviet mindset. His relationships were in some ways very cold and calculated, but he saw calculations as essential in his approach to football in all aspects. This efficiency of effort was what instilled the utmost respect from his players, and ultimately this is what meant the most to Lobanovskyi.

As a young man he had studied to become a plumber, learning to assess practical situations analytically, and the pride in his work was what mattered more than anything. As a technically gifted winger in his playing days, he had raw talent and creativity that many would dream of, but even then it was the beauty of a studied and well-executed move that enthralled him.

His manipulation of the ball, analysing the spin and trajectory to achieve the perfect delivery, was beyond compare. He studied the ‘Folha Seca’ created by the legendary Brazilian maestro Didi, whereby he caused the ball to drop suddenly at his chosen point by putting backspin on a lofted pass, and specialised in bending corner kicks as much as possible to disorientate defenders. His athletic ability was behind many of his contemporaries, which ultimately lead to him falling out with the iron fist of the then manager Viktor Maslov but also influenced his governance of player preparation later in his career as a manager. He wasn’t concerned about his lack of pace, when he knew he could produce the maximum effect for the team with his technical ability.

When he was asked by a member of staff at the Science and Research of Construction Institute in Kyiv why he was so glum after winning Dynamo Kyiv’s first Soviet Championship, he replied that he was unhappy with his and the team’s level of performance, suggesting that other sides had lost the title rather Dynamo having won it. When asked if it felt good to have achieved his dreams, Lobanovskyi said: “What’s your dream as a scientist? Your degree? Your doctorate? Your postdoctoral thesis?” The scientist replied: “Maybe, but a real scientist dreams about making a contribution to scientific development, about leaving his mark on it.”

“And there you have your answer,” Lobanovskyi concluded.

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Few managers can lay claim to having created a dynasty, but the Dinamo Kyiv machine of the 1970s and 1980s can be attributed to the unique philosophy he championed. Machine is perhaps not a fair description of the end product that stormed to eight Soviet Championships, six Soviet Cups and three Soviet Super Cups, as Barney Ronay wrote in The Guardian: “It would be wrong to cast Lobanovskyi as a ‘dry’ figure, some clanking Soviet chess computer disdainful of human variation and seeking only the piston-powered kicking foot. He was a product of the Soviet 1950s: a time, as in the West, of progress and technological optimism.”

What is most striking about Lobanovskyi the person is how he developed and adapted to his circumstances, never ceasing to learn, despite being the strictest of disciplinarians. After he left Dynamo as a player in 1965, he continued studying at Odessa Polytechnic Institute as a coal power engineer to claim a second degree, even though he never used his extra qualification in practice.

The era he grew up in was marked by a race to advance technology as a way of publicly championing the educational superiority of the Soviet Union, but in everyday life there was a distinct lack of technology made available to ordinary people. Lobanovskyi found inventive ways around this in his thirst for self-improvement as a manager.

While in charge of Dynamo, it was a struggle to prepare thoroughly for European opponents since matches of foreign leagues were not broadcast on Soviet TV. Lobanovskyi had a colleague in Uzhhorod, on the border with Slovakia and a few kilometres from Hungarian territory, where signals from Hungarian TV could be picked up, so matches were recorded on VCR and smuggled back to the capital for the boss and his team to analyse.

While videos were hardly revolutionary, the system that became the cornerstone of Lobanovskyi’s success most certainly was. The now-famous partnership with the dean of the Dnipropetrovsk Institute of Physical Sciences, Anatoly Zelentsov, was unheard of, and initially met with disapproval from many observers of football, who claimed it was removing the soul from the game. Lobanovskyi had taken up his first managerial post with the city’s club Dnipro after hanging up his boots at the age of 29, and was desperate to build a team to challenge at the highest level, so was intrigued by Zelentsov’s claims that he could improve players’ levels by using data collected from performance.

The academic proposed a system whereby each area of the pitch was automatically analysed by a computer that would measure the speed of individual players, how long they spent in each specific area, how they supported each other if drawn out of position and how they worked with and without the ball. Sam Allardyce famously championed the idea of using statistical breakdowns of games after witnessing NFL teams during his stint as a player in the NASL, but this was two decades earlier at a time when the English FA still towed the line of ‘Positions of Maximum Opportunity’ – a glorified presentation of the long ball – as a technical advancement.

Reacting to events on the pitch was only a minor part of the work that Zelentsov and Lobanovskyi devised. Screening players deemed suitable for their teams was an equally technical process using computers brought in from Moscow to create programs that tested key skills players would need on the pitch. One such example that Simon Kuper describes from his meeting with Zelentsov in his book Football Against the Enemy details the focus on reaction times; a line dissects the screen as dots move across at varying speeds, and the player under scrutiny must tap a key as soon as it crosses the line. A score of three decimal places is given, with a specific range deemed acceptable.

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When selecting the USSR squad for the 1988 European Championships, Lobanovskyi used tests such as these to whittle down 40 potential players to 20 for the final group. Despite derision in the media for some of these methods, they reached the final where they fell to the Netherlands of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, who they had beaten in the group stages.

The Dutch connection was one that goes back to the moulding of Lobanovskyi’s footballing principles. Rinus Michels had pioneered the world-famous concept of Total Football in the 1970s, which revolved around a system of hard pressing without the ball, and as universality to players in terms of positional play. This was central to the attitude Lobanovskyi imparted on his teams – that each player could fit into any position, so that their individuality was superceded by their service to the collective.

In his book Behind the Curtain, Jonathan Wilson recalls a revealing moment during a Dynamo Kyiv Champions League match away to Arsenal when English journalists tried to identify one of Lobanovskyi’s players. “I remember the bewilderment as we tried to identify the blond bloke who had just put in the cross from the left,” he wrote. “‘Georgi Peev?’ someone suggested, reading his shirt number and checking it against the team-sheet. ‘Can’t be – he’s the right back,’ came the dismissive shout, but it was; at its best [Dynamo’s] movement can still delight.”

While it could be argued till the end of time who was ultimately responsible for the interchangeable nature of this universal style, call it Total Football, tiki-taka or gegenpressing as you will, where Lobanovskyi was a revolutionary mastermind was his stubborn insistence against the flow of popular opinion in his homeland. Igor Rabiner is a renowned Russian football writer and journalist who grew up supporting the most popular team in the Soviet Union, Spartak Moscow, and he describes the rivalry that was characterised by Lobanovskyi’s opposing mentality in contrast to Konstantin Beskov’s, the Spartak manager.

“In the summer of 1990 I went on a trip along the Volga River and met a lad the same age as me from Kyiv,” he wrote in The Blizzard. “For two weeks we argued all day long about what’s more important in football – spectacular performances (the Spartak way) or pure result (the Dynamo way), beautiful combinations or powerful breaks on the flank, a manager of football art like Beskov or a strict mathematician like Lobanovskyi.”

This debate was one that raged throughout the Soviet Union among supporters; the fact that in the period when Dynamo won 17 major trophies, Spartak only won three Soviet Championships and a single cup but still garnered a larger and more widespread following tells it’s own story.

The success of the whole process depended not only on ideology though. The most suitable players to fit the regime were required as were the specific equipment and technology to implement the strategies, but both of those required something else: money. At the turn of the millennium, the economy was in a horrific state – the Ukrainian President Victor Kravchuk earned about $40 a month, but mysteriously Dynamo Kyiv players were earning over $1,000 a month, most of them driving Mercedes. The answer to how Dynamo had accumulated such an astonishing wealth lies in the methods that Lobanovskyi was party to in his early reign.

The Soviet way was for clubs to be state-run, and Dynamo, for example, were controlled by Ministry of Interior, which meant that they couldn’t control the flow of income into the club by signing sponsorship deals. Kuper explains in Football Against the Enemy how the leader of the Ukrainian Communist Party in the 1980s, Vladimir Scherbitsky, was a keen fan who the club lavished with an extravagant underground palace as a ‘gift’. In return, he successfully persuaded his friend Igor Ligachev to lobby his fellow Politburo members to grant Dynamo permission to go fully professional.

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This led to a habit of setting up joint ventures with Western firms that were tax free since Dynamo were technically still a sports club. These new companies, where the club were only obliged to put a small proportion of the cash, could earn a profit of between $1.5 million and $2.5 million a month. Mafia bosses were brought in on the act to safeguard the companies in return for a slice of the pie; what Financial Fair Play regulators would have made of it is uncertain.

Lobanovskyi left the club a year after they became professional in 1989 to take up the highly lucrative job in charge of the UAE national side, after which he managed Kuwait for another three years before returning to his spiritual home. Money had always been an important part of his career, whether directly or indirectly. In his first reign he had pursued a policy of ‘win at home, draw away’ rigidly, to the point of alienating some fans who were sick of the defensive mindset outside Kyiv. Some draws were ‘arranged’ away from home in the relentless pursuit of overall success: the end most certainly justified the means in his eyes.

Long after the breakup of the Soviet Union, loopholes were exploited to maximise capital using foreign banks to deposit cash to avoid paying taxes. Kuper reports about a driver who was sent to Berlin with over $2 million in cash in the back of his car, and about licenses the club held to export nuclear missile parts, two tons of gold a year, and other valuable commodities that were secured through bribery. This was at a time when the Ukrainian Hryvania was being introduced as the new currency, and dollars were worth more to save up.

On the football front, business was booming too. Players were transferred within the Soviet Union cheaply and then sold on for vastly higher prices. Oleksandr Zavalov, for example, moved to Dynamo on a free transfer from Zorya Lugansk in 1984, and was sold on to Juventus for £3 million four years later. This habit of what others saw as poaching of the best talent from the Soviet Union, backed by the state but free to do business, rankled with many, and diminished the widespread appeal of Lobanovskyi’s methodology.

Business extended to attempted match-fixing in 1995 when Dynamo faced Panathinaikos in the Champions League. The Spanish referee, Antonio López Nieto, reported the club to UEFA who banned them for three years from continental competition. This was later reduced to one year as it was deemed to be detrimental to the development of Ukrainian football; although Lobanovskyi was not in charge at the time, it was a culture he was well aware of.

Regardless of the criticisms of Dynamo’s unstoppable momentum, Lobanovskyi was unquestionably a winner. His ruthless steak was a major factor in his divisive appeal, but it was also his greatest strength. The physical preparation of his players demanded absolute fitness, and at times drove players over the edge, but those that stayed were drilled in the core values of the system. Unsurprisingly, the Soviet Union realised the advantage of implanting results onto the national team as a show of strength and planned to simply replicate the club success of Lobanovskyi on the international arena.

Two years into his tenure as Dynamo boss, he was appointed to the dual role as national team manager, and very soon the representation of Ukrainian (for this read ‘Dynamo’) players rose sharply. In one of his earliest internationals in charge, he selected the entire starting line-up from Dynamo players to face Turkey in a European Championship qualifier, and against the Republic of Ireland a few months later, but didn’t repeat the experiment again in his time. Players from other clubs were shocked at the extreme physical demands and rigid instruction imposed upon them by Lobanovskyi, with his first period in charge cut short by the players going on strike in protest over his style.

Eduard Malofeyev was installed as head coach for the early 1980s as a direct contrast to Lobanovskyi. The Belorussian’s famously expressive style could not have clashed more severely with the Dynamo ideology, just like Beskov’s crowd-pleasing Spartak, and while it attracted plenty of admirers from an aesthetic point of view, it didn’t bring material success, and in 1986 Lobanovskyi was reinstated.

Given his demand for complete control over players and their development, not just during occasional periods in the season, it is somewhat of a surprise that he managed internationally for so long. His legacy was something that he had always wanted to secure, and with Dynamo this was infinitely more possible with his status and the ability to instil a whole culture all year long. When he returned from his Middle Eastern hiatus, it was to a different world that he had left.

The after effects of Dynamo’s political connections in the late 1980s meant it was still a powerful institution, but youngsters coming through were starting to change their attitudes. He didn’t have complete control through his aura alone like he used to, although he did have one last generation of great players including Andriy Shevchenko, Serhiy Rebrov and Oleg Luzhny, who signed on to his methods religiously.

While Rebrov has returned as boss to continue the line of Lobanovskyi disciples at the club, the playing style and ethos around the club has changed – Zelentsov is no longer there in his technical role, while the assistant is Raúl Riancho, a Spaniard with a different outlook altogether.

In the 21st century, it is questionable whether his whole framework would function with the open, competitive market allowing players to transfer more freely, but one thing is for certain – his pioneering attitudes have left an indelible mark on the sport through the approaches of managers from Ottmar Hitzfeld and Louis van Gaal to José Mourinho and André Villas-Boas. And for all the demands he made to others, a legacy was all that Valeriy Lobanovskyi ever asked of football.

By Andrew Flint @AndrewMijFlint

Thanks go to Vadim and Aleksandr Furmanov, and Manuel Veth for their expert insight.

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