Valeriy Lobanovskyi and Dynamo Kyiv’s scientific enlightenment

Valeriy Lobanovskyi and Dynamo Kyiv’s scientific enlightenment

Valeriy Lobanovskyi sat on the bench, hands clasped tight. With frown lines permanently etched into his forehead, he occasionally rocked back and forth. Even as a proven, successful manager he was an image of tension, fighting to contain his emotions.

Such behaviour was an ironic idiosyncrasy given emotion was exactly what Lobanovskyi wished to eradicate from football. He wanted every one of his players to adhere to the system he had devised for them. He wanted individuals to subordinate themselves to the collective. In every game, such heady ambition weighed on his shoulders with the foreboding sense that each passage of play could prove him right or wrong.

In 1964, after years of enchanting Dynamo Kyiv fans as a technically gifted winger with a special ability for conjuring goals from set pieces, Lobanovskyi was unceremoniously sold to Chornormoretes Odessa, supposedly after a fall-out with the club’s new manager, the man credit with inventing the 4-4-2 formation, Victor Maslov.

Quite why he fell out with Maslov is unclear. Numerous reasons have been purported as truths, from personal antipathy to tactical disagreement. What isn’t in doubt is that “Loba” learned from his time as a player, and his analytical mind can only have been sharpened by his short time playing under Maslov, who promoted a high press and energetic football.

Leaving his playing days behind him at the age of 29, Lobanovskyi quickly became a manager with Ukrainian lower league side Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, who he guided to promotion to the Soviet Top League.

Four years with Dnipro wrought more than any accolade could give him, though, for it was here that Lobanovskyi first met Anatoly Zelentsov, a young academic working at the Dnipropetrovsk Institute of Physical Science. This particular acquaintance would be a long-running one, with Zelentsov following Lobanovskyi when Dynamo Kyiv came calling for his services in 1973. And so began one of the definitive managerial eras in football history.

Having won the Soviet league and cup double in his first season managing Dynamo, Lobanovskyi led his charges into Europe. This was something Dynamo’s players were used to; they had, after all, been one of the dominant forces in Soviet football for over a decade. However, there was little tangible evidence that they could carry such authority on to the continental stage. This was an undesirable trait for such an assured Eastern European club, especially given that these were days when the Iron Curtain hung over the region, when players remained in the domestic game.

Winning domestically was not enough to impress Lobanovskyi. A steeled competitor, he wasn’t overly enamoured when he, as a player, won Dynamo’s first-ever Soviet league title. Asked about his thoughts, he coldly evaluated, “A realised dream ceases to be a dream.”

European football would be the only outlet through which Dynamo could seriously stretch their capabilities, imposing themselves on a wider audience. One can imagine Lobanovskyi rubbing his hands with glee ahead of his first continental campaign.

Dynamo’s western competitors weren’t quite so overjoyed. The prospect of a trip to Kyiv to face Lobanovskyi’s men quickly became viewed as one of the more arduous journeys a team could make – and not just because of sheer geographical distance. Over the years came tales of a mechanical team, latching on to tired Soviet clichés of work-rate and efficacy. Anyone who has viewed the Dynamo of the 1970s knows there was more to them than that.

Much of that side had been assembled prior to Lobanovskyi’s assuming the Dynamo managerial mantle, but although he inherited talented individuals, that wouldn’t separate them from Europe’s best. He took a strong base and built upon it, instilling tactical intelligence and a cohesiveness that confounded all before them en route to the 1975 Cup Winners’ Cup final, where they met Hungary’s Ferencváros.

This game showcased many of the core qualities Lobanovskyi asked of his team. They pressed from the off, closing down space when out of possession and limiting opportunities for their gifted Hungarian counterparts to work attacks of their own.

There are different ways to interpret the system Dynamo used, which in itself is a testimony to their interchanging movement. Volodymyr Onyshchenko and Leonid Buryak played behind the lone striker, Oleh Blokhin, while Vladimir Muntyan, Anatoliy Konkov and captain Viktor Kolotov combined skill with ceaseless running, intercepting and harrying as a midfield three. The full-backs, Vladimir Troshkin and Viktor Matvienko, got forward at pace throughout.

It took just 20 minutes for Dynamo to open the scoring as the vivacious Onyshchenko received the ball from Blokhin before shimmying past his man and firmly placing the ball into the net with his sumptuous left foot. Onyshchenko was in the spotlight again before half-time as, drifting in from the right, he unleashed a dipping strike to make it 2-0. 

With a two-goal advantage, Dynamo were virtually unassailable. They were happy to maintain possession when no obvious attack presented itself, probing in the final third seeking to ruin the last vestiges of hope this Ferencváros side may have had.

If the Hungarians had the moxie to try and claw their way back into the game, they were met with a fast counter-attack. In these circumstances, the indefatigable Blokhin’s speed was a fine option as he was consistently found facing up to the last defender. In the 68th minute, Blokhin accelerated beyond the last man before neatly swerving goalkeeper István Géczi and tucking in.

The goal had shades of the wondrous second strike Diego Maradona would score against England over a decade later in 1986, but it is unlikely that the comparison would do anything other than rankle Lobanovskyi. Maradona was a painting of the purely chaotic, a representation of unrestrained individual autonomy on the football pitch. If Blokhin and Onyshchenko’s goals were moments of total self-inspiration, then they were brief aberrations within the composite framework of the team.

One thing that is noticeable about this, Lobanovskyi’s first dominant Dynamo team, was their similarity to the Ajax and Netherlands teams of the same period. Clearly, Rinus Michels and Lobanovskyi shared some principles, if not all, such as universality: the notion that attacking and defending were not undertakings to be split down the middle, but instead embraced by the whole team.

Like those great Dutch sides of the time, Dynamo valued possession, asserted themselves when with the ball and made life difficult for the opposition when without. The Dutch were besotted with specific stylistic notions, however, which ultimately cost them in their 1974 World Cup final defeat to West Germany.

Lobanovskyi was far too proud to be seen failing publicly in such a way. He was happy to adapt his team to the rigours of the specific match at hand. If he felt his team would be better off sitting deeper, they would. The focus was not centred solely around style, but on mentality. He wanted his team to be organised – ND that didn’t always mean attractive.

Later in 1975, Dynamo played European Cup winners Bayern Munich – resplendent with Sepp Maier, Franz Beckenbauer; Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Gerd Müller – in the European Super Cup.

Aware of the capabilities of that Bayern side, Dynamo sat deeper, inviting the Germans on so that they may be hit on the counter. Dynamo’s attacking play was generally disjointed as a result, but halfway through the second half, Blokhin was sent away down the left in a quick transition following incessant Bayern pressure. Using his searing pace to fly past Udo Horsmann, Blokhin made his way inside. With three defenders surrounding him, he put his arms up as if to ask for support before dragging the ball to his right and jinking through on goal to slot home.

Some will argue that such acts of individual expression suggest that Lobanovskyi’s ideology was not yet permanently embedded; others will argue that Blokhin was merely performing his role as the team’s finest attacking outlet. Either way, Lobanovskyi was instantly seen frantically motioning for his players to get back. He wanted them to see the match out, and they did, winning 1-0 in Munich before a 2-0 home victory secured another major European honour. He was willing to adapt to win, underlining that although his ideology of universality was progressive, he was also a pragmatist.

On the training ground, he worked with his backroom staff to enshrine new ideas into the Dynamo method. The aforementioned Zelentsov was responsible for the preparation of individual players, using innovative computerised testing to measure and correct their fitness levels and predicted performance.

Lobanovskyi’s former teammate, Oleh Bazylevich, had been recruited as a coach, while Mykhaylo Oshemkov dealt with collecting statistical information. A keen mathematician, Lobanovskyi knew the demands of his ideology required scientifically enlightened preparation. Evolving technology and data use would work in harmony with technical training to give the players what was needed to carry out their individual and collective tasks.

It was in his preparatory zeal that Lobanovskyi showed his true colours. The philosophy ingrained revealed his background. He was capable of throwing in the occasional Marxist buzzword, like when he stated, “If an opponent has found a counter-play, then we need to find a new strategy. That is the dialectic of the game.” But the language reflected the ideas; it wasn’t mere rhetoric.

Lobanovskyi was genuinely engaging in a rational process to play the best, most effective football. Some point to his talk of the collective and love of numbers as the key indicators of the uniqueness of Dynamo’s distinct “Soviet” style, but the most profound indicator was his methodical emphasis on planning.

In his first nine-year spell, this planning led Dynamo to five Soviet Top League titles, three Soviet Cups, as well as the aforementioned Cup Winners’ Cup and Super Cup double of 1975. In 1982, he decided to leave Dynamo to concentrate on his second spell in charge of the USSR national team, but by 1984 he was back.

Towards the end of his initial reign, he had signed some of the brightest young talent in Ukraine. Anatoliy Demyanenko, a two-footed young left-back, joined in 1979, and Vasyl Rats, a midfielder with a wonderful left foot – one of the finest, most underrated Ukranian players of all – arrived two years later.

Loba supplemented these signings by nurturing homegrown talent such as right-back Volodymyr Beszonov, sweeper Sergei Baltacha. and attacking midfielder Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko. These players would form the nucleus of another great Dynamo team.

Having resumed his position, the club quickly returned to winning ways. With an immediate league and cup double won, Lobanovskyi would once again lead his team into European competition in 1986 and, once again, Dynamo forged a path to the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup. By now, Zelentsov had mastered the team’s training schedule in his laboratory, learning from past teething problems to create an equal focus on both stamina and speed.

One player who was not getting any faster by this stage was Blokhin. Now well into his 30s, he was unable to lead the line and run the channels with the same exuberance as he had done in his youth. Fortunately, Lobanovskyi had provided him with added support in the form of the mercurial Igor Belanov. Behind them Oleksandr Zavarov schemed, seeking openings for through balls or shots. The presence of Belanov and Zavarov took away some of the physical burden Blokhin had previously been asked to shoulder on his own.

In that 1986 final Dynamo met Atlético Madrid, who had won the Copa del Rey while finishing second in LaLiga the season before. Atlético were no match for the Soviet champions, however. The new Dynamo, lining up in a rough 4-3-1-2 system, were even more dynamic than before. With Baltacha as the complete sweeper, centre-half Oleh Kuznetsov was encouraged to push forward, something that suited him with his comfort on the ball. In turn, the full-backs, Beszonov and Demyanenko, were slightly more conservative than their forebears.

Zavarov was the most fluent player in the side, dropping so deep as to sometimes be dictating play from behind Kuznetsov. Viewing an advanced playmaker creating from behind the centre-half must have taken the Spanish aback, but little scrutiny was required to see that it worked.

Flanked by the vigour of Rats and Ivan Yaremchuk, Zavarov was able to poke and prod passes like a modern-day NFL quarterback. Such a resemblance was also clear on the occasions he took advantage of space made available to accelerate through the middle into more advanced territory.

After just five minutes, Rats slalomed past his marker on the left and drove into the penalty area. His cross found Belanov, whose strike was parried by Ubaldo Fillol, only to find the head of a grateful Zavarov, who slotted home to open the scoring. For the rest of the first half, Atlético struggled to get beyond the halfway line.

They offered more cut and thrust in the second, but Dynamo responded to the pressure by countering at high speed. With five minutes left, Rats ran down the left and passed inside to Belanov, who laid it off for Vadym Yevtushenko. Without even looking, the substitute played in an oncoming Blokhin. He dinked the ball beyond Fillol to make it 2-0.

In his book on Eastern European football, Behind the Curtain, Jonathan Wilson described the move as “Dynamo’s moment of self-expression”. A third goal, created by Demyanenko and finished by Yevtushenko, was depicted by Wilson as “A goal conceived in the laboratory, and practised relentlessly on the training pitch.”

The conciseness of the passing, the economy of movement, the opportunism to strike when their opponents were tiring at a quicker rate than they; these two late goals exemplified Lobanovskyi, Dynamo and their unique style of football, just as Carlos Alberto’s 1970 strike did for Brazil.

The fitness, self-sacrifice and cold clinicality lived up to the rest of the world’s expectations of Eastern Europe, but there were high levels of sophistication, timing and technical excellence that stopped the traditional “automaton” stereotype in its tracks.

Glasnost and Perestroika brought political and economic reforms to the Soviet Union, forcing Lobanovskyi to once again show his adaptability in new ways. To a staunch old socialist, the process couldn’t have been more offensively laissez-faire had his forehead been personally tattooed with the Coca-Cola brand, but he rolled adeptly with the punches, cajoling the club hierarchy to take advantage of the changes. He had won European silverware with a bunch of Ukrainian semi-pros and was keen to capitalise on the possibilities of both foreign investment and players.

Dynamo moved into the post-Soviet era with an established dominance within Ukrainian football, but many of their best players moved west. Kuznetsov and Mykhaylychenko ended up at Rangers, the latter via a one-season spell with Sampdoria. Zavarov went to Juventus and Belanov to Borussia Mönchengladbach. Over five years from the late 1980s to early-90s, the names and faces of Dynamo irrevocably changed. Curiously, none of them ever met the level of performance they had done under Lobanovskyi and his famously meticulous regime.

Lobanovskyi himself moved on, heading to the Middle East in search of much-deserved petrodollars, though he returned in 1997. Dynamo had continued their command of Ukrainian football in his absence, but had struggled in Europe. They failed to make it past the group stage of the Champions League, and were often well beaten in the process. The nadir came in the 1995/96 season, when the club was disqualified from the tournament for bribery.

In his third and final managerial spell with the club, Lobanovskyi galvanised a strong, young team, again trying to implement the idea of universality. Although the best Ukrainian players now moved west, Dynamo were able to persuade talent from the smaller former Soviet states to join them, such as the Georgian Kakha Kaladze, Uzbek Maxim Shatskikh and Belarusians, Valentin Belkevich and Aleksandr Khatskevich.

The 1998/99 campaign saw Dynamo come agonisingly close to a first-ever Champions League final. They were eliminated by Bayern Munich in the semi-finals after an enthralling 3-3 draw in Kyiv. The high point of that European campaign came when, on a muddy Olimpiyskiy pitch, Arsenal were worn down by relentless waves of Dynamo attack. Spearheaded by the vibrant Andriy Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov, with Belkevich stringing the passes together in behind, Dynamo won 3-1. Arsenal’s midfield barely had the time or space to breathe. Arsène Wenger was shell-shocked.

Towards the end of his third tenure, Lobanovskyi struggled to communicate with the modern footballer. His authority was no longer unquestionable. Individual footballers were now far less willing to subordinate themselves to the collective. Still, his name is immutably attached to Dynamo Kyiv; this has been the case even since his passing in 2002.

Few Eastern European teams leave a historic mark on the west. Lobanovskyi built two such teams and changed the face of Soviet football in the process. Before he arrived, Moscow was the epicentre of Soviet football, but by the end of his second spell, no team had won more Soviet titles than Dynamo Kyiv.

In success as well as style, his Dynamo were the quintessential Soviet team. Even though Loba was always more inclined toward leaving a legacy as opposed to merely collecting trophies, the roll call is worthy of mention: eight Soviet Top League titles, six Soviet Cups, five Ukrainian league titles, three Ukrainian Cups, two Cup Winners’ Cups and one European Super Cup. Still, silverware was nothing more than a clarification.

Nowadays a bronze statue of Lobanovskyi watches over Kyiv just as the man himself did so over Dynamo. He is accurately portrayed in a forward hunch, leaning intently as if wanting to become part of the game. The architects even managed to carve in the worry lines. Valeriy Lobanovksyi’s personality is perfectly distilled through the metal; his suit remains unruffled but his nerves are shredded. He is still, but not calm, in his constant pursuit of perfection.

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