Viktor Maslov: the pioneer of the 4-4-2 who took pressing to a new level

Viktor Maslov: the pioneer of the 4-4-2 who took pressing to a new level

Football is defined by its various and diverse philosophies and the masterminds behind them. For every successful tactic, there is someone behind its inception. The sport is littered with influences that precede it, and by the 21st century, every new style is not really new, but a modification of something old.

Evolution is an inherent part of life, and football evolved faster than ever in the 20th century. While the evolved form might become a work of art, one must not forget its roots. One of the primary innovators of the modern game is Johan Cruyff, but there are important, just a revolutionary, figures that preceded the great Dutchman.

Amongst the ranks of famed football innovators, one name is often missed out. Victor Maslov can lay claim to being one of the forefathers of the beautiful game as we know it today, and yet there is a stark lack of credit attributed to the Russian. It might be that his legacy is outshone by those that succeeded him.

One of his successors was Valeriy Lobanovskyi, a Ukrainian whose success at Dynamo Kyiv was one of many common denominators between he and Maslov. Whether or not football has room for just one Soviet innovator, the fact remains that Maslov is one of the lost masterminds in the game who demands much more credit than is afforded to him.

Maslov was born in 1910 in the Soviet Union, at a time where the European landscape was dominated by shifting borders and conflict. As a player his rise was steady, joining RDPK Moscow in 1930. He crossed the city divide a couple of years later, moving to Torpedo Moscow. It was there where he made his name as a tidy midfielder, staying until 1942 and captaining the side over a three-year stint during his time in the capital.

He hung up his boots in 1942 as the Second World War began to escalate in his homeland. It was, however, not his playing career around which Maslov’s legacy is centred. A modest yet successful period on the pitch was the precursor to his time in the dugout, which would go on to define his legacy as well as the sport itself.

He took over at Torpedo when he retired, but what followed was a largely underwhelming six years. When he was sacked in 1948, he learned of the news from the cleaners. He found it difficult post-Torpedo, shuffling between three clubs in seven seasons. But after some time off, Torpedo came back for Maslov, and it was then when the seeds of success were sown.

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A four-year stint produced a league title in 1959/60 and two cup wins as Maslov began to find his feet at the highest level. He moved on to SKA Rostov-on-Don for two years after that, commencing a solid building job that preceded a famous runners-up finish in the Soviet Top League in 1966. His efforts were finally recognised by the elite when Dynamo Kyiv came calling in 1964.

Football formations have come in and out of vogue through the decades, and the 1960s were no different. Vicente Feola’s Brazil won the 1958 World Cup with a distinctive 4-2-4 formation boasting two wide wingers, a model that the world saw as the ideal system. The USSR turned to the same formation, with national coach Gavriil Kachalin at the head of its use. Club coaches followed suit as well, but their performances at the 1962 World Cup were reflective of a side in tactical flux. After Kachalin, Konstantin Beskov continued to hang on to the potential of the 4-2-4, even if results were mixed.

Given Brazil’s success, that belief wasn’t entirely misguided, but innovation comes from looking at what works and then improving it. Maslov had no intention of following the crowd, and instead chose to take the 4-2-4 and bring the two wide wingers into midfield. While the 4-2-4 had one winger tracking back to become a third midfielder, Maslov innovated pulled back the other winger too. In doing so, he formed the 4-4-2, outnumbering the two-man midfield across the world, but not hindering his side’s creativity at the same time. In Jonathan Wilson’s words, “the 4-4-2 was first invented by Maslov”.

He saw his formation as a system of individual roles that combined to form a collective that was greater than the sum of its parts. The wingers were now wide midfielders, who fulfilled their remit of working in the space in front of the full-backs, who themselves were encouraged to join in the play. His introduction of attacking responsibilities for the traditional full-back was the beginning of their dual responsibility.

The midfield had a holder who covered the back four, while there was an advanced playmaker in possession. Maslov preferred his side to keep the ball moving and abolished man-marking in favour of zones. Above all of that, however, what he had his side doing without the ball was the defining factor. His clockwork system had players limit the space afforded to the opposition, winning the ball high up the pitch. That is now known as pressing, and his system was good enough to pressure the opposition while closing gaps of their own.

At the time, pressing has long been prevalent in sport. In hockey, Thomas Patrick Gorman had introduced the concept of forechecking, where his forwards would surge and aggressively impose themselves on opposing players in possession, cutting down space and blocking passing lanes. It took them time, but it eventually brought success. More than anything, the system requires a machine-like system for it to fully work. While it seemed impossible to transfer over forechecking from hockey to football, given the numerous differences, it was eventually successful.

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The likes of Mauricio Pochettino and Jürgen Klopp have introduced a pressing system at their clubs today, but the very essence of the tactic dates back decades. Some credit Rinus Michels, while others attribute its success at the top with Ernst Happel’s Feyenoord, who won the European Cup in 1970. Whether or not Maslov’s influence is unrecognised or simply forgotten is something for the revisionists, but it warrants credit.

The 4-4-2, regardless of its initial forefathers, is now a staple of the modern game. His tactics may have been criticised by the romantics, but it was undoubtedly effective. It maintained the right balance between defence and attack, having more bodies in midfield to carry out transitions. It ensured that football moved towards efficient systems rather than a reliance on individual brilliance.

Maslov’s innovations, which would later have a profound impact on Lobanovskyi, included a new tactic altogether, but what completed it was his emphasis on training and recovery. It is no surprise that the advent of pressing coincided with improving fitness levels in the 1960s; to press hard over a sustained period, fitness has to be supreme. Maslov introduced intense physical training, but he also focused his attention on nutrition and recovery. While this is now a staple at clubs across the world, it wasn’t the case back then.

One of English football’s clichés is the 4-4-2 formation, but that itself was drawn from the Three Lions’ sole World Cup triumph in 1966 under Alf Ramsey. Their success with the formation led to a nationwide adoption of the system, leading to its association with the English – and wider British – game. It is also why Ramsey is incorrectly credited as its pioneer, when in fact Maslov had devised its use years earlier. Given Cold War tensions at the time, it might be that Ramsey devised the 4-4-2 on his own, but there is no doubt that Maslov was the first.

Like many pioneers, the Russian was ahead of his time, though it didn’t always translate into trophies or acclaim – at least not immediately. Thanks in part to their midfield, Dynamo Kyiv won the league for three consecutive years between 1966 to 1968, with Soviet Top League power shifting from Moscow to Kyiv.

Maslov’s favouring of a collective ethos on and off the pitch was something that set him apart, with regular consultation with his players the staff a key part of his method. He would gather his squad together before games and talk through the plan, asking for their thoughts along the way. Such trust was vital in his implementation of a team-centric tactic. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the likeable Maslov was known as “Grandad”. It’s also a reason why he’s been forgotten to time.

Maslov might have gone further than a nominal 4-4-2 too. A free-flowing, interchangeable side was what he ultimately had in mind, something that he wasn’t able to execute during his own life. But that was ultimately the groundwork for Lobanovskyi’s success at Dynamo, and eventually Total Football under Michels and Cruyff.

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In Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, where he puts forward Maslov’s case as a great pioneer, one of the Muscovite’s quotes stands out: “Football is like an aeroplane. As velocities increase, so does air resistance, so you have to make the head more streamlined.” His hint at the dearth of strikers to come was an accurate prediction of the path football would take over the following years.

He was eventually sacked in 1970 when Dynamo slipped to seventh in the league. He wasn’t helped by a lack of reserves, and the players lost to the World Cup affected his side in all areas. While his impact at the club may have gone stale, his dismissal was sour nevertheless, shipped off with no replacement in sight. He returned with Torpedo, winning a domestic cup, before a stint with Ararat Yerevan, but by then his career was in decline. He eventually passed away aged 67 in May 1977.

The concepts that Maslov pioneered, such as zonal-marking and aggressive pressing, have come to shape the modern game in ways the Russian himself may not have imagined. He conceived it all, and his famous Dynamo side is the stuff of lore in his homeland. Sadly, though, the exploits of Lobanovskyi have come to push him out of the limelight.

It is ironic that the player once rejected by Maslov would eventually eclipse him as a coach. Lobanovksyi’s vision of the game revolved around science, to which extent he established a partnership with Professor Anatoly Zelentsov, a dean of the local Institute of Physical Science. Their exploits led Dynamo Kyiv to auspices further than those achieved by Maslov, but the principles remained similar.

A systematic style, a focus on nutrition and recovery, and those high-pressing ideals were adopted by the Ukrainian, and to his credit, he placed Dynamo on the world map. Unlike his former coach, he wasn’t limited by the means of his times, coming into a game rife with tactical innovations and free-thinking. While they endured a frosty relationship, they remain giants of the Soviet game, each achieving success in their own right.

While Maslov may have been forgotten to time and his innovations lost over 40 years of a rapidly evolving sport, the evidence of his brilliance lies in the fact that the 4-4-2 formation that he pioneered is still in use today. It shaped a generation of footballers, aiming to tie creative ideals with just enough pragmatism that the team would always come first. It’s why Viktor Maslov is a legend the game should cherish.

By Rahul Warrier @rahulw_

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