A figure of colossal footballing importance who once bestrode the European game, Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s impact on the game both in Ukraine and the continent as a whole should not be underestimated.
A famous Dynamo Kyiv winger – not to mention the inventor of the “banana shot” – in the late fifties and early sixties, Lobanovskyi hung up his boots in 1968 aged just 29 before setting out on a 32-year managerial career which would see the inscrutable former USSR international achieve worldwide recognition. His first job, at Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, lasted for four years between 1969 and 1973, although Lobanovskyi made relatively little impact at Stadium Meteor during his time there. However, when he returned to Dynamo as head coach in 1974, he began to put in place the methodology that would come to be viewed as his enduring legacy.
Famed for being as pragmatic a coach as he was exuberant a player, Jonathan Wilson eruditely describes Lobanovskyi in Inverting the Pyramid as the embodiment of “the great struggle between individuality and system: the player in him wanted to dribble, to invent tricks and to embarrass his opponents, and yet, as he later admitted, his training at the Polytechnic Institute (his University) drove him to a systematic approach, to break football down into its component tasks”.
An immensely gifted schoolboy mathematician, Lobanovskyi’s view of football as a deeply compartmentalised game was perhaps to be expected. Taking a highly scientific approach to tactical instruction, Lobanovskyi developed a theory of football as a system comprising of twenty-two elements moving with the confines of the given area of the pitch and subjected to the restrictions of the rules. Again as Wilson points out, the Ukrainian came to the conclusion that football was not about individuals, but the coalitions and connections between them.
In his first season as Dynamo manager the club won a double, claiming both the Soviet Top League championship and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup to become the first team from the USSR to win a continental title. Indeed, inspired by the goals of the prolific Oleg Blokhin and the dynamic midfield play of Viktor Kolotov, Lobanovskyi’s side embarked upon an unparalleled period of dominance in the domestic game over the fifteen years that were to follow.
Eight league titles and six Soviet Cups under Lobanovskyi’s stewardship saw Dynamo become the dominant force in Eastern European football, excelling domestically as well as winning two Cup Winners’ Cups to make their mark on continental competition. Usually deployed in their iconic 4-1-3-2 formation with Anatoly Konkov anchoring the midfield and Blokhin and Onyshchenko providing the fire-power, Dynamo’s first incarnation under Lobanovskyi has gone down in history as one of the greatest Eastern European club sides of all time.
His success with Dynamo aside, Lobanovskyi also enjoyed a fruitful time in three spells as manager of the USSR, guiding the team to a bronze medal at the 1976 Olympics as well as finishing runners-up to the Netherlands of Rinus Michels in the 1988 European Championships. Several years in charge of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates in the 1990s yielded little, but his return to Kiev in 1997 heralded an upturn in the fortunes of a club that had slumped since his departure.
Between 1997 and 2002 Lobanovskyi developed a new generation of Ukrainian talent which included Andriy Shevchenko and Sergei Rebrov, taking his young team all the way to a Champions League semi-final in 1999. However, hamstrung by his best players being cherry-picked by Europe’s biggest clubs and modern players who were less responsive to his authoritarian approach, the legendary coach was unable to develop his squad to quite the level he would have wanted.
However, it was not necessarily Lobanovskyi’s serial success that made him such an instrumental figure in the history of European football. Taking his scientific approach to its extremes, the great Ukrainian introduced meticulous dietary and training regimes for his players, collated masses of data prior to every game, gave each member of his team specific tactical tasks and individual technical coaching in order for them to better fulfil their tasks – methods we see mimicked by the likes of Rafael Benitez in the modern era. As Wilson writes of Lobanovskyi, “What happened off the field in terms of physical preparation and, particularly, rehabilitation, was just as important as what happened on it”.
Lobanovskyi claimed that his ambition was to achieve uniformity amongst his players; he wanted his forwards to be capable defenders and his defenders to be capable forwards. He also instructed his players in numerous pre-planned moves, moves which became embedded in Dynamo’s play and were able to be adapted to suit a variety of circumstances.
Such practices may not seem particularly visionary to the modern football fan, but Lobanovskyi was, albeit with the advantage of having learnt at the feet of Victor Maslov, something of a pioneer in terms of the increasing professionalism and scientific regulation of football.
Today, football at the highest level is analysed right down to the microscopic level by coaches seeking to gain advantages, no matter how small, over their opponents. Although the process may have been started by Maslov before him, it was Lobanovskyi who really brought science and football together in order to attain an obviously higher standard of performance.
Mathematical tactical precision and strict dietary regimes for players – all can be traced back to Valeriy Lobanovskyi. Cutting through all of his incredible achievements, perhaps the greatest tribute to Lobanovskyi was given by Andriy Shevchenko in 2003, a year after the manager’s death. Having just won the Champions League with Milan, Shevchenko flew back to Kiev at the earliest possible opportunity to place his medal on his former coach’s grave.
Valeriy Lobanovskyi, arguably the greatest technical pioneer of them all.