“Football is like an aeroplane. As velocities increase, so does air resistance, and so you need to make the head more streamlined.” – Viktor Maslov
Viktor Maslov’s is a name that has been somewhat lost amidst the sands of time, his influence often attributed to those who came after him and his significance diluted by the chronic myopia that seems to affect a disconcertingly large number of contemporary football historians. This amiable Russian, however, can legitimately lay claim to what is arguably the most influential legacy that any football coach has ever imparted through their body of work. Maslov was, as I will hopefully come to make clear, one of the true patriarchs of what we now recognise as the ‘modern game’.
Born in Moscow in 1910, Maslov was surrounded by the darkness of war and the electricity of revolutionary fervour during the early years of his life, eventually overcoming the societal maelstrom to embark on his footballing career with RDPK Moscow in 1930. A year later he joined one of the Russian capital’s newest clubs, Torpedo, and it was to be with the ZiL-owned team that Maslov made his name as a player, by all accounts an unspectacular but efficient midfield player with a good eye for a pass. Maslov stayed at Torpedo until 1942, captaining the side between 1936 and 1939, before eventually calling time on his playing career at the age of 32 in 1942.
Maslov wasted no time in fulfilling his desire to become a coach, taking over as Torpedo boss immediately after he finished playing and had four short spells in charge – periods which yielded one Soviet league title in 1960 – before eventually departing for Rostov-na-Donu in 1962. A single season in Rostov brought little and, tempted by the offer of the top job with Dynamo Kiev, Maslov left for Ukraine in 1964.
Before his time with Kiev, Maslov had been thought of as a reasonable if unspectacular coach who had achieved modest results with a strong Torpedo squad. During the six years he spent at Dynamo, however, his footballing philosophy and technical ability as a coach came to the fore as he forged ahead with the revolutionary implementation of many of the tactics which have come to be such a staple of modern football.
The early 1960s represented the peak in popularity of the 4-2-4 formation, Russian clubs having adopted the system in their droves following the USSR’s success with it at the inaugural European Championships in 1960. Maslov, however, had studied the Brazilian 4-2-4 at the 1958 World Cup and had recognised the importance of bringing one of the forwards back to create a three-man midfield when required.
The Russian took the idea one stage further, dropping both of his wingers back to create a midfield quartet and, by design, the 4-4-2 formation. Sir Alf Ramsey’s England of 1966 may often be credited as the pioneers of 4-4-2, but in reality Viktor Maslov had reached the same strategic conclusion several years earlier.
Using the 4-4-2 to devastating effect, Maslov’s Dynamo side dominated Soviet football during the late sixties as they stormed to the 1966, 67 and 68 Soviet titles as well as the 1966 Soviet Cup. Maslov, almost single-handedly, had shifted the balance of power in Soviet football from Moscow to Kiev, success almost literally following his physical passage across the vastness of the USSR.
Famed for the collective ethos encouraged by Maslov (Dynamo became known for their communal discussion of tactical ideas, both players and staff together), the Ukrainian team continued to generate advances in strategic thinking and are believed to be the first team to regularly implement zonal marking and pressing in their defensive play. Indeed, as Maslov once said, “Man-marking humiliates, insults and even morally oppresses the players who resort to it.” His philosophy was patently clear.
With an increasing emphasis on total organisation in all areas of the field, the hallmark of Maslov’s Dynamo became the team’s ability to over-man across the pitch, negating opposition movement with the brilliance of their positioning and the aggressiveness of their pressing. As Jonathan Wilson writes, “Their (Dynamo’s) midfield was hunting in packs, closing down opponents and seizing the initiative in previously unexpected areas of the pitch.”
Romantics may blame Maslov for bringing about the end of the era of true attacking flair by abolishing the traditional winger and dramatically decreasing the amount of space available to opposition forwards, but the developments the Russian brought about worked brilliantly for Dynamo and have emphatically stood the test of time.
Yet Maslov’s innovations were not limited simply to on-field strategy, the masterful coach was also a pioneer in the field of sports nutrition and conditioning. Dynamo were noted for their superior levels of fitness under his management and, obsessive about even the smallest of details, Maslov introduced strict dietary plans to maximise the physical potential of his squad. His methods may have been rigorous and at times strenuous for the players, but they were undoubtedly effective and paved the way for both modern tactical thinking and the detailed sports science that we see today.
Having enjoyed a golden six years in Kiev, Maslov returned to Moscow in 1973 for one last spell with Torpedo. Going back with a reputation far more glittering than that with which he had left, great things were expected of Maslov back in his home town but he failed to turn Torpedo into a team capable of challenging for the title. Like so many other great managers before and since, it seemed like Maslov’s creative energies had been sapped after leaving Kiev, the revered coach unable to rouse himself to enter wholeheartedly into a new project. His next job, with FC Ararat Yerevan in what is modern-day Armenia, was to be his last, the great man retiring in 1975.
Maslov died just two years after his retirement in 1977 at the age of 67, leaving behind one of football’s most significant legacies. He may not be as well known as he ought to be outside of Eastern Europe, but the man known simply as ‘Grandpa’ by many of his players shaped the direction of modern football in a most distinct and decisive way. Viktor Maslov was not only a great manager, but the founding father of modern tactical thinking.