How Valeriy Lobanovsky's appliance of science won hearts and trophies
Sat May 13
Dynamo Kiev's triumph in Europe 25 years ago this month was the moment the coach's theory of football reached its peak.
It is a game best known for the cock that evades capture for an embarrassingly long time, but Dynamo Kiev's 3-0 victory over Atlético Madrid in the Cup Winners' Cup final 25 years ago this month was the match in which Valeriy Lobanovsky's theory of football reached its peak.
The second goal in particular, a sweeping counterattack, showed the fluid beauty of the Lobanovsky machine. Vasyl Rats advanced down the left, drew two men and played the ball inside to Ihor Belanov. Belanov took two touches and, as the centre-back moved across to close him down, he, without so much as a glance, laid the ball right for Vadym Yevtushenko. He moved one pace forward, forcing the full-back inside to close him down, then instinctively flicked the ball right for the overlapping Oleh Blokhin, who ran on to his pass and, as the goalkeeper came off his line, lofted the ball over him. The goal was rapid, simple, devastatingly co-ordinated – everything Lobanovsky insisted football should be.
After a wobble against Utrecht in the first round, when they lost 2-1 in the Netherlands before a 4-1 win in Ukraine, Dynamo had been awesome during that cup run. Universitatea Craiova were dismissed 5-2 on aggregate in the second round, Rapid Vienna 9-2 in the quarter-final and Dukla Prague 4-1 in the semi-final. They won every home leg by at least a three-goal margin and won the Soviet league in 1985 and 1986. And to think that, 17 years earlier, Lobanovsky nearly gave it all up to become a plumber.
Lobanovsky had been a talented left-winger, an individualistic player who ultimately fell out with Viktor Maslov, the great pioneer of the pressing game that he would take to new heights. The trigger for the breakdown of their relationship remains disputed – some say Maslov made the then-fastidious Lobanovsky drink horilka at a lunch after a flight had been delayed; others that Lobanovsky refused to be involved in arranging the result of a game. Whatever the cause, player and coach had never seen eye to eye, largely because their conceptions of the game, at the time, were so different.
Lobanovsky was always an intense, cussed individual. When he was 22 he helped Dynamo to their long-awaited first Supreme League title, but remained aloof from the general rejoicing, as was made clear by what was intended as a celebratory visit to the Science and Research Institute of the Construction Industry with his team-mates Oleh Bazylevych and Vladimir Levchenko.
"Yes, we have won the league," Volodymyr Sabaldyr, a Kievan scientist and long-time amateur footballer, remembered him saying in the face of excited congratulations. "But so what? Sometimes we played badly. We just got more points than other teams who played worse than us. I can't accept your praise as there are no grounds for it."
Sabaldyr asked him how it felt to achieve something that had been a dream for Kievans for decades. "A realised dream ceases to be a dream," Lobanovsky replied. "What is your dream as a scientist? Your degree? Your doctorate? Your post-doctoral thesis?"
"Maybe," Sabaldyr replied. "But a real scientist dreams about making a contribution to scientific development, about leaving his mark on it."
"And there you have your answer."
The conversation is telling, for it suggests the analytical, rational mind was already at work. Born in 1939, Lobanovsky grew up in the great Soviet age of science. He was a teenager when the USSR opened its first nuclear power station and sent Sputnik into space, and Kiev itself was the centre of the Soviet computer industry. The first cybernetic institute in the USSR was opened there in 1957 and quickly became acknowledged as a world leader in automated control systems, artificial intelligence and mathematical modelling. It was there in 1963 that an early prototype of the modern PC was developed.
While Lobanovsky was studying heating engineering at the Kievan Polytechnic Institute, the potential of computers and their possible applications in almost all spheres was becoming apparent. It was exciting, it was new and it is no great surprise that Lobanovsky should have been gripped by the spirit of technological optimism, yet that left him conflicted. The player in him wanted to have fun, dribble and invent tricks. His training drove him to a systematic approach.
Eventually, after a chance meeting with the statistician Anatoliy Zelentsov at a party, it was the latter that won out. Football became for him a system of 22 elements – two sub-systems of 11 elements – moving within a defined area (the pitch) and subject to a series of restrictions (the laws of the game). If the two sub-systems were equal, the outcome would be a draw. If one were stronger, they would win. The aspect that Lobanovsky found most fascinating was that the sub-systems were subject to a peculiarity: the efficiency of the sub-system was greater than the sum of the efficiencies of the elements that comprise it. That, as Lobanovsky saw it, meant football was ripe for the application of the cybernetic techniques being taught at the Polytechnic Institute. Football, he concluded, was less about individuals than about coalitions and the connections between them.
"When we are talking about tactical evolution," Lobanovsky and Zelentsov wrote in their book, The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models, "the first thing we have in mind is to strive for new courses of action that will not allow the opponent to adapt to our style of play. If an opponent has adjusted himself to our style of play and found a counterplay, then we need to find new a new strategy. That is the dialectic of the game. You have to go forward in such a way and with such a range of attacking options that it will force the opponent to make a mistake. In other words, it's necessary to force the opponent into the condition you want them to be in. One of the most important means of doing that is to vary the size of the playing area."
Others, particularly in the Netherlands, were coming to a similar conclusion; the difference is that Lobanovsky came to favour his hard-pressing style from first principles, recognising the logic of the tactics Maslov had implemented intuitively. After four unremarkable years at Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, he moved to Dynamo, where he won five league titles and the 1975 Cup Winners' Cup in his first spell in charge.
Yet some part of football will always be beyond science. There will be bad luck, players will fall out of form or will lose faith in their coach. That was what happened in the qualifiers for Euro 84, which Lobanovsky's USSR failed to reach after a defeat by Portugal in which the only goal came from a penalty for a foul committed outside the box. When he returned to Dynamo and they finished only 10th, doubts about the Lobanovskyan method grew. The more individualistic style of Dinamo Minsk and Spartak Moscow came to prominence. But Lobanovsky remained confident in his science. "A path always remains a path," he said. "It's a path during the day, it's a path during the night and it's a path during the dawn."
That final in Lyon, and Blokhin's goal in particular, were his vindication. He went on to become the most successful manager in Soviet and then Ukrainian history.
More about Lobanovsky Valeriy
Wed Nov 15Lobanovsky legacy daunting for Dynamo
Sat Jan 7In Memory of Valeriy Lobanovsky
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