Valeriy Lobanovskyi – One of Football’s First Scientists


The Lobanovskyi memorial outside the service entrance of the Dynamo stadium

There are many attributes that one can associate with Valeriy Lobanovskyi – influential, stern, authoritative among others but the one phrase that really describes his career can be as a skilled tactician, skilled in the planning and execution of his game plans.

Born in Kyiv, Ukraine, Lobanovskyi played for Victor Maslov’s Dynamo Kyiv as a left winger in the late fifties. He was known for his pace and his ability to bend the ball. He flourished in the team until Maslov started implementing the 4-4-2 formation with no wingers, later used by Alf Ramsey’s World Cup winning team of 1966.

Maslov was breaking popular tradition by fielding a 4 man midfield opposing the more popular 4-2-4, then used by Brazil. Lobanovskyi, not used to playing as a midfielder, became disenchanted with Maslov’s pressing approach to the game. He left Dynamo in 1965, going on to play for Chornomorets Odessa and finished his playing career at Shakhtar Donetsk.  Lobanovskyi hung up his boots at the premature age of 29 and took up the coaching job at FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk (another Ukrainian team) a year after his retirement, in 1969.

His years at Dnipro went largely unnoticed as he did not win anything significant. However, he did lead Dnipro to the Soviet Top League in three years and in his fourth year, Dnipro finished sixth in that league.

It was at Dynamo Kyiv that Lobanovskyi began to gain a reputation as a tactician. Lobanovskyi joined Kyiv as manager in 1974 taking over from Andrey Biba. He started in a controversial manner – by ordering his first computer. Computers were something that were not easy to get and Lobanovskyi had to call in every favour with top military and government officials to get one. This immediately alerted the Soviet Intelligence agencies which thought that Lobanovskyi would be using it to send secret information to rival countries. Who knew that Lobanovskyi would begin something that was as revolutionary as it was audacious? He used it to analyse his players by their performances, use statistics and access all possible data on his opponents. He and his team of statisticians would meticulously collect data on each individual player, tracking every detail, from what areas of the pitch the player covered, to how he trapped the ball.

Valeriy Lobanovskyi was a huge supporter of the 4-4-2 because he saw the key to winning any game was not control of the ball but control of the space on the pitch – not only control of space when attacking but control of space when the team was in more defensive positions. As a result, he divided football into 22 elements (players) divided into sub-systems 11 elements each which moved within a defined area (the pitch). If the sub-systems were equal, it was a draw. If one sub-system was better than the other, they would win. As simple as that! Lobanovskyi believed that football was not about individuals but about coalitions, connections and the bond that the individuals in a team shared. He encouraged these bonds in various training sessions in which he would carry out a specific number of drills, the most popular being blindfolded 5-a-side matches. These training sessions resulted in an almost telepathic understanding between the players.

Lobanovskyi believed that pace and teamwork were equally important, hence his emphasis on fitness and teamwork drills. He preferred a player to playing in a particular position and being good at it rather than being able to play anywhere and be versatile. As a result, he was absolutely against the “Total Football” style of play preferred by the Germans and Dutch.

He was also one of the first to apply psychology to the game of football, Lobanovskyi famously said, I don’t just speak of the sporting aspect of things, I’m equally inspired by scientific theories, which enable me to plan the training sessions, or by philosophical ideas, which allow me to organize the group of which I have charge. Every manager in the world says that the most difficult thing of all is the leadership of men. They are right, but do they know that reading philosophical works can help us?

The Lobanovskyi regime was a success in the very first season the club won a double, claiming both the Soviet Top League championship and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in the process, becoming the first team from the USSR to win a major European title when they trampled over Hungarian side Ferencvaros to beat them 3-0 in the final. Dynamo controlled the ball well and their passes and their link up play was a delight to watch. The first two goals scored by Vladimir Ontischenko were brilliant. For the first goal, Ontischenko cut past the defender and from a narrow angle from the right side of the goal, scored with his left foot. The second goal was a superb swerving shot which looked more like a chip which went to the top right corner. The third goal was amazing as Oleg Blokhin cut past a defender and the keeper to score the goal. That season, Oleg Blokhin won the European footballer of the Year award, becoming the first Ukrainian footballer and second USSR footballer to achieve such a feat.

Lobanovskyi would go on to win 8 Soviet titles, 6 Soviet Cups, 2 European Cup Winners Cups and 1 European Super Cup in 15 years of dominance between 1974 to 1990. In that period, he managed USSR thrice, where they reached the finals of the European Championships where they were beaten by the Dutch and Marco Van Basten’s wonder goal. He also managed Soviet Union for the 1986 World Cup, where he chose almost his entire Dynamo Kyiv line-up. They were one of the favourites to win the World Cup but they were dumped out of it by Belgium in the second round in controversial circumstances.

The 1986 Cup Winners Cup emphasised everything which Lobanovskyi considered football. Kyiv won 3-0 against Athletico Madrid in the final. Oleg Blokhin, now 33, scored again, getting on the end of a beautiful pass over the defender by Yevtushenko and scored by lofting the ball over keeper.  That goal was in Jonathan Wilson’s words,” rapid, simple, devastatingly co-ordinated – everything Lobanovskyi insisted football should be.” 

In that period, many players like Oleg Blokhin, Rinat Dasaev, Vadym Yevtushenko and Pavlo Yakovenko flourished under his regime. The most astonishing fact about this is that he used mainly home grown talent and nurtured them into one of Europe’s best teams.

He left Dynamo after he lost many of his key players who left to play in Western Europe following perestroika. When he recalled them for the 1990 World Cup as coach of USSR, the players weren’t the tight knit group they once were and as a result Lobanovskyi failed to control his side, leading to the USSR finishing last in their group.

He had short lived careers as manager of UAE and Kuwait but was sacked after he could not achieve the results he was supposed to.

He returned to his first love, Dynamo in early 1996 to rescue the club and try and bring it back to former glory. Dynamo Kyiv had been thrown out of European competition by UEFA following attempts to bribe an official, and the club was also struggling in the league. Lobanovskyi came back and nurtured home grown talent. He managed some exceptional players including one of Ukraine’s finest strikers ever, Andriy Shevchenko. He had the same effect he had with Dynamo in his previous spell, leading them to 5 consecutive championships. He turned a struggling side into one of Europe’s best, making them reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League defeating Barcelona twice en route.

However, Andriy Shevchenko departed for AC Milan in 1999, and with his departure, Dynamo never made the same impact again. He was made manager of the Ukraine national side in March 2000, but was sacked after the side lost a playoff to reach the 2002 World Cup to Germany.

Sadly, the one detail that Lobonovskyi was not paying attention to was his health. He was so unwell that he was unable to stand up for UEFA’s one minute remembrance for the 9/11 attacks just before Dynamo’s Champions League game against Borussia Dortmund. Things came to a standstill when Lobanovskyi suffered a stroke after Dynamo Kyiv’s win against FC Metalurh on 7th May. He passed away on 13th May following complications after a brain surgery.

More than 200,000 people appeared for his state funeral including star pupil Andriy Shevchenko and other alumni of the Dynamo Kyiv teams of the 70’s and 80’s. He was posthumously awarded the Hero of Ukraine award, Ukraine’s highest civilian award. Dynamo Kyiv’s stadium was renamed the Valeriy Lobanovskyi stadium in his honour.

His intent was to combine science and technology to create the perfect football team, a side in which no effort was wasted and every action of the players was monitored in order to ensure they would always perform to the peak of their potential. He is in many ways the prototype of the modern European manager and changed the way football thought forever.