Valeriy Lobanovskyi: The greatest football coach you’ve never heard of

A mathematician, a footballer, and very nearly a plumber, Valeriy Lobanovskyi was a leading light of the Soviet era and combined his intellectual interests with the love of the game.
Valeriy Lobanovskyi next to the pitch during the 1986 European Cup final between Athletico Madrid and Dynamo Kyiv in Lyon, 1986.
Valeriy Lobanovskyi next to the pitch during the 1986 European Cup final between Athletico Madrid and Dynamo Kyiv in Lyon, 1986. Credit: Paul Popper via Getty Images
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Who is the most important coach in modern football history? Fans with short memories (or partisan allegiances) might suggest Alex Ferguson or Pep Guardiola. More informed observers may cite the success and influence of Helenio Herrera, Ernst Happel, Bob Paisley, or Rinus Michels. Western Europe’s post-war economic and footballing dominance has meant the English, Spanish, Italian, and German leagues have received far more investment, attention and, above all, mythologisation than those further East.

Valeriy Lobanovskyi is rarely mentioned by fans outside his native Ukraine or Russia, where he coached for most of his career, despite winning more than thirty trophies, leading the USSR to the final of Euro 1988, and coaching three players to the Ballon d’Or.

Lobanovskyi constructed three brilliant Dynamo Kyiv teams a decade or more apart and was utterly dominant domestically, winning eight Soviet league titles and six Soviet cups (including three Doubles) from 1974–1990, and five Ukrainian titles and three Ukrainian cups (with another three Doubles) from 1997–2001.

He was the first manager to lead a Soviet team to European success, winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1975 and 1986, and the European Super Cup in 1975. Lobanovskyi’s Kyiv consistently reached the latter stages of the European Cup/Champions League, handing heavy defeats to Western Europe’s top clubs along the way.

Despite the contemporary obsession with statistics and trophies as the only markers of greatness, it is not simply Lobanovskyi’s success that merits remembrance. Following the manager’s death in 2002, elite European football has come to be shaped in Lobanovskyi’s image and played in the style of his great Dynamo teams. Western Europe has adopted his methods of training, preparation, and tactical planning, and realised his pioneering vision of the game, thus making him one of the most important and influential coaches in football history.

Born in Kyiv in 1939, the young Valeriy was a precocious mathematician, winning a gold medal upon graduating high school. As Jonathan Wilson relates in Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, Lobanovskyi came of age in the Soviet Union’s scientific pomp: nuclear power, Sputnik, and a relentless drive for technological supremacy supplied the ambient noise to his formative years. Kyiv itself was the centre of research into the new technology of computing. It was while studying thermal engineering at the city’s Polytechnic Institute that Lobanovskyi’s interest in systems, statistics and analytical thinking was forged – developing alongside his love of football.

As a player in Viktor Maslov’s 1961 Soviet title-winning Kyiv side, Lobanovskyi was a winger celebrated for his individual skill. His superb ability to curl the ball meant he frequently scored directly from corners, leading the press to compare him to Didi, a two-time World Cup winner with Brazil.

However, Maslov soon jettisoned players who did not fit into his new 4-4-2 system – Lobanovskyi included. A possibly apocryphal story, related by the Ukrainian journalist Arkady Galinsky, tells that Lobanovskyi fell out with Maslov when the player refused to drink vodka during lunch: self-discipline unheard of at the time. Whatever the truth, the pair fell out. But Lobanovskyi, victim of the innovating Maslov, became one of the game’s greatest pioneers.

After leaving Maslov’s Dynamo, Lobanovskyi endured frustrating spells with Chernomorets Odessa and Shakhtar Donetsk before retiring at 29. In his autobiography Endless Match, Lobanovskyi criticised Shakhtar’s approach: ‘It is impossible to rely on luck […] in modern football. It is necessary to create an ensemble, a collective of believers who subordinate themselves to the common playing idea.’ This anticipates not only the obsessive control today’s coaches exercise over tactics but the cultic authority the most successful modern managers hold over their ‘believers.’

A bitter Lobanovskyi almost quit football for plumbing, but was offered the manager’s job at second division Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in 1969. In three years, he led them to sixth place in the top flight. At a party in 1972, he met Anatoliy Zelentsov, a computing and bioenergetics expert with whom he struck up a lifelong partnership. They discussed the latest scientific research – and how to apply it to football.

A year later, the pair were appointed to Dynamo Kyiv, with Lobanovskyi in charge of tactics and Zelentsov the individual preparation of players. Although Maslov had placed paramount importance on physical fitness and preparation, Lobanovskyi  was the first to make science, statistics, and data analysis central. With his backroom staff, Lobanovskyi recorded the number of shots, passes, dribbles, tackles, interceptions, and errors in different phases of play, cultivating the kind of statistical insight that shapes the game today, from transfers and tactics to television punditry and social media squabbles.

At the heart of it was a relentless thirst for innovation. In their book, The Methodological Basis for the Development of Training Models, Lobanovskyi and Zelentsov said: ‘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 […] then we need to find a new strategy. That is the dialectic of the game.’ The idea of football as a contest between systems or ‘style[s]’ (possession versus counter-attack, for example) and an invocation of the ‘dialectic’ suggests a Hegelian vision of relentless tactical evolution: the marching progress of the spirit of the game.

Whether or not Lobanovskyi subscribed to the notion of footballing Geist, however, he was certainly no idealist. Unlike, say, Guardiola’s unflinching commitment to the possession game, (notwithstanding his suicidal tinkering of shape and personnel), Lobanovskyi was a pragmatist, adapting his style for each opponent, packing the midfield or using expansive wide play – whatever victory required. ‘Games fade from the memory’, he said, ‘but results stay.’

Despite employing tailored, individual training plans, Lobanovskyi valued ‘coalition actions’ above all else. As if to hammer home the importance of the collective over the individual, Lobanovskyi and Zelentsov said ‘an excellent player […] comes from the following principle: one per cent talent and 99 per cent hard work.’

Rinus Michels’s 1970s totaalvoetbal is credited with shaping the modern game through pressing, interchangeability of position and function, and an emphasis on fluid passing and movement. Yet, Lobanovskyi’s combination of the coordinated, collective approach with data-driven planning and hard-nosed pragmatism means the game today more closely resembles the Soviet laboratory than the Dutch ideal.

In the 1975 Cup Winners’ Cup, Dynamo beat Hungarians Ferencváros comfortably 3–0, with the irrepressible Oleg Blokhin, the first of Lobanovskyi’s Ballon d’Or winners, scoring a sumptuous third.

That same year, Dynamo faced Bayern Munich in the European Super Cup. Not only the European Cup holders (winning three times in succession from 1974–76), Bayern were effectively world champions, having supplied much of the West Germany team that triumphed at the 1974 World Cup. Franz Beckenbauer, captain of both Bayern and the West German national team, said: ‘What he did for the development of football is beyond words. He was always ahead of his time’. Lobanovskyi’s men ran out comfortable 3–0 aggregate winners.

The most memorable goal of Kyiv’s 3–0 drubbing of Atletico Madrid in the 1986 Cup Winners’ Cup final was an emblematic ‘coalition action.’ From left back to ring wing, Kyiv played a string of rapid passes, each player barely checking his teammate’s position, such was their collective understanding. Blokhin, just inside the right side of the penalty box, finished the move with a beautifully impudent, first-time half-volley over the flailing keeper. That year, Igor Belanov, the competition’s joint-top scorer, became the second Lobanovskyi forward to win the Ballon d’Or.

Lobanovskyi managed the Soviet national team on three occasions, culminating at the European Championship in 1988, when the USSR stormed to the final against Michels’s Netherlands – a managerial clash for the ages. They had already defeated the Dutch 1–0 in the group stage, brushed England aside 3–1 and scored two without reply in a semi-final against a formidable Italy containing Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Carlo Ancelotti, Gianluca Vialli, and Roberto Mancini. Marcello Lippi, who managed Italy to World Cup glory in 2006, called the Ukrainian ‘a coaching guru’.

In the final, however, Lobanovskyi was left to rue his team’s luck. The Soviets spurned two good chances before Gullit gave the Netherlands the lead. Van Basten’s once-in-a-lifetime volley beat Rinat Dasayev—winner of the 1988 World’s Best Goalkeeper of the Year award—from a seemingly impossible angle, before Belanov hit the post and missed a penalty. Michels was heralded as the Coach of the Century by FIFA while Lobanovskyi departed for the Middle East.

In one final twist, though, Lobanovskyi made a sensational return to the top level. Dynamo had fallen from their perch on the international stage, failing to qualify for the group stage of the Champions League and suffering an ignominious defeat by Swiss Neuchâtel Xamax in the first round of the UEFA Cup.

In the 1997–98 campaign, Lobanovskyi’s third great Kyiv team topped the group of death, battering Louis van Gaal’s Barcelona 3–0 at home and 4–0 at the Camp Nou thanks to a first half hat-trick by eventual 2004 Ballon d’Or Winner Andriy Shevchenko, and thumping Dick Advocaat’s Dutch champions 3–1 in Eindhoven. They fell against eventual finalists Juventus but returned in 1998–99 to defeat a Real Madrid team containing Roberto Carlos, Fernando Hierro, Guti, Clarence Seedorf, Davor Šuker and Raúl 3-1 on aggregate, before going out 4–3 on aggregate to Bayern Munich in the semi-final.

Perhaps Lobanovskyi’s greatest achievement was not his development of the pressing game or his insistence on the importance of statistical analysis—used by all top teams today—but his ability to coach superlative individuals into team players, evinced by the fact that three Ballon d’Or-winning forwards in three different decades bought wholly into Lobanovskyi’s philosophy of system over-against individuality. Shevchenko once said: ‘Lobanovskyi’s influence on me was so profound that I still often see him in my dreams.’

The greatest coach in Russian and Ukrainian history is little known to casual fans elsewhere in Europe. But Lobanovskyi’s vision, methods, and tactics shape the game we watch today and he deserves to be remembered as one of the most important managers in modern football history.

Josh Mcloughlin

Josh Mcloughlin is a writer from Merseyside. He is the editor-in-chief of New Critique, a Wolfson Scholar in the Humanities at University College London, and he was shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize (2019) and the International Awards for Art Criticism (2020). He writes for The Times, The London Magazine, The Spectator, The Fence, and others.

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