"A dynamic, high-speed game with constant movement of all their players. Everything is done at maximum speed. They reach the opposition goal exceptionally fast, and there are no square or backward passes slowing them down as they make one or two piercing forward passes …"
It could be the formula for a team in this season’s UEFA Champions League. Instead, it is a description of the strategy deployed by Ukraine’s greatest ever football coach. The fact it was written more than 30 years ago merely underlines his greatness. His name was Valeriy Lobanovskiy, and his philosophy of football is as pertinent today as it ever was.
”TODAY, A SCULPTURE OF LOBANOVSKIY - SEATED ON A BENCH - CAN BE FOUND AT THE ENTRANCE TO DYNAMO’S STADIUM, WHICH WAS RENAMED IN HIS HONOUR FOLLOWING HIS DEATH AT THE AGE OF 63 IN 2002.”
It brought his FC Dynamo Kyiv side victory in the 1986 European Cup Winners’ Cup final against Club Atlético de Madrid – indeed, the above description is taken from Moscow magazine Football-Hockey’s account of Dynamo’s tactics that evening, when Lobanovskiy, for the second time in his career, held the trophy in his grasp.
The first triumph had come 11 years earlier, in 1975, a ground-breaking first for a club from the Soviet Union, and it is a measure of his longevity that he came close to a third continental triumph with Dynamo in 1999. Having put together another superb team, Lobanovskiy was thwarted this time as his charges fell at the penultimate hurdle in the UEFA Champions League, losing 4-3 on aggregate to FC Bayern München in the semi-finals.
These are just a handful of the many noteworthy chapters in his remarkable career, with Lobanovskiy also holding the reins of the Soviet Union national team across three separate spells: from 1974–76, 1982–83 and 1986–90. On the third occasion, he led the USSR to the final of the 1988 UEFA European Championship in West Germany as well as spearheading their FIFA World Cup campaigns at Mexico 1986 and Italy 1990.
In 1989, when still combining the USSR job with coaching Dynamo, Lobanovskiy published a book, The Endless Game, in which he outlined his twin approaches of pressing the opposition and counterattacking. “First, we win space, doing our defensive work in the opposition half of the pitch, preventing them from keeping possession for a significant period of time and attacking,” he explained. “Second, we concede space to the opposition and organise ourselves defensively in our own half, preparing fast attacks or counterattacks in the space that emerges.”
Today, a sculpture of Lobanovskiy – seated on a bench – can be found at the entrance to Dynamo’s stadium, which was renamed in his honour following his death at the age of 63 in 2002. The NSC Olympiyskiy, venue for this year’s UEFA Champions League final, has its memories of him too, ghosts of never-forgotten nights.
In its former guise as Central Stadium, it hosted 100,000 thrilled Dynamo fans on the night Lobanovskiy’s men overcame Bayern 2-0 in a European Champion Clubs’ Cup quarter-final in March 1977, setting up a semi-final against VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach (and eventual 2-1 aggregate defeat). More than 80,000 were also present in March 1999 when Lobanovskiy’s last great Dynamo side posted another famous 2-0 victory, this time against Real Madrid CF, to reach another European Cup semi.
Leonid Buryak scored the opening goal on the first of those epic nights and the former midfielder has warm memories of working with Lobanovskiy. In fact, the two men were almost fated to make history together, with Buryak arriving at Dynamo in 1973, the same year as Lobanovskiy’s initial appointment as coach.
A former Dynamo player, Lobanovskiy was only 34 when he returned to the Ukrainian capital following four years in his first coaching post at FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.
Back then, Buryak recalls, Lobanovskiy “often liked to join the players in the exercises. At the same time, he kept a distance so that we understood he was a coach now and not our team-mate. But he didn’t need to stamp his authority on the players as we all were very motivated. There was no other place but first for us as well as for him – there was already a huge football rivalry between Kyiv and Moscow, and we were ready to work really hard to be the best.”
And they certainly did work hard. “His training sessions – sometimes two or even three times per day – were exhausting,” adds Buryak, who went on to coach Dynamo and Ukraine himself. “As he got older, he became softer. I remember, when he returned from abroad [for his third spell with Dynamo after coaching in Kuwait], I saw him hugging a player after a good match and I was shocked. In our time, ‘You played well’ was the biggest praise we’d get from him.”
Within two years of taking the helm, Lobanovskiy guided Dynamo to victory in the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Their final triumph, 3-0 against Hungary’s Ferencvárosi TC, included a goal from Oleh Blokhin, that year’s Ballon d’Or winner. Blokhin’s accolade was his reward for scoring all three goals as Dynamo then beat Bayern 3-0 on aggregate to double up with the UEFA Super Cup.
In Blokhin, Dynamo had a star player, but their success was built on the strength of a collective driven to excel by Lobanovskiy and his scientific methods. He had studied heating engineering at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, and Buryak recounts: “We had two head coaches, Lobanovskiy and Oleh Bazylevych, who worked together and were both pioneers and adherents of the scientific approach to training in football. Together with Anatoliy Zelentsov [who worked at the Kyiv Institute of Physical Culture], they programmed the training loads.”
Long before sports scientists became de rigueur at professional football clubs, Lobanovskiy’s team created a ‘Dynamo Lab’, where training schedules were mapped out. Oleh Kuzenetsov, one of Lobanovskiy’s charges during his second spell with Dynamo between 1984 and 1990, remembers: “He developed his ‘system’ with Oleh Bazylevych and we had training sessions in different modes – ‘A mode’ meant high overload, ‘B mode’ was less, and you had ‘C’ and so on. Every morning, the plan of work was put up in the room where we had medical tests, so we knew that, for example, today we’d have two sessions in this or that mode.
“The sessions were very organised. We worked out what to do and where to run [on the pitch] and that was one of the reasons why we played so well as a collective. And it helped the USSR team as well because we had a group of 14 or 15 players who were regularly called up to the national team. Even now, when we play for the Ukraine veterans’ team, we use the patterns we worked on [with Lobanovskiy].”
When Lobanovskiy’s USSR side reached the final of the 1988 UEFA European Championship, their starting XI included seven Dynamo players. They were runners-up on that day against the Netherlands but had already tasted European glory with their club, having beaten Club Atlético de Madrid 3-0 in the Cup Winners’ Cup final in May 1986.
Anatoliy Demyanenko was captain of that Dynamo team, and later Lobanovskiy’s assistant coach with the Kyiv club. He remembers the boost of a fifth-minute Oleksandr Zavarov goal in the final at Lyon’s Stade de Gerland, yet cites another factor driving that team on. “The other thing that motivated us was the Chernobyl catastrophe,” he says of the April 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, some 100km north of Kyiv.
“When we arrived in France, we learned about it on the news. We watched TV and the translator told us it was a huge tragedy for Europe and the whole world. Because of that, we thought to ourselves that we had to win that match.”
On Lobanovskiy’s strengths as a coach, Demyanenko cites his insistence on “universalism”, the idea that “the whole team defends together and the whole team attacks together”. His ability to “find a common language” with his players, meanwhile, ensured they were willing to do the hard running he demanded. “He knew when it was better to raise his voice and when to say nothing, even if a player had played badly. He was a great psychologist.”
Andriy Kanchelskis, who played under Lobanovskiy at Dynamo from 1988 to 1990, concurs, saying: “He never shouted. He spoke slowly.” Later a Manchester United FC player under another coaching legend, Sir Alex Ferguson, Kanchelskis adds: “He was very different from Ferguson, who was more emotional, with lots of shouting. No player would argue with [Lobanovskiy]. He’d give a look and everybody could understand.”
Ukraine national coach Andriy Shevchenko underlines his gratitude to Lobanovskiy for the role he played in charting his path to the game’s top echelon. “He changed me a lot,” Shevchenko says. “I was very, very young but very talented and he brought us all to a different level – a different culture of work, of understanding football, of your private life and what you had to change.”
Later, when Shevchenko was illuminating Italian football with his goals for AC Milan, he would have long chats with Lobanovskiy about life in Italy when returning home for international duty. “He was always curious,” explains Shevchenko. “I think it was one of his dreams to work in [western] Europe. He was always asking me about the philosophy, the life in Italy, the training sessions, the tactics. He was national coach and every time I came home he was waiting for me, and straight from the plane I’d go to his office and we’d spend three or four hours talking about football and strategy and the different training philosophy at Milan and in Italy.”
Shevchenko is not the only current coach working in Ukraine who remains grateful for lessons learned under Lobanovskiy. Another is Aleksandr Khatskevich, another Dynamo old boy now in charge of their former club.
“OF COURSE, HIS LEGACY IS ALIVE IN MODERN FOOTBALL. NOT ONLY IN UKRAINE BUT THE WHOLE OF EUROPE. FOR EXAMPLE, I CAN SEE MANY FEATURES OF THAT PRESSING CONCEPT HE TAUGHT US AT TOTTENHAM, BAYERN AND IN OTHER TOP CLUBS’ PLAYING PHILOSOPHIES.”
“He used to say, ‘Everyone should be able to do everything on the pitch,’” Khatskevich recalls. “It was about interchangeability, physicality and technique, but he taught me something I’ve remembered ever since. I still believe today, as a coach, that the most important thing in football is your mentality. The most important thing is to think on the pitch – the quicker you think, the quicker you play.
“A whole generation of managers has been and gone after Valeriy Lobanovskiy. Some of them used his methods. The modern game is faster and more dynamic, though the fundamentals are the same in terms of how you control games and your attitude. Football doesn’t stand still, but Lobanovskiy was ahead of his time.
“Now, football’s developing in another direction and, unfortunately, we’re not able to see how he would have coped: foreign players are coming in and the coach’s influence is different as there are agents now. Sadly, he passed away too soon, but I believe he’d have found new ways to keep up with the times and the changing football world.”
It is an argument elaborated by Buryak, who insists that Lobanovskiy’s ideas live on in the game today. Coaches from abroad would travel to Kyiv in the 1970s to watch him at work, and the clearest illustration of his enduring influence is the pressing game now back in vogue across the continent.
Buryak says: “Some of his ideas and concepts were later adopted by all the big European clubs. Let’s take his concept of pressing. He explained to us that even an average-skilled opponent can play very well against you if they know their manoeuvres and are well prepared physically.
But if you put them under constant pressure and don’t give them time to do what they want, they’ll make a mistake sooner or later. This is even more important when you have top players against you. Then your only chance may be to deny them time to make the right decision.
Of course, in some cases it requires lots of running to make at least one opponent commit a mistake, but you have to be ready for that and to sacrifice yourself for the team. “Of course, his legacy is alive in modern football,” Buryak concludes, “not only in Ukraine but the whole of Europe. For example, I can see many features of that pressing concept he taught us at Tottenham, Bayern and in other top clubs’ playing philosophies.”
It is an important legacy and testament to the work of a truly innovative football man who may be gone but will never be forgotten. This article is written by Simon Hart, author of World In Motion (deCoubertin Books), a retelling of Italia 90 and its impact through the eyes of the key protagonists.