To attain tactical perfection, I need a football coach who wrote the book!
If there was ever a man who could be called the father of total football, it would be Valeriy Lobanovski. Before the all-conquering Dutch manager Rinus Michaels had coined the term, Lobanovski of the Soviet Union had already a similar football ideology in place. He once said: “There is no such thing as a striker, a midfielder, a defender. There are only footballers and they should be able to do everything on the pitch.” Voila ‘total football’.
Much like the top teams of today, he stressed on cohesion and the inherent understanding between teammates. He had his methods to implement this, which involved rigorous practice of preset plays, much like American football. Players were made to practice drills thousands of times till it was seared into memory so much so that they were trained to perform them blindfolded.
- He emphasized on well-rounded players who could do everything rather than just men who did a particular role well
- He was the first, globally to use technology and statistics to analyze a player’s strengths and weaknesses.
- His penchant for discipline and the strictness of his methods were renowned in the Soviet to produce results, and they did.
- His teams produced a brand of football, shadows of which are seen in Barcelona and Arsenal today.
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 Lobanovskyi 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 Lobanovskyi 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," Lobanovskyi 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." Every position had set instructions to react to any given scenario.
Famed for being as pragmatic a coach as he was exuberant a player, Jonathan Wilson eruditely describes Lobanovskyi in Inverting the Pyramid as the embodiment of “the great struggle between individuality and system: the player in him wanted to dribble, to invent tricks and to embarrass his opponents, and yet, as he later admitted, his training at the Polytechnic Institute (his University) drove him to a systematic approach, to break football down into its component tasks”.
Others, particularly in the Netherlands, were coming to a similar conclusion; the difference is that Lobanovskyi 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 Lobanovskyi'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 Lobanovskyian method grew. The more individualistic style of Dinamo Minsk and Spartak Moscow came to prominence. But Lobanovskyi 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.
Taking his scientific approach to its extremes, the great Ukrainian introduced meticulous dietary and training regimes for his players, collated masses of data prior to every game, gave each member of his team specific tactical tasks and individual technical coaching in order for them to better fulfil their tasks – methods we see mimicked by the likes of Rafael Benitez in the modern era. As Wilson writes of Lobanovskyi, “What happened off the field in terms of physical preparation and, particularly, rehabilitation, was just as important as what happened on it”.
Lobanovskyi claimed that his ambition was to achieve uniformity amongst his players; he wanted his forwards to be capable defenders and his defenders to be capable forwards. He also instructed his players in numerous pre-planned moves, moves which became embedded in Dynamo’s play and were able to be adapted to suit a variety of circumstances.
Such practices may not seem particularly visionary to the modern football fan, but Lobanovskyi was, albeit with the advantage of having learnt at the feet of Victor Maslov, something of a pioneer in terms of the increasing professionalism and scientific regulation of football.
Today, football at the highest level is analysed right down to the microscopic level by coaches seeking to gain advantages, no matter how small, over their opponents. Although the process may have been started by Maslov before him, it was Lobanovskyi who really brought science and football together in order to attain an obviously higher standard of performance.
Mathematical tactical precision and strict dietary regimes for players – all can be traced back to Valeriy Lobanovskyi. Cutting through all of his incredible achievements, perhaps the greatest tribute to Lobanovskyi was given by Andriy Shevchenko in 2003, a year after the manager’s death. Having just won the Champions League with Milan, Shevchenko flew back to Kiev at the earliest possible opportunity to place his medal on his former coach’s grave.
Valeriy Lobanovskyi, arguably the greatest technical pioneer of them all.
Soviet Top League (8): 1974, 1975, 1977, 1980, 1981, 1985, 1986, 1990
Soviet Cup (6): 1974, 1978, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1990
USSR Super Cup (3): 1980, 1985, 1986
Ukrainian Premier League (5): 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001
Ukrainian Cup (3): 1998, 1999, 2000
UEFA Cup Winners Cup (2): 1975, 1986
UEFA Super Cup (1): 1975
Commonwealth of Independent States Cup (2): 1997, 1998
With thanks to guardian, sportskeeda, equaliserblog and Wikipedia