The collection and application of data is now a ubiquitous power felt throughout every aspect of our daily lives. This is seen in football through measures such as the Opta index and methods such as moneyball, which seek to take emotion out of decision making and instead use rational scientific method to make the optimum choice for success. This philosophy is commonly attached to the words cold and calculating, and yet I chiefly remember the man who pioneered this approach, Valeriy Lobanovskyi as creating the breathtaking Soviet Union team that briefly flowered in the mid 80s.
In hindsight it is not surprising that this team came out of a society which preached the virtues of science, with the legacy of the impact of its manager’s methods in the wider world of football being in stark contrast to the shrinking influence of the former eastern bloc on the game.
Lobanovskyi was born in modern day Ukraine, then one of a number of countries which made up the USSR. Growing up in the capital Kyiv, he graduated from the football school and went on to play for Dynamo. A mercurial left winger, he won the Soviet Union League and Cup during seven seasons at Dynamo as well as two USSR caps. Heavily influenced by Kyiv’s Russian Coach Victor Maslov, who pioneered the scientific approach to football, Loba, as he became known, sought to innovate technically, creating the curving banana shot which would lead to him becoming renowned for his ability to score straight from corner kicks. After falling out with Maslov, he left his home city for short spells with Chornomorets Odessa and Shakhtar Donetsk before retiring aged 29.
A keen student, he returned to Kyiv to study heating engineering at university. By chance the city was home to the Soviet Union’s fledgling computer industry, and drawing on his childhood flair for maths as well as the influence of Maslov, began to consider how data processing power could be applied to football.
This idea was boosted following the start of his managerial career at Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, when he met Anatoly Zelentsov from the Institute of Physical Sciences, the pair working together to develop a system of measuring technical ability in order to find the best players. On the pitch he led Dnipro to promotion to the Soviet Union top division and then moved back to Dynamo Kyiv in 1973, where he would remain in charge until 1990.
Bringing Zelentsov with him, he was keenly aware that the job of manager was too big for one man and surrounded himself with experts to support him in implementing his radical science based approach. He broke the game down into its component parts to develop a system of two sets of eleven elements on the pitch. Each sub system was better than the sum of its parts, with the superior one bound to win. Thus he deduced that it was not the individual players who were important but the interactions and connections between them.
Lobanovskyi wanted perfect players who could execute game plans and in particular set pieces automatically. Moreover he saw football as dialectic with each team trying to work out the other and having to come up with better ideas to win. This required stringent diet and a fastidious training programme informed by the analysis of masses of data applied to give players specific tasks to help them improve their technique, and also develop routines for the game itself.
The implementation of Lobanovskyi’s philosophy led to Dynamo Kyiv breaking the Russian dominance of football in the Soviet Union, winning eight league titles and six cups. More importantly they became the first Soviet club to win a European trophy, winning the Cup Winners Cup in 1975, a feat they repeated in 1986.
It was these two wins which symbolised Lobanovskyi’s club team at their peak. The first was spearheaded by midfielder Viktor Kolotov and striker Oleg Blokhin beating Ferencvaros in 1975 final. Blokhin went onto win the Ballon d’Or, as his team went onto win the Super Cup by beating European Cup Winners Bayern Munich.
History then repeated itself in 1986 with luminaries Baltacha, Kuznetsov, Belanov, Rats and Mikhailichenko combining with the veteran Blokhin to sweep aside Atletico Madrid 3-0 in the final, Igor Belanov taking the Ballon d’Or this time.
During this time at Kyiv he also had three spells in charge of the USSR national team. Typically most of the Kyiv team were imported wholesale into the side which won bronze at the 1976 Olympics.
They regularly qualified for the final stages of the World Cups and made waves at the 1986 tournament in Mexico with the likes of Rats and Belanov stunning the watching world with some powerful strikes before exiting at the first knockout stage in an unforgettable seven goal thriller against Belgium.
Two years later the USSR finished runners up to the Netherlands at Euro 88 in Germany, having beaten the Dutch in the opening game of the finals.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union Lobanovskyi sought his fortune in the Middle East before returning to the now independent Ukraine to again manage Kyiv in 1997 until his death in 2002. Creating his third great team at the club he won five consecutive Ukrainian titles (including three doubles), and took them to the 1999 Champions League semi-final. He also led the Ukrainian national team to a World Cup qualifying play off in 2002.
This success was forged with the fledgling Ukrainian talents such as Sergei Rebrov and Andriy Shevchenko. However the free market now hindered Kyiv’s progress as the best players signed for wealthy western clubs.
Free exchange of information had also led to Lobanovskyi’s scientific method being adopted across Europe, with its most successful exponent being Jose Mourinho.
Posthumously awarded the title Hero of Ukraine, Kyiv’s stadium now bears Lobanovskyi’s name, a mark of the esteem in which he was held by his players being best illustrated when Andriy Shevchenko returned to Kyiv after he won the Champions League with Milan in 2003, to lay his medal on Lobanovskyi’s grave,