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Aug 7, 2013

Greatest Managers, No. 8: Lobanovsky

With a little work, you can break down Valeri Lobanovsky's background and find the answers that explain why he was one of the greatest footballing minds ever. He was a naturally gifted footballer, albeit very much an individualist and that, ultimately, taught him the value of the collective.

Valeri Lobanovsky, who earned a degree in thermal engineering, is credited with bringing science to the pitch.
Valeri Lobanovsky, who earned a degree in thermal engineering, is credited with bringing science to the pitch.

He was coached by the legendary Victor Maslow, the man credited with inventing both pressing and the 4-4-2 foundation. Though their relationship eventually soured, it was the equivalent of being Thomas Edison's apprentice just after he created the light bulb.

A bright kid, Lobanovsky got a degree in thermal engineering while playing football (back then behind the iron curtain, all players were amateurs, some more so than others), and that got him thinking about the game in a very different way. Lobanovski's football was one of systems and elements interacting and the efficiencies that are generated when elements interact in a coordinated way. He was the first to truly marry science and football, and the lingo wasn't an act; it's what he knew.

He happened to come of age in the early 1970s when the Soviet Union was developing its first computers. Yes, they were the size of minibuses and, in terms of computing power, roughly equivalent to a convenience store microwave. But he was among the first -- if not the first -- to realize the potential that lay with using computers in sport, for everything from tracking performance and conditions to simulating and modeling outcomes. This was at a time when the most advanced technology used by coaches around the world consisted of a whistle, a legal pad and a ballpoint pen.

 

He understood what now seems obvious: that footballers are athletes who need speed and stamina and, as such, can learn a lot from their colleagues on the track. Athletics guru Valentin Petrovski -- whose revolutionary methods had helped Valeriy Borzov win two sprint medals at the 1972 Olympics -- was just up the road. Lobanovsky picked his brain and used his expertise to overhaul the preparation of his own players at Dynamo Kiev.

All these factors came together in a man who truly epitomized the terms "visionary" and "ahead of his time." When his teams were in full flow, they moved with perfect synchronicity, their speed and intensity unmatched elsewhere. Players switched positions effortlessly, leaving opponents dazed by the continuous movement. It was the Soviet answer to "Total Football" but while the latter had grown organically, Lobanovksi's version was developed scientifically. After Dynamo Kyiv hammered Atletico Madrid in the 1985-86 Cup Winners' Cup final, the Spanish newspaper El Pais famously wrote that they "played like a team visiting from the future."

His résumé is chock-full of silverware, as you would expect. Thirteen league titles (eight in the old USSR, five in the Ukraine), nine cups (six in the Soviet Union, three after the breakup) and two Cup Winners' Cups. But that only tells part of the story, because he never got a crack at coaching a big Western European power. And it was only in the last few years of his career that he even had the opportunity to sign foreign players. Not to mention what he might have achieved if he had had the modern technological, analytic and scientific tools he craved, rather than the rudimentary Soviet-era equipment he had to make do with.

ESPN FC’s Top 20 Greatest Managers was determined by a polling process of over 20 regular columnists, contributors and editors at ESPN FC.

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