Valerij Lobanovs’kyj

Introduction

There are many ways to spell Valerij Vasylyovych Lobanovs’kyj including Валерій Васильович Лобановський. I am going to use the anglicised version of his native Ukranian spelling.

A sentence in a post by Barney Ronay grabbed my attention last week:

Lobanovskiy is usually cast as the father of things. Father of analytics. Father of a data-driven total football. … every movement tracked, rated and tessellated.

It was ‘tessellated’ that really drew me in. ‘Tessella‘ is a Latin word for a tile or small square. It is also used to describe patterned mosaic floors.

This post is the start of my atonement for not paying  any attention to Valerij for four decades. His career should have been a focus for me as I have researched the backgrounds of founders of what we now regard as performance analysis and sport analytics. I should have looked as carefully at a Colonel in the Russian Army as I have done at a Wing Commander in the Royal Air Force.

I am fortunate that Simon Kupar, Jonathan Wilson, Barney Ronay, Hans-Joachim Braun and David Sumpter, among others, have been much more assiduous in their research of a remarkable career.

A picture of Valerij Vasylyovych Lobanovs'kyj in his final year of coaching, 2002.

Valerij

Valerij was born in Kiev in 1939. Wikipedia provides biographical information about him. This includes details of his football playing managerial careers. Much of the literature reports on Valerij’s time at Dynamo Kiev from 1974 to 1990: a golden age in the club’s history.

Franz Beckenbauer said of him:

What he did for the development of football is beyond words. He was always ahead of his time, creating top-class teams first in the 70s and 80s and then in the late 90s. He is spoken about with respect the world over.

Football Focus (2013) wrote “If there was ever a man who could be called the father of total football, it would be Valeriy Lobanovski”.

Barney Ronay (2012) observed:

Lobanovsky was a pioneer. He addressed football management as a wide-ranging empirical study, seeking informed scientific deduction above the more nebulous folk-football wisdom of his dugout contemporaries.

Gabrielle Marcotti (2013) noted:

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.

As I read about Valerij, in a variety of sources, I became fascinated by how his mathematical (gold medalist at school) and engineering understanding informed his coaching career. There are parallels with Charles Reep here. Charles used his insights as an accountant to develop his football analysis system. Another invisible bond between the two of them was their partnerships with statisticians (Charles with Bernard Benjamin and Richard Pollard, Valerij with Anatoli Zelentsov).

In his autobiography, The Endless Match (1989), Valerij wrote:

It’s impossible to play as we do. It’s impossible to rely on luck and coincidences in modern football. It is necessary to create an ensemble, a collective of believers who subordinates an overall idea of ​​how to play.

In The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models, co-authored with Anatoli Zelentsov, Velarij described in detail his systematic approach to performance.

This approach included an awareness of the dialectical opportunities in football. Jonathan Wilson (2011) quotes Valerij:

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 counter play, 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.

Vadim Furmanov (2012) observes that this dialectic approach “was Scientific Communism meets Total Football”.

Igor Linnyk (2016) shares a fundamental element of Valerij’s sense of football “A system does not guarantee success, but it gives a much better chance of success than making it up as you go along.”

James Horncastle (2012) suggests of Valrij and Anatoli’s vision:

At the heart of their efforts to create intelligent athletes was the ideal of universality whereby it was encouraged that everyone play anywhere on the pitch. Defenders had to know how to attack. Attackers had to know how to defend. The switching of roles and interchanging of positions was “Total” and done without a second thought.

Blair Newman (2015) reports:

On the training ground he (Valerij) worked with his backroom staff to enshrine new ideas into the Dynamo method. Anatoli Zelentsov was responsible for the preparation of individual players, using innovative computerised testing to measure and correct their fitness levels and predicted performance. Lobanovskyi’s former team-mate Oleh Bazylevich had been recruited as coach, while Mykhaylo Oshemkov dealt with collecting statistical information. A keen mathematician, Lobanovskyi knew the demands of his ideology required scientifically enlightened preparation. Evolving technology and data use would work in harmony with technical training to give the players what was needed to carry out their individual and collective tasks.

I hope to extend this background information in my Valerij project but I conclude this post by returning to tessellation and small squares.

Nine Squares

Simon Kuper (2011) recounts his meeting with Anatoli Zelentsov in a “rare ancient house” near the Dynamo Kiev Stadium. Simon was shown a computer room in which there was a screen with an overlay of nine squares on a football pitch. Anatoli and his colleagues had developed a computerised program with which to analyse players’ performance in each game.

The print out of the analysis reported on each player’s performance in intensivity, activity, error rate, effectivity and realisation. The nine square framework was used a way to indicate player compatibility. Each player was given a game performance rating that used three decimal places to provide precise quantification.

In Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson (2010) noted that with these data:

Everything was meticulously planned, with the team’s preparation divided into three levels. Players were to have individual technical coaching so as to equip them better to fulfil the tasks Lobanovskyi set them during a game; specific tactics and tasks for each player were drawn up according to the opponents; and a strategy was devised for a competition as a whole, placing each game in context by acknowledging that it is impossible for a side to maintain maximal levels over a protracted period.

I found just one example of a data sheet from Anatoli’s work. It appeared in a Laboratorio Pincharrata (2012) post:

The post quotes Valerij:

When I was a footballer it was difficult to evaluate the players. The coach could say that a player was not in the right place at the right time, and the player could disagree with simplicity. There was no video, there are no real methods of analysis. But nowadays players cannot oppose. They know that the morning after the game the sheet shows all the figures that characterize his work.

I do have much more primary resource research to do to follow up on Anatoli’s tessellation and one oblique reference to an automated analysis of player performance.

Fifteen years after Valerij’s death (2002), the Dynamo Kiev club website shared a reflection on his coaching career as “the founder of a scientific approach to the analysis of football”.

My journey so far has given me a context for Valerij’s story. I am intrigued by the confluence of a cultural context (Kiev was home to the first cybernetic institute in the USSR), a heating engineer with a mathematics background who was a skillful footballer  and a meeting with an academic at Dean of Dnepropetrowsk Institute of Physical Science during Valerij’s first managerial appointment.

I am keen to learn much more about the coach described by Rahat Jain (2017)

Lobanovskyi managed at a time that wasn’t as technologically dependent as today. We’ve got used to a series of managers and clubs who use the wide array of statistical data that is available today to find the best players and fine tune their playing systems. It was a bold choice to rely on so much on data at that time, though, and while Lobanovskyi himself was a superbly technical player, reliant on skill, as a manager he relentlessly pursued science and the collective.

Valerij epitomises for me the highest levels of coaching and game understanding. I thought Andriy Shevchenko encapsulated this perfectly:

Lobanovskiy’s influence on me was so profound that I still often see him in my dreams. He did not divide players into defenders and attackers but developed a range of skills in all of us. He used me for pressing and blocking other teams’ attacks, and also demanded that I read the game and attack from the best positions. The most important thing I learned from him is that you can only get results when you believe in yourself.

Photo Credits

Valerij Lobanovs’kyj (UEFA)

Valerij Lobanovs’kyj (Alchetron)

Valerij Lobanovs’kyj (Dynamo Kiev)

The group of four (Pasquale)

Valerij Lobanovs’kyj (Alla faccia del calcio)

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