As a left winger for Dynamo Kyiv in the early 60s Valeriy Lobanovskyi became known for being able to curve and place a ball exactly where he wished, even gaining a legendary reputation for scoring direct from corners.
Unlike other players of his ilk who would caress and worship the object at their feet this relationship however was very much that of master and servant. It yielded to his will and whim. Thus he came close to perfecting the art of a wide man.
When Lobanovskyi eventually transferred this pathological need for control to the sidelines, applying his exacting, scientific mind to his players and becoming a ruthless, authoritative coach he produced teams capable of the most gloriously inventive attacking play.
Yet each component – and you can be sure they were considered components rather than flesh and blood – was broken down and analysed and drilled to within an inch of their lives on their respective roles. Each player a formula in a complicated hive of equations.
Thus he came close to perfecting football.
Lobanovskyi was an intense and frosty figure who lends himself to stereotypes of that era when an iron curtain divided Europe. Football was studied in a cold, detached manner, evoking research institutes and even laboratories. Think Charlie Hughes only with infinitely more intelligence and driving a Trabant.
Yet the caricature that I myself have already indulged in and will do so again later in this article does him an enormous disservice. Though his players feared him they loved him too whilst the meticulous analysis heralded innovations that were generations ahead of their time. He was a pioneer of strict dietary preparation long before anyone in football even thought of such considerations and his obsessive collating of data foreshadows the modern mania with Prozone and Opta.
But it was on the pitch that Lobanovskyi was truly ahead of the game, espousing a pressing style that was almost unheard of back in the very early seventies yet is universally commonplace today. Once possession was attained there was a series of pre-planned moves that became implanted into his team that could be adapted accordingly to a variety of situations, again a concept perceived as being 21st century in design.
Here is an excerpt from a book called The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models that Lobanovskyi co-authored – “When we are talking about tactical evolution, 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 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.”
For this methodology to work a great deal of versatility and intelligence was required of his players so the Ukrainian taught his forwards to think like defenders and visa versa.
It was a tactical evolution also being perfected by the Dutch; a swarming interchange of players allowing individual adventure and creativity yet contained within a structured framework. The glorious orange were much more visible this side of the iron curtain and let’s be frank, they had Cruyff whereas Lobanovskyi did not. They called it total football and they got all of the credit.
In sixteen years in charge at Dynamo he won five league titles and the European Cup Winner’ Cup in 1975 – Dynamo also had a very decent stab at the European Cup in ’77 succumbing to Monchengladbach in the semis – until in 1990 perestroika changed everything. Freedom of movement resulted in the side he’d meticulously constructed dissipating to Western Europe and Lobanovskyi too seized upon the opportunity of a new challenge and took up the reins at the UAE.
Following a further brief spell in charge of Kuwait he returned to Kyiv in 1997, now a venerated father figure to the nation, to tutor another immensely gifted side and two players who could have been stem-celled from his scientific football philosophy.
Sergei Rebrov was a scurrying bundle of goalscoring talent capable of the utterly sublime. From thirty yards out he was equally as likely to thread a precision Pythagoras-worrying pass through to his partner as rocket one into the top corner and possessed every quality required of the modern-day centre-forward. His pace and quick-witted movement alone made him a nightmare for opponents.
Alongside him was a striker of such clinical predatory instinct it was not implausible to suggest he was created from an Eastern Bloc lab with protein pills crushed into his rusks and endless clips of Muller and Law flashing above his playpen. As a youngster raised on seeing East German female Olympians resembling Brian Blessed and worrying for gymnasts who failed to score perfect tens as a stern figure from the politburo looked on disapprovingly in the background I couldn’t help but equate Andriy Shevchenko to Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. “Whoever he plays…he destroys”. “I must score forty goals a season”. Even today, witnessing the aging limbs accelerate onto a through ball I half expect to see Bridgette Neilson beside the pitch, a clipboard in hand evaluating his body chemistry.
Shev was a phenomenon, a freakishly complete superhuman goalscoring machine who elevated the art of striking to an entirely new level.
With the duo psychically attuned to each other’s movement – a Dalglish and Rush for the 1990s – and surrounded by such artisans as Khatskevich and the majestic Belkevich suddenly Lobanovskyi had inherited a side he’d always envisioned in his trigonometrical dreams.
The accumulation of his lifetime’s work went into forging a devastatingly fluid and merciless side that bamboozled and battered the best Europe had to offer and with Rebrov and Shevchenko at the fore Dynamo tore apart sides that were simply not used to such treatment. In September 1997 they ripped Barcelona a new one at the Nou Camp with a scintillating 0-4 masterclass of attacking fare. In ’99 – en route to Lobanovskyi’s second semi-final heartache in the search for the ultimate prize – they disposed of Real Madrid in similarly ruthless fashion. Domestically there was a clean sweep of league titles, another five to Lobanovskyi’s silver-laden legacy.
At some point the beautiful experiment had to end and it did so when Shevchenko moved to Milan for a then record fee of £25m. There he continued his incredible goalscoring feats and established himself, by some distance, as the world’s best striker.
On May 7th shortly after yet another Dynamo victory Valeriy Lobanovskyi – the grandmaster of football – suffered a stroke. He died five days later.
When Shevchenko won the Champion’s League – the competition that had always eluded his martinet mentor – with Milan the following year he immediately flew back home and placed the medal at his graveside.
So what of Rebrov? Well, as we all know his career took a more unfortunate trajectory. In 2000 he joined Spurs and proved to be an expensive and persistent flop. It was a baffling development, witnessing this exquisite dervish of a player almost instantly becoming a shadow of his former self.
Was he dependant on Lobanovskyi to fulfil his talent? As we have established above the wily old Ukrainian drilled into his players every movement and decision until they became second nature. Surely that would not desert a player overnight?
Was he missing his explosive cohort Shevchenko? Certainly that is inevitable to an extent – any deep-lying second striker would – but during Rebrov’s miserable time at the Lane he was partnered with such fine talents as Ferdinand and Sheringham so that too seems highly unlikely as the predominant factor.
Was it an inability to acclimatize to the English game? This remains a possibility but the traditional reasons for such difficulties – a contrast in styles of football or the climate itself – does not lend itself to too much credence here.
Whatever the cause Rebrov struggled throughout and eventually drifted to a brief, equally unsuccessful, spell with West Ham before moving back home.
In 2006 Roman Abramovich dipped into his vast fortune and splurged over thirty million to lure the finest centre-forward in modern times to Stamford Bridge. The rest of the Premier League shuddered.
Yet they had no need to fear. Once again the strange malaise of a sensationally gifted Ukrainian talent immediately set in as soon as Shevchenko played on English soil. In three hugely disappointing seasons the man who usually scored for breakfast put away just nine in total and spent most of his time warming the bench.
Why these two brilliant and beguiling talents failed so dramatically to adjust to our shores yet pulverised opponents for Dynamo, for the Ukraine, and indeed for any other country in which they plied their trade, remains unfathomable. I suspect even the great man himself – with all his data, flowcharts, and scientific analysis – would have struggled to figure that one out.