Lobanovskyi's Soviet Side: 1986 - 1990
Updated: Jun 5
During the Cold War years, both the Eastern and Western-Bloc were determined to assert the supremacy of their respective communist and capitalist ideologies. Following the space race, sporting success became each faction's primary political vehicle, used to promote superiority on either side of the iron curtain. While the United States and USSR focussed on funding their Olympic training programmes; football was highly politicised in Europe. Whereas the wealthier Western nations enjoyed consistent success, the USSR and their Eastern compatriots had to settle for more sporadic achievements.
The Soviets had won the inaugural European Championships in 1960; inspired by their legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin, who was known as the 'black spider'. This success was succeeded by a series of near misses. The USSR finished fourth at the 1966 World Cup, were eliminated by a coin toss at Euro 68 and had to settle for silver medals at the 1964 and 1972 European Championships. The national team then qualified for just one international tournament between 1972 and 1984; and even then, suffered a disappointing second-round exit at the 1982 World Cup.
At club level, Dynamo Kyiv were the nation’s most successful side. However, their 1986 Cup Winners’ Cup victory was just their second, and the USSR’s third, European trophy. This paltry trophy hall was on a par with Scottish club’s limited successes and certainly unbefitting of a nation determined to become a European superpower. Despite their limited past successes, the Soviets saw 1986 as a potential turning point. Dynamo Kyiv’s Cup Winners’ Cup success was soon bettered by Steaua Bucharest; who defeated Barcelona at the Camp Nou to win their first European Cup. The USSR's Football Federation was determined to transfer the Eastern-bloc's recent successes at club level to the international stage.
1973 – 1986: Lobanovskyi pre-USSR
The USSR identified Valeriy Lobanovskyi as the manager capable of propelling the Soviets to international success. The Ukrainian coach had delivered both of Dynamo Kyiv’s Cup Winners’ Cups and established Kyiv as a formidable force; both domestically and in continental competitions. Lobanovskyi’s tactical approach was inspired by Rinus Michels’ Ajax side, who conquered European football with their brand of ‘Total Football’ in the early 1970s. The Dutch side, led by the eccentric Johan Cruyff, focussed on entertaining fans with their free-flowing football and implemented an impressive pressing system, primarily to regain possession. Conversely, Lobanovskyi saw pressing as both an offensive weapon, used to win the ball back in dangerous areas, and a defensive tactic, which could prevent counter-attacks. He preached the importance of the collective and had no time for individualism within his side’s structure. The ideological and tactical differences between the two are comparable to the variations in Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola's respective tactical systems. While Klopp, like Lobanovskyi, prescribes ‘heavy metal football’, with a focus on pressing and purposeful attacking; Guardiola and Michels’ sides focus on positional play and passing patterns in order to control possession.
In addition to his tactical innovations, Lobanovskyi also introduced a scientific approach to both training and nutrition at Dynamo Kyiv. After studying sports science at university, the innovative coach became obsessed with maximising his players running stats and rigorously controlling their diet. With the assistance of Anatoly Zelentsov, a physical education scientist from the Kyiv State Institute of Physical Education, Lobanovskyi implemented a mathematical model to closely monitor his team’s physical output. These methods were revolutionary at the time and helped Kyiv to lift five Soviet Leagues titles during Lobanovksyi's first spell at the club and a further three domestic titles during his second stint; along with the Cup Winners Cup victories in 1975 and 1986.
Despite the sides earlier successes, it was Kyiv’s performance in the 1986 Cup Winners’ Cup final that finally caught Western Europe’s attention. Kyiv dismantled a hapless Atletico Madrid side 3-0, with their second goal, a sweeping team move finished by 1975 Balon D’Or winner Oleg Blokhin. The goal was described by the Spanish press as a “fan-attack” as the Ukrainian champions swarmed forward and effortlessly exchanged positions in attack. Following this impressive performance, Kyiv’s free-scoring deep-lying forward, Igor Belanov, won the 1986 Ballon d’Or. As a result; heading into the 1986 World Cup, the Soviets' squad boasted two Ballon d’Or winners, along with one of the most inventive coaches in world football. The nation appeared poised for success.
1985 - 86: 1986 World Cup
Lobanovskyi was a familiar appointment for the Soviets; this was his third stint as coach of the USSR's national team. He was first appointed in 1975, in an attempt to qualify for Euro 76, before delivering Olympic gold in Montreal. Lobanovskyi’s side failed to qualify for Euro 76 and could only secure bronze at the Olympics. He was promptly sacked. The Kyiv coach was hired again in 1982 but was relived of his duties for a second time, after failing to qualify for 1984 European Championships. Lobanovskyi’s inability to transfer his success at club level to the international stage raised questions when he was appointed for the third time in 1986. Lobanvoskyi was brought in shortly before the start of the World Cup in Mexico at the expense of Eduard Malofeyev, the man who had led the Soviets to qualification. Under the former Dinamo Minsk coach, the USSR had scraped through their qualifying group behind a free-scoring Denmark side; dominated by an inspired Michael Laudrup. The Soviets’ inconsistent qualifying campaign was not tolerated by the USSR's Football Federation, and Lobanovskyi was appointed to deliver international silverware.
From 1986, Lobanovskyi altered his selection approach; calling up a squad consisting of predominately Dynamo Kyiv players, who he felt could help effectively implement his nuanced methods. Lobanovksyi’s training regime was unusually intense, and their tactical system was complex; therefore, it generally took players longer to learn and adapt to the Ukrainian’s methods. This training time is rarely afforded to national team managers as players rarely spend more than a week on international duty, outside of tournament football. As a result, Lobanovskyi’s previous stints with the Soviet national side, while using players from clubs across the USSR, had proved unsuccessful. The Soviet coach demonstrated his commitment to this new approach in the USSR’s opening match at the 1986 World Cup, by fielding eight of Kyiv's starting XI from the previous month’s Cup Winners’ Cup success. This selection process was only feasible due to restrictions on Soviet footballers crossing the iron curtain; which meant all 16 players in Kyiv’s 1986 Cup Winners Cup squad hailed from the USSR. The sides newfound continuity reaped immediate returns, improving their fluidity in possession and the structure of their pressing during narrow friendly defeats to England and Spain in early 1986.
The national sides improved performances, along with Dynamo Kyiv's European success and Belanov’s Balon d’Or win, meant that the Soviets were tipped as outsiders heading into the tournament. Initially, they did not disappoint. With the perfect balance of brawns, brain and attacking flair, the side lit up the tournament’s group stage; destroying Hungary 6-0, brushing aside a mediocre Canada side and earning a respectable 1-1 draw with the Euro 84 winners, France. The team lined-up with a flat back four; allowing the remaining six outfielders to interchange positions freely and lead a relentless high press to overload the opposition in any area of the pitch. The sides attack-minded approach further endeared supporters to Lobanovskyi’s system; with Italian manager Azeglio Vicini describing the Soviets performances as “The football of the next century”.
The Soviets finished as the tied top scores of the group stage; however, their attacking style caught up with them in the first knockout round. In a helter-skelter encounter with Belgium, the USSR contrived to lose the match 4-3 - despite a hat-trick from Belanov - after a contentious offside call allowed Belgium to take the game to extra-time. After one of the greatest games in the World Cup’s history, Brian Clough declared “Football has won tonight – even if the Russians lost”. Despite a relatively early exit; the sides free-scoring group stage performances and various international plaudits had sparked the nation’s interest and laid the groundwork for what was to come in 1988.
1987 - 88: Euro 88
Lobanovskyi’s side built on their impressive performances in Mexico and qualified for the 1988 European Championships in fine form. The team remained consistent throughout qualification, again consisting predominantly of Dynamo Kyiv stars. The Soviets emerged from their group unbeaten; defeating holders France 2-0 in Paris and reaching their first European Championships since they were finalists in 1972. The squad arrived in West Germany, freshly plaid in a vibrant, patterned Adidas kit; having been drawn in a tough group, featuring England, a robust Ireland side and the eventual champions, Holland.
Lobanovskyi’s side opened their campaign against the pre-tournament favourites – the Dutch. A month earlier, PSV had defeated Benfica to win their first European cup; meanwhile, Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard had helped AC Milan secured their first Serie A title of the 1980s. Just as Dynamo Kyiv had captured the continent’s attention in 1986, the ‘Oranje’ were very much in vogue heading into the European Championships. As if the Dutch's superstars were not intimindating enough, Holland were coached by Runes Michels; who’s Dutch and Ajax sides had inspired Lobanovskyi’s obsession with 'Total Football' and pressing. During the teams' opening encounter, the contrast between the Dutch side's technical approach and the USSR’s focus on pressing was evident as the Soviets worked to suppress Holland’s attacking flair. With Van Basten only fit enough for the bench, and Gullit’s threat nullified, the Red Army's left-winger, Vasyl Rats, swept home a magnificent winner on the half-volley. After a disappointing draw with the Irish, the USSR outclassed a stagnant England side; who’s long-ball approach suddenly appeared outdated against the USSR’s relentless pressing and composure on the ball. In an otherwise immaculate 3-1 victory, the Soviets lost Belanov to injury just before half-time. This blow would prove fatal, and Belanov would not regain full fitness during the tournament.
Despite lighting up a tough group, it was the USSR's 2-0 semi-final defeat of Italy that proved to be the crowning moment of Lobanovskyi’s tenure. Italy fielded a star-studded lineup featuring Carlo Ancelotti, Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli; while implementing Arrigo Sacchi’s ridged 4-4-2 formation, which would lead AC Milan to the next two European Cups. Sacchi too was inspired by Michel’s Ajax side and had just won over his critics in Italy by leading Milan to the Scudetto during his first season in charge. The Rossoneri’s success under Sacchi, along with the Soviet’s performances at the 1986 World Cup, had influenced Italian manager Vicini. He now saw Italy’s traditional man-marking approach as outdated and implemented Sacchi’s zonal system.
The Italians’ impressive line-up featured just four Milan players; with the flat back four a relatively novel concept to the players hailing from other sweeper-obsessed Italian clubs. Contrarily, Lobanovskyi’s back-four consisted of three Kyiv players, who had been operating with a back four since the mid-70s. The Soviets lined up in a 4-5-1 formation; attempting to overload the Italians in the centre of the park. They out-pressed and outclassed the Auzzuri, even without the injured Belanov. The Soviets were relentless from the first whistle, with the Italians’ trademark defensive resolve eventually breached twice in four second-half minutes. First marauding midfielder Hennadiy Lytovchenko jinked through the fatigued Italian defence to prod home the opener. Less than four minuteslater, centre-forward Oleh Protasov finished expertly to kill the tie in the 62nd minute. The performance was exceptional but familiar. The USSR had suffocated the Auzzuri in an almost identical fashion to Kyiv’s destruction of Atletico in the 1986 Cup Winners’ Cup final. On both occasions, Lebanovskyi’s sides had worn their opponents down before striking the killer blow when gaps in their opponent’s defence appeared in the second half. On the road to the final, the Soviets were undoubtedly the starts of the tournament. Lobonovskyi appeared to have implemented ‘Total Football’ on steroids; adding an extra level of intensity to the Dutch’s press, without hampering his teams control in possession.
Unfourtunetly, the Soviets had peaked prematurely. After relentlessly pressing the Dutch, the English and the Italians; the team began to fatigue. Attack-minded right-back Volodmyr Bezsonov joined Belanov on the treatment table; while defensive stopper Oleh Kuznetsov was suspended after picking up an early booking against the Italians. Belanov was rushed back, but his lack of fitness only served to detract from Lobanovskyi’s traditional energetic approach. Meanwhile, having scraped past Ireland in the group stage, the Dutch had knocked out the hosts in the semi-finals; with Van Basten sliding home a last-gasp winner. Although the Soviets had been more impressive, Michel’s Dutch side had been efficient; conserving energy in possession and gradually improving throughout the tournament.
When the final arrived, in front of an expectant Olympiastadion, the Soviets all-out press was impotent as the Dutch controlled the game; regularly finding space in the attacking third and starving the USSR of possession. Gullit capitalised on the Dutch’s dominance, heading home a Van Basten knockdown; before that goal from Van Basten secured the Dutch’s first international honour. Arnold Murhen launched a searching cross towards Van Basten, wide of the back post, who caught the cross sweetly on the volley, sending a spinning strike over the head of Soviet goalkeeper Rinat Dasayev and inside the far post. Belanov missed a late penalty to compound the Soviets’ misery; however, the USSR were distinctly second-best, and any response would likely have been a mere consolation. Van Basten has since credited his goal to the time he spent training as a gymnast throughout his childhood. The finish was undoubtedly the greatest goal in the history of the European Championships and was in keeping with the narrative of the final. Lobanovskyi’s scientific approach had been overcome by the individual quality of Michel’s Dutch star-studded side. The West’s expressive individuals had overcome Eastern productivity; a precursor for the imminent collapse of the one-party system across the Eastern-Bloc. Throughout Eastern Europe, nationalist movements grew in strength, while protests demanding freedom of movement and expression could no longer be suppressed. The time for the communist collective was coming to a close.
1988 - 90: Post-Euro 88
The 1988 European Championships proved to be the pinnacle for Lobanovskyi’s Soviet side. The Revolutions of 1989 led to the fall the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, easing the USSR's restrictions surrounding freedom of information and migration permits. The relaxing of these regulations allowed many Soviet footballers to move to Western clubs for the first time. By 1990, six of the USSR’s starting XI from the Euro 88 final, were playing abroad. During their qualifying campaign, Lobanovskyi’s side struggled for continuity and his players lacked tactical discipline; with many of them having been afforded greater creative freedom at their new clubs. As a result, the national team's coaching staff struggled to implement their strict tactical system or maintain fitness levels. The squads lack of fitness and tactical deficiencies were compounded by its star-players’ declining performance levels. Blokhin retired from international football after Euro 88 and Belanov endured an underwhelming spell at Borussia Mönchengladbach, from which his career would never recover.
While the Soviets secured qualification for the 1990 World Cup by topping a generous qualifying group; they finished bottom of their group at the tournament. The Red Army exited Italia 90 with a solitary victory over Cameroon, who had already qualified. After 1990 Lobanovskyi resigned as the USSR manager. Not only did his iteration of Soviet football cease to exist; the Soviet Union would never compete at another major tournament. The Commonwealth of Independent States competed on the USSR’s behalf at Euro 1992, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Lobanovskyi’s appointment in 1986 had been greeted with a wave of optimism and a genuine belief that his innovative approach could elevate the USSR’s national side to the level of their Western counterparts. This hype was never truly fulfilled and, after two unfortunate exits, the Soviets' disastrous performances at Italia 90 signalled the breakup of a great side and the dissolution of the communist ideology.
1990 – 2002: Lobanvskyi post-USSR
After departing the Soviet national side for the third time, Lobanovskyi enjoyed a nomadic spell; managing the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, before returning to manage Dynamo Kyiv in 1997. Back in his native Ukraine, he led Kyiv to five successive Ukrainian League Championships and a Champions League semi-final in 1999. In the first-leg against Bayern Munich, spearheaded by a burgeoning Andriy Shevchenko, Dynamo raced into a surprise three-goal lead; before a second-half collapse and a narrow defeat in the second leg saw the Germans progress to the final. Once again Lobanovskyi’s tactics reaped immediate returns; before succumbing to technically superior opposition. On 7 May 2002, during Dynamo Kyiv’s match against FC Metalurh Zaporizhzhya, Lobanovskyi collapsed after suffering a stroke. He never regained consciousness. UEFA held a minute silence to commemorate his death at the 2002 Champions League final and, after winning the Champions League with AC Milan in 2003, Shevchenko lay his winners medal at Lobanovskyi’s grave.
2002 – Present: Lobanovskyi’s lasting influence
While Lobanovskyi’s Kyiv sides are remembered fondly across Eastern Europe, the innovative tactical approach and novel approach to selection adopted by his USSR side are often overlooked. This oversite is primarily due to spectators’ fond memories of a flamboyant Dutch side; whose clunky performance throughout Euro 88 were overshadowed by their dominant performance in the final and Marco Van Basten’s stunning strike. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian’s impact on the footballing world was wide-reaching. His focus on players’ diet, running stats and detailed opposition analysis were all but unique during the 1970s. Additionally, by implementing pressing, zonal marking and a flat back-four, he remained at the forefront of tactical innovations throughout his coaching career; something said of few managers. Lobanovskyi’s focus on counter-pressing or ‘gegenpressing’ has since been adopted to varying extents across Europe. Last season, both Liverpool and Tottenham reached the Champions League final, having adopted a form of gegenpressing. The abundance of evidence demonstrating Lobanovskyi’s influence on modern football has validated Azeglio Vicini’s bold statement during the 1986 World; his Soviet side was indeed playing the football of the next century.