In times like these it isn’t enough to simply feel for Ukraine—we must celebrate Ukraine, and in doing so remind ourselves of their ingenuity, their sovereignty, and their immeasurable value to the global community as an independent nation.
For soccer fans the world over, this means reflecting upon Ukraine’s myriad contributions to the global game. Ukraine’s unique position as the technical center of the USSR led to a national belief in the balance of art and engineering. Extrapolated out into soccer, this belief gave us the modern game, period, from the 4-4-2 formation to zonal marking to the use of data analysis in tactical planning. All these innovations came from Ukraine in the 60s and 70s, and they came from trio of leaders we don’t celebrate enough: Viktor Maslov, Valeriy Lobanovskiy, and Anatoliy Zelentsov.
Viktor Maslov came first, as the head coach of Dynamo Kyiv in the mid-60s. His breakthrough – the one that made him famous and won him three consecutive Soviet championships – was the early deployment of the 4-4-2 formation. At the time, the rest of the world favored a relentlessly positive 4-2-4, a system best displayed by the irrepressible (and eventually victorious) Brazil team of the 1958 and 1962 World Cups. The 4-2-4 was well-suited to the individual brilliance of the Brazilians, but Maslov saw a crucial weakness: in a system prioritizing individuality, a team could only be as strong as their weakest player. Maslov hypothesized that if he could condition and drill eleven players to think like a unit, no opposition would stand a chance against them, no matter how technically gifted its disparate players were. In true Soviet fashion, Maslov harnessed the power of the collective.
From a playing standpoint, this early 4-4-2 meant a strong defense, a lightning-quick counter, and a dominating midfield. From a practical standpoint, it meant focusing on “zonal” rather than “man-to-man” marking, encouraging full-backs to push forward, and cross-training players to cover open space. Accordingly, Maslov’s Dynamo Kyiv teams of the 60s were early adopters of what we now recognize as the modern “pressing” game; legendary coach Alf Ramsey went on to use those same tactics to win the World Cup for England in 1966. Other teams soon caught on to the 4-4-2, and the rest is history. It dominated global soccer until well into the 2000s.
Maslov, however, did not. He left Dynamo Kyiv in 1968 and was succeeded several years later by one of his proteges: Valeriy Lobanovskiy, an idiosyncratic left winger harboring a childlike fascination with math and science. As a player he was a fearsome taker of free kicks renowned for his accuracy on the ball. His secret? Classic mechanics—legend has it that Lobanovskiy used the Magnus effect and a pen and paper to precisely calculate his free-kick angles before he’d even stepped onto the field.
Free kicks to mathematical formulas: Lobanovskiy was the living embodiment of the Ukrainian insistence on art as engineering. From his position on the field Lobanovskiy wondered if there was more to that idea—if entire matches could be studied, modeled, predicted, and optimized, too.
Crucially, down the street from Dynamo’s headquarters, the brand-new field of cybernetics was developing as a direct response to the USSR’s challenging information flows. The sheer size and diversity of the union meant that basic forecasting was anything but; state-run calculations around economic growth, production, and stability were hellacious and complex. Simple errors caused massive ripple effects throughout the Soviet economy and often carried significant consequences for the general public. One errant formula could stoke production shortages capable of decimating entire communities.
To solve this problem, Soviet leadership turned to Ukraine. More specifically, they turned to Viktor Glushkov and his fellow academics at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences (UAS). Glushkov pioneered cybernetics research from his workspace in the capital. Centered around information systems as opposed to straight-line mathematical equations, cybernetics, coupled with Ukraine’s growing computing sector, gave Soviet leadership new control over their own systems. In a matter of years, the Soviet center of informational and technological power shifted decisively toward Kyiv.
Lobanovskiy was an admirer of Glushkov and a believer in integrated systems. He frequently met with scientists and mathematicians to talk about developments in the field. Through these talks he met Anatoliy Zelentsov, a graduate of the UAS with a crazy idea: that soccer itself was an integrated system, not simply an art or an exercise. Lobanovskiy and Zelentsov hit it off, and after uniting at Dynamo Kyiv, they hatched a plan.
The Science Institute of Dynamo Kyiv was founded in 1975. The logic behind it was simple: if soccer and science were one and the same, then a soccer game could be studied and enhanced like a computer program: two sets of 11 elements with nearly endless permutations. Dynamo’s Science Institute hoped to analyze those data points using best-in-class computational mathematics from the UAS. Those analyses would then be fed back to the Dynamo players to create the strongest collective soccer team in Europe.
The first area the men revolutionized was training. In their model, the Dynamo players served as 11 members of a set—but how could they reduce their inherent human unpredictability? Their answer was fitness and endurance. They theorized that great players needed muscle and speed, but that too much muscle would inhibit speed (and vice versa.) They isolated the ideal balance, customized it for each player, and rebuilt their fitness program to bring every Dynamo Kyiv signing within a standard deviation of perfection. This increased each players’ endurance and helped them stay fresh—and predictable—through weeks upon weeks of games.
The next was preparation. Lobanovskiy and Zelentsov knew that they could only fully control half of their model. But what about the other set of 11 elements? Dynamo solved this with a two- pronged preparation assault. First, they would relentlessly study their opposition and fit them to archetypes (so that players could recognize patterns in real-time and makes split-second decisions to subvert them.) Second, they would endlessly practice set “plays”, almost in the style of an American football team, based around those archetypes. Facing a strong, physical team from England? Hold the ball, frustrate them, and let defenders bomb forward on the outer flanks to deliver crosses into the box. Dynamo players wouldn’t even have to think; as soon as the opposition archetype revealed itself, their muscle memory would take over.
Finally, the duo lasered in on collective performance. How were individuals performing on a game-to-game—and often minute-to-minute—basis? The Dynamo Science Institute measured the movement, work rate, intensity, error rate, effectiveness, and speed of each Dynamo man every time they took the field and collated those measurements into a daily “score” shared with the team. Those scores were then extrapolated further and used to determine who collaborated best with whom; again, in the Soviet style of collectivity, the “best” individual players weren’t necessarily the strongest collective team. One midfielder might have the highest work rate of the lot, but if he wasn’t consistently covering space where his teammates needed him, Dynamo had the data to prove it, and they could sub in a replacement with a better balance of skills.
This level of analysis is still relatively unheard of in the modern era. Dynamo—and Ukraine— had mastered it by 1976. And their trophy cabinet proves it. Dynamo Kyiv stormed to domestic and international victories during this era, from Ukrainian championships to Soviet cups (often showing up Muscovites on home turf) to two separate European Cup-Winners Cups. Though Ukraine could not field its own national team during this era, Lobanovskiy did take the reins for the whole of the USSR, and successfully brought the team to the final of the European Championships a decade later in 1988. His strategy? Purely Maslovian: playing the Dynamo Kyiv team instead of cherry-picking players and rolling the dice with a new unit. Soviet leadership axed this strategy quickly for political reasons, but if they wanted to win trophies, they shouldn’t have. Spain successfully co- opted it three decades later (playing a core of Barcelona players who already knew each other well) and won two consecutive European Championships and a World Cup. If they weren’t so afraid of empowering Ukraine, it isn’t hard to imagine the USSR of the 80s enjoying a run like that too.
And that, in essence, is perhaps the most mind-boggling thing about Ukraine’s soccer dominance in the latter half of the 20th century. In the aftermath of the second world war, the shadow of the Cold War, and the political snake pit of the USSR, Ukraine still innovated and excelled, and they did so in a style all their own. The game statistics and scouting principles of today were all born of Ukraine’s “art as engineering” movement. Expected goals (xG), formation analysis, and even newspaper “player ratings” owe a debt of gratitude to Maslov, Lobanovskiy, Zelentsov, Dynamo Kyiv, and Ukraine. They brought scientific precision to the Beautiful Game, and forever changed it for the better.
New Englander by birth, Californian by circumstance. I’m a writer constantly searching for stories where sport, culture, and geography come together to shine new light on one another. I’m a big fan of Aliou Cisse, Piet Keizer, and, against my better judgment, the USMNT 1994 stonewashed denim kit.
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Reynolds, Justin. “The Soviet web: the tale of how the USSR almost invented the internet.” Calvert Journal, 2017. https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/7605/soviet-internet- cybernetics-viktor-glushkov