Two great players, two great coaches, two different visions of the game
“How many times have you heard this? We pass our way through the middle of the park! But you decided to take someone on.” With his team 1-0 up Konstantin Beskov was berating one of his players at half-time in the changing rooms at the Republican stadium in Kyiv. It was September 1987, Spartak were going for the title and they had to win away to the reigning champions, Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kyiv. Indeed, a draw would not even get them a point.
Konstantin Beskov was a football man of great pedigree. He had been a centreforward in the excellent post-war Dinamo Moscow team that toured Britain in 1945 and battled it out with CDKA Moscow for supremacy in the USSR. His results as a coach were mixed before he returned to Dinamo Moscow in 1967. There he won two Soviet Cups but blew the title-decider against CSKA in 1970 (with his son-in-law, Vladimir Fedotov, scoring the winner for the opposition) and lost the 1972 Cup Winners’ Cup final against Rangers.
But Beskov was about more than just results. He developed players. Yury Gavrilov was plucked from non-league Iskra Moscow, arriving to play for the reserves in 1972. He observes, “His most important quality was the ability to recognise a player. He brought so many through. If you take Dinamo back in the day, we had four sides of equal strength. It was not uncommon for the reserves to beat the first team.”
Beskov took over the USSR again – he had had a stint in 1963-64 –but lost his job after an embarrassing 3-0 away defeat to Ireland in the Euro qualifiers in 1974. A duo from Kyiv took over.
Valeriy Lobanovskyi and Oleh Bazilevich gained prominence through their collaboration with Anatoliy Zelentsov, a scientist from the Kyiv Institute of Physical Culture, who was keen to apply mathematical analysis to football and impressed Lobanovskyi and Bazilevich. They arrived at Dynamo Kyiv in 1973-74. Zelentsov’s job was to analyse and design the most optimal training – sessions became shorter but more intense – and later in-game methodologies, using computers to crunch the numbers and also provide feedback on player performance. This was revolutionary.
Remarkable success followed as Dynamo swept domestic and European trophies, winning the Cup Winners’ Cup and the European Super Cup in 1975.
The Spartak full-back Evgeny Lovchev remembers being on the receiving end of the Kyiv pressing game. “So, I am the fullback with the ball, playing against Dynamo, and I roll the ball to the centre-back, a little slower as there is no one [from the opposition] in our half. If you time it, it would take about four or five seconds for the ball to get from me to the centreback. In four or five seconds sprinters run 50m, footballers 30. The moment the ball leaves the full-back’s foot, [the stopper Anatoliy] Konkov screams “TOPTAT’!” [“Flatten them!”]. Then Blokhin, the leftsided forward, runs to cut off the rightback, [Volodymyr] Onyshchenko dashes on the other side to cut off the pass to the left-back, [Viktor] Kolotov goes straight for the centre-back, who is still waiting for the ball to arrive, and Konkov moves forward to take over from Kolotov, covering yet another passing lane… they cut off all the players closest to the ball!” ”
When Lobanovskyi and Bazilevich took over the USSR, Dynamo effectively became the national side. But this was not enough for them. After the USSR Olympic team with a core of Spartak players qualified for the Montreal 1976 Olympics under Beskov, it was announced that the two teams would be merged. Dynamo became the national side for both the Euros and the Olympics and Beskov was out of a job again.
At the behest of Lobanovskyi and Bazilevich, the 1976 season was split into two parts – spring and autumn. There would be no relegation in the spring campaign as the Dynamo Kyiv reserves would compete in the league, while the first teamers would play in the European Cup and for the national side in the Euro 76 qualifiers as well as preparing for the Olympics.
The experiment was a disaster. In March, Dynamo were knocked out of the European Cup by St Étienne. Then the USSR lost to Czechoslovakia in the quarter-finals of Euro 76, which left the Olympics, apparently the actual goal throughout. There were 11 Dynamo players in the 17-man Olympic squad. They went to North America a month before the tournament and the coaches ran the players into the ground As the result, the team lacked any sort of freshness or fluidity and lost to East Germany on a terrible pitch in Montreal in the semis. A player rebellion followed on return to the USSR. Lobanovskyi only just kept his job but lost Bazilevich and another coach, Oleksandr Petrashevskyi.
Spartak, meanwhile, slipped to mid-table in 1975. The president Nikolai Starostin, for so long the spirit of the club, was shunted out and a year later, on the final match day of the autumn 1976 season, Spartak lost 3-1 in Kyiv. Results elsewhere went against them and they were relegated for the first time in their history.
Remarkably, given what happened the year before, Dynamo Kyiv won 14, drew 15 and lost just once en route to clinching the 1977 title. In Europe, Bayern were beaten once again, but Borussia Mönchengladbach edged past the Ukrainians into a final against Liverpool.
In the meantime, Beskov, after much persuasion, agreed to join Spartak. Nikolai Starostin was not sold on the idea, given Beskov’s Dinamo past and dictatorial approach, but his brother Andrei, who had worked with Beskov with the national team, convinced him. Even the opinionated Lovchev, who already had history with Beskov, advocated for his appointment. In fact, he points out that it was a condition of Beskov’s appointment that Nikolai Starostin returned to the club.
The new head coach went about modernising the facilities at the Tarasovka training base, introducing video analysis equipment. His signings were unusual. He brought in the likes of the striker Georgy Yartsev from third-tier Spartak Kostroma and midfielder Sergey Shavlo from Daugava Riga, who had just been relegated from the second flight.
As Beskov instilled the short passing game, some, like Lovchev, saw this as a link to Spartak’s traditional style. Others, like the journalist Oleg Vinokurov, viewed it as more of a practical step – given the ability of the players at his disposal, this was the easiest game to play. The only piece that was missing was a playmaker. Beskov finally landed Yury Gavrilov from Dinamo midway through the season. With Gavrilov laying on the passes for Yartsev and Vadim Pavlenko, Spartak scored almost a goal a game more than before and comfortably won both crowds and promotion.
But Beskov was not easy to deal with. The respected coach Yuri Morozov arrived in January 1977 but left in March after being harangued by Beskov in front of the players. Lovchev, fed up with Beskov’s management style, left a few games into the following season. Gavrilov is almost unique: “I was comfortable around Beskov. When I arrived at Spartak I already knew him as a person, as a coach, knew what he wanted and demanded. So, it was all relatively calm between us. Some of the others feared him, their relationship was strained
“I can only really say one thing. He really did not like it when anyone started arguing with him. He thought that his instructions had to be carried out as he set them out. We could win a game and afterwards he would approach players and point out their mistakes. I once called him out on it: ‘Konstantin Ivanovich, why are you berating us? Everyone makes mistakes and we won anyway!’ He responded in a steely voice: ‘How could you not win? I explained to you how you should play. So, don’t tell me that you won!’
“I just learned not to take it to heart. I saw him tear strips off the players of the great Dinamo Moscow side [of the early 1970s]. They would play fine but he would find a fault. It’s a psychological moment. Have a go at those who can do more but also at the senior pros, so that the junior players would keep their mouths shut.”
Sergey Baltacha arrived in Kyiv from the Kharkov academy in 1976. He was well-prepared, having spent the previous four years under the tutelage of Nikolay Koltsov, the right-back in the Dynamo’s 1961 side; however, there was still much to learn. “The philosophy was that we could play every position,” he said. “I could play right-back, centre-back, midfield. It was a quality that Lobanovskyi wanted. He spoke a lot about it. It was a team effort. For example, we are defending a corner, all eleven of us (OK, maybe, ten with Blokhin left up the pitch). When we can break, the ones who are nearer the ball should be going on the counter. As soon as we got the ball, if I were closer to the centre of the pitch than Belanov or Vadik Yevtushenko, then I had to attack. We were good at this! Yevtushenko would then cover my position. If you counter-attack, you also need to think about defending. Three or four players need to think (and act) in case we lose the ball. So, a nominal forward could end up as a centre-back for 20-30 seconds.
“When I first arrived in the reserves, I did not understand this. I was technically good. I got my 10,000 hours with the ball. During my first training session with the first team, I pinged a couple of 60m passes, first with my left, then with my right. As soon as I said where I was from, they knew my level. I did not have a stronger or a weaker foot. I had a right and a left. I was good in the air, one of the best in Europe. I arrived as a universal player. That was Lobanovskyi’s motto: you have to be universal.”
Baltacha made his first-team debut at centre-back in April 1978 against the newly-promoted Spartak. His summary of the Dynamo approach sounds remarkably modern. “We had the pressing game,” he says. “We could apply a high press in the opponent’s half, or we could go for medium block on the halfway line. We could also drop deep, like we did in Europe if we needed a result, and play on the counter. Before the game Lobanovskyi would always clarify how we play the back. We worked on this during the week prior to the game. It depended on the opposition, their coach and where we were playing. We always pressed at home. With 100,000 fans behind us, we pressed from the off and few teams could cope psychologically.”
In 1978 Spartak were not ready to compete but they were quick learners. “We actually found it easier to play them away than at home,” said Yury Gavrilov. “We knew the way they played at home, with the crowd urging them forward, and we spent a lot of time studying their weaknesses. So, we took care to carry out Beskov’s game plan perfectly. We even beat them 3-0 once [in 1984].”
That game stuck in Baltacha’s mind too: “It was always tough for us to play against Spartak and for them against us. At home we usually tried to press them, to outrun them, to seize the initiative. We did once lose 3-0, when they really picked us apart.
This is the whole point of pressing, when you don’t let these players receive the ball, have any time but [that day] for one reason or another we just were not ready physically. I remember that game. We were sort of pressing but not as a team. The point is not just to run around but to run around correctly. At a certain moment the entire team needs to decide to press NOW and we all move accordingly. For example, if a Spartak full-back is on the ball on the left, you move towards that corner – you can’t press an entire pitch – and deny him the opportunity and time to switch the ball. On this occasion we let them do it as several players were just too slow to execute.”
Gavrilov observed: “It is precisely because of the press that Kyiv frequently lost to us at home. So, imagine two or three players attacking an opponent to get the ball from him. Spartak’s style, all those one-twos and so on, meant that if one of those players were late, then those two or three could be bypassed. You can take out at least one of those players with a one-two or even all of them if they have mistimed their runs particularly badly.” No other team could even attempt this against Spartak: “No Soviet team, other than Kyiv, pressed us. They were probably afraid to play against us like that.”
For their method to work, Dynamo Kyiv players had to be right on top of their game. Their peaks came in cycles around with pairs of titles in 1980, 1981 and 1985, 1986. 1985-86 also brought glory in the Cup-Winners’ Cup as one team after another was blown away at the Republican stadium. “They come on the pitch, 100,000 people chanting ‘Dynamo, Dynamo’ at them, and after 15 minutes it is already 3-0. After that we just hold the ball,” said Baltacha. While there might be a slight exaggeration, European visitors were, on average, three down by half-time.
Dynamo-Spartak encounters were usually hard-fought with just one or two goals in it. Draws were rare. In fact there was only one in twenty league matches between Beskov and Lobanovskyi – curiously, when Lobanovskyi was away in 1983 and Morozov was in charge, both games finished level.
The dynamic of the two sides in the decade from 1978 is very different. While Spartak finished in the top three every season between 1979-1987 but only won the league twice, Dynamo sank as low as tenth (in 1984) but claimed the title on four occasions. Spartak faced Dynamo late in the season in 1980 and 1985 three points behind and needed a win to stay in contention for the league. The Kyiv side won both times. Spartak’s lot in 1980 was compounded by a terrible error from the goalkeeper Rinat Dasaev in the opening minutes. Still, matches in Kyiv were also decisive for Spartak in both title-winning seasons, in 1979 (when they went top for the first time, replacing Dynamo and staying there until the end of the season) and in 1987 (when a Cherenkov header gave them a tense 1-0 win).
Curiously, both times Spartak could not afford a draw, thanks to… Dynamo. Dynamo’s 15 draws in 30 games in 1977 wasn’t even the highest number in the league. Four clubs managed 17. The total number stood at a record 107 in 240 matches (45%). The Soviet football authorities decided to act, trying to make the league more competitive and weed out corruption. They limited the number of draws for which a team would be awarded a point to eight. Lobanovskyi was frequently criticised for encouraging negative football with his ‘away’ model and occasionally hauled in front of the authorities to explain himself. Needless to say, this did not help his relationship with Moscow.
In addition to the league, Beskov and Lobanovskyi found themselves in a ménage à trois with Dinamo Tbilisi’s head coach Nodar Akhalkatsi at the 1982 World Cup. Officially, Beskov, who was the USSR head coach and already had two assistants, came to Vyacheslav Koloskov, who was in charge of Soviet football at the time, and asked for help, given the number of Kyiv and Tbilisi players in the squad. This seems unlikely for Beskov. Both Baltacha and Gavrilov played at the 1982 World Cup in Spain and stress that the message from the three coaches remained consistent but after the USSR exited the tournament in the second phase following a drab 0-0 draw with Poland, Beskov took the fall. Gavrilov still feels that the team for that match was set by Lobanovskyi and, with just four out-and-out attacking players, too negatively at that. Baltacha is convinced that the USSR could have beaten Italy, who faced Poland in the semi-final.
Despite the frustrating exit, Baltacha enjoyed playing Beskov’s football, even if it was different from Dynamo’s: “Beskov had high standards – head up, playing technical, fast, beautiful football. It was different. In my coaching I try to use a mixture of the two approaches.”
Lobanovskyi took over for the Euro 84 qualifying tournament and was sacked after the USSR failed to make it through. He would get his semi-final with Italy, though, in 1988, a match that would go down as one of the great Soviet performances.
1988 was also the last year of the Beskov- Lobanovskyi head-to-head in the league. In March Dynamo battered Spartak in Kyiv but somehow lost 2-1. Lobanovskyi suffered a heart attack in the aftermath of Sergey Rodionov’s winner five minutes from time and was rushed to hospital.
Spartak faded in the closing stages of the season, winning only two of their final six games, and finishing a disappointing fourth. This convinced Beskov that an overhaul was required and he effectively transfer-listed eight players before going on holiday; however, Nikolai Starostin took the players’ side and pensioned off his head coach. Valeriy Shmarov recalled returning to pick up his employment record book after the holiday, expecting to leave. Starostin told him to wait. That evening the players were told that they would have a new manager.
The new Spartak manager, Oleg Romantsev, brought back a number of exiles, introduced elements of pressing and shocked Dynamo in Kyiv in April 1989, 4-1. The teams met again in Moscow in late October with Valery Shmarov’s injury time free-kick winning the game and the title for Spartak Moscow.
Dynamo Kyiv won the Supreme League in 1990, finishing one Soviet title ahead of Spartak (13-12).
Beskov went on to manage Asmaral in 1991, where he was reunited with the 38-year-old Yury Gavrilov, who answered his call for a playmaker. Beskov returned to Dinamo Moscow in 1994, tried and failed to re-sign Gavrilov and won the Russian Cup in 1995, Dinamo’s last trophy to date. He died in May 2006, aged 85.
Lobanovskyi failed at Italia 90, where the USSR did not get out of the group, then left for the Middle East, where he coached the UAE and Kuwait, ruining his health in the process. He returned to Dynamo in 1996. He built his third great team with Serhiy Rebrov and Andriy Shevchenko, reaching the Champions League semi-final in 1999. He suffered a stroke during a match against Metalurh Zaporizhzhya on 7 May 2002 and died six days later, aged 63.
This article first appeared in Issue Two of The Squall, a monthly magazine we produced for six months in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. You can read all six issues, for a recommended donation of £3 each, here.
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