Valeriy Lobanovskyi: soccer manager… big data visionary

The increased focus on the value of data, combined with the recent release of Moneyball, has focused much attention on Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane and his successful use of data to improve performance.

Beane was my no means the first to realize the potential use of data in sports, however. That title could arguably go to Valeriy Lobanovskyi, manager of the Dynamo Kyiv soccer team between 1974 and 1990.

Lobanovskyi’s name is unlikely to be well known to even the most ardent football fans but our research into Total Football as an inspiration for our total data concept has highlighted the fact that Lobanovskyi was as much a big data visionary as he was a footballing visionary.

Total football is most readily associated with Rinus Michels and his teams: Ajax of Amsterdam, Barcelona, and the Dutch national side of the 1970s; but while Michels was busy winning Dutch league titles and European Cups, Lobanovskyi similarly was busy at Dynamo Kiev winning the Soviet League eight times, the Ukrainian league five times, and the European Cup Winner’s Cup twice with an approach known as Universality.

Describing the concept of Universality, Lobanovskyi once stated that “the most important thing in football is what a player is doing on a pitch when he is not in possession of the ball.”

Total football devotees will recognize the description, and as Hortonworks co-founder Arun C Murthy recently noted, Lobanovskyi arguably deserves as much credit as Michels for coming up with what would eventually become known as total football.

So far, so football visionary. What separates Lobanovskyi from Michels is the fact that he based much of his vision on data, and the analysis of data. Originally trained as an engineer, Lobanovskyi saw the potential value of a scientific, data-led approach to sport.

Together with statistician Anatoliy Zelentsov, Lobanovskyi devised a method of recording and analyzing the events and actions in a game of football and using it to provide players with a statistical analysis of their performance and set targets designed to meet the style he wanted the team to play (squeezing, pressing, or combination).

“All life,” Lobanovskyi once said, “is a number”.

An example of Lobanovskyi and Zelentsov’s targets, as explained in Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics, by Jonathan Wilson, is displayed below:

To put this in some context, Lobanovskyi was using statistics and data as a means of gaining competitive advantage in sport 20 years before the formation of Opta Sports and Prozone, and almost 30 years before Beane and the 2002 Oakland Athletics.

Clients can read more about Total Football, and our description of approaches to data management in an era of ‘big data’, in our Total Data report, to be released in the coming days.

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