Enigmatic, pragmatic, misunderstood — Viktor Maslov was one of the greatest tactical minds to ever grace football, but his achievements and contributions remain largely under-appreciated.
When one talks about the great tactical minds to have rendered the game its present state, the names of Arigo Sacchi, Helenio Herrera, Valeriy Lobanovski, Rinus Michels and Pep Guardiola spring to mind more than anything else. These esteemed coaches have not only brought about their own spectrum of the game but have also ushered an era of unparalleled success for their clubs, making them one of the truly great managers of the game. But underneath the influence of these giants is a person whose contribution to the game is probably lost in the sands of time and fame of the ones that followed him. Viktor Maslov, through his genius laid the foundation of modern day football and remains a truly understated colossus in the realms of the game.
Born in 1910 in then Soviet Russia, Maslov’s early childhood was surrounded by the gloom of war and revolutions tearing up apart the country and the continent. With the culmination of the Great War and the Soviet Civil War, football in the country returned to its former state and the opportunity to play for RDPK Moscow presented a stepping stone for Maslov’s career. A couple of years later, the young midfielder crossed the divide as RDPK’s city rivals, Torpedo came calling. The move did not go down well with the club and its fan-base for reasons well known, but Maslov’s ascend to fame had just begun. He made his name as an unspectacular yet efficient midfielder with an eye for a pass. In his time as a player, he captained the side between 1936 and 1939 before finally hanging up his boots in 1942, at the age of 32.
But the best was yet to come.
Maslov’s longstanding desire to be the commander at the touchline finally came into fruition as he took over the reigns at Torpedo shortly after his retirement. There was little in the way of success and after a disappointing six year stint, he was relieved of his duties and what followed was a largely unsettled period wherein Maslov swapped three clubs in six seasons. His failures prompted him to take time off and in 1957, Torpedo came calling again. A revitalized Maslov led a strong Torpedo to a league win in his four year stint, making his name as a tactically astute manager in the process. His exploits with Torpedo did not go unnoticed as the giants of Eastern Europe – Dynamo Kiev made their move and the visible joys of managing an European name over Rostov were to big a bait for the ‘Grandpa’ to let go. The Russian’s genius truly came to the fore in his time at Ukraine as the Russian pioneered new facets of the game – both on the pitch and off it.
Brazil’s world cup clinching team of 1958 were set out in the then widely famous 4-2-4. Though there would be no dearth of attacking impetus as a result of the two wing forwards and the two center forwards, the visible flaw of the formation was the gaping holes left down the wings between the half-backs and the wing-forwards.
To counter this flaw, Maslov proposed tinkering the formation by instructing one of his wing forwards to drop deep into central midfield when not in possession of the ball to render balance to the team. In implementing his system at Kiev, the Russian went one step ahead and instructed both of his wing-forwards to drop deep, making a flat bank of four in midfield and thus narrowing down the open spaces on the wings. Thus came about the 4-4-2, the blueprint of English football. Maslov’s modified system found the right balance between defense and attack and transitional play became easier considering the number of bodies in midfield. Football was moving from reliance on individual brilliance to efficient use of all resources available. His Dynamo side dominated football in the Soviet Union for a major part of the 60’s as they won consecutive league titles between 1966 and 1968 alongside a couple of domestic cups.
Off the field, Maslov put particular emphasis on his players’ nutrition and dietary routines to ensure that his team remained fit enough to challenge for top honours on a regular basis. As the conditioning and strength of his players increased, the Russian introduced the system of pressing with the primary motive of not allowing his opposition any space and time on the ball, as was the trend back then. Jonathan Wilson writes:
“Their (Dynamo’s) midfield was hunting in packs, closing down opponents and seizing the initiative in previously unexpected areas of the pitch.”
The Dynamo of the 60’s were among the first sides in football to integrate team-work in building in a perfectly cohesive unit that hunted in packs and not on the brilliance of an individual. The team pressed and defended zonally to negate the threat posed by the roaming center forward of those times ala Nandor Hidegkuti. Maslov famously proclaimed the vices of a man-marking system –
“Man-marking humiliates, insults and even morally oppresses the players who resort to it.”
Another significant tactical change brought in by the Russian was the attacking responsibilities given to the side-backs who then were pretty much restricted to only their defensive duties. Maslov brought about the role of the attacking full-back at Dynamo, rendering the full-back in its modern role of having dual responsibility.
Viktor Maslov’s Legacy
The 4-4-2, pioneered by Viktor Maslov was put to practice by Sir Alf Ramsey as the English lifted the World Cup in 1966 due to which many regard him to be the real pioneer of the formation. Maslov’s tactic of pressing the opposition was later adopted by Rinus Michels as he built his all conquering Ajax of the 70’s and by Arigo Sacchi who used it to perfection in making his Milan the undisputed champions of the continent. His tremendous work in the domestic scene of the Soviet Union reflected in the way the national team set-up. USSR implemented the zonal marking and pressing systems in their defensive play and are believed to be among the first ones to do so. Football aesthetics may point a finger at Maslov for stemming the attacking rendezvous of the late 50’s and early 60’s by the introduction of pressing the opposition but there remains little doubt that the Russian’s theories having survived the test of time, remain one of the cornerstones of modern tactical thinking.
After his record-setting stint at Kiev, Maslov returned to Torpedo Moscow for a brief spell but the wears and tears of old age coupled with six energy sapping seasons at Dynamo had taken their toll on the grandpa. After a couple of unsuccessful years, Maslov sang his swansong at FC Aarat Yerevan before passing away in 1977, aged 67. A few years later his disciple, Valeriy Lobanovski would continue the tradition of success at Kiev, inspired largely from the theories of his master, established during the 60’s.
To date, the Russian remains one of the pioneers of the game and his under-stated influence one of the truly precious gems of the game. Reserved yet enigmatic, subdued yet pragmatic, Maslov remains one of the lost names in the perennial river of footballing legends.