Before the Greatness: Serhiy Rebrov

Мы живы до тех пор, пока нас помнят

“We are alive as long as we are remembered”.

Thus reads the tombstone of Valeriy Lobanovskyi, the late Dynamo Kyiv manager who suffered a heart attack and died as his side played FC Metalurh Zaporizhzhya, on 13 May 2002.

Over the last odd 20 years, football has undergone tremendous evolution. Almost every club attempts to play expansive, fluid football with all players able to contribute to attack and defence, extolling the ideas of Rinus Michels’ “Total Football”, football’s revolution of 20 odd years earlier. When asked, (almost) every manager would draw a line to show how their team plays like Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Barcelona or the Netherlands and Ajax of the late Johan Cruyff’s persuasion. The modern game’s signature is that high press, positional rotation, energetic, vertically progressive and space exploitative style of Guardiola, Cruyff and Michels. 

However, Total Football’s revolution in the 1970s has everything to do with Kyiv’s Valeriy Lobanovskyi, alongside Amsterdam’s Rinus Michels. Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo side quintessentially revolutionised the modern game. With Anatoly Zelentsov, a statistician from the Kyiv State Institute of Physical Education, he introduced the emphasis of science and analytics in the modern game, before your favourite manager made it hip. Player diets, accurate recording and calculation of training processes, mathematical modelling of players’ physical loads, player psychology, video analysis, match analytics; that typical emphasis on the collective as well honing an individual’s skills and a high press enabled Valeriy to build some of the greatest football teams from Eastern Europe across the 70s, 80s and 90s and distinguish him, at the time of his death as the most successful manager in Soviet and Ukrainian history.

Valeriy Lobanovskyi

As much as the modern game’s influence is credited to enigmas from western Europe, it is befitting that we thaw off some frost from the Cold War, acknowledging another pioneer and revolutionary of Total Football, Valeriy Lobanovskyi, whose legacy is receiving, perhaps the most arduous plaudits from a legend in the making: Serhiy Rebrov.

Serhiy Rebrov

The Player

In our youth, the formation in vogue was 4-4-2. The 2 upfront gave us some of the most prolific striking partnerships: Chris Sutton and Alan Shearer, Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke, Ivan Zamorano and Marcelo Salas… and Andriy Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov in Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kyiv. The 1998/99 season saw the pair net 55 times in 44 games across all competitions including memorable thrashings of Arsenal, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich (in the first leg of the semi-final) in the UEFA Champions League. Shevchenko would then move on to greater things at AC Milan and not-so-great things at Chelsea and in general. 

Rebrov remained, netting 30 times in 40 leagues appearances and 10 times in the Champions League in his lone season at Kyiv post-Andriy’s exit. George Graham and David Pleat managed to lure him to White Hart Lane, where a return of 10 goals in 60 games, (the first nine of those coming in the first 30 games) telling of the Ukrainian’s awful choice for a new hunting ground. In typical English fashion, the media was quick to brandish him as the most expensive failure of his time. A further demotion beckoned, Rebrov would join the Championship side West Ham United, managed by Alan Pardew. Pardew managed to get the Hammers promoted, but with 1 goal in 27 appearances for Rebrov, he had to return home. 

He returned to Dynamo Kyiv, where at the tender age of 32 he finished the season feted as Player of the Season and by his retirement he’d inculcated himself into Ukrainian lore as the league’s highest scorer. 

The Manager

After an apprenticeship with Dynamo as part of the backroom staff, in 2014, he took charge of the first team. The Ukrainian Cup followed. Then, the league and cup double before retaining the league title in the next season, winning the Ukrainian Super Cup and guiding Dynamo to the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time in 15 years. A commendable feat in light of Shakhtar Donetsk’s (a front for Brazilian wonder footballers) erstwhile dominance under Mircea Lucescu. 2017 led him to another money-inspired move: Al-Ahli Saudi FC. A cup title and a second-place finish, one point adrift Al-Hilal before he moved to the trophy hungry Hungarian powerhouse Ferencváros.

In the 2017/18 season, Ferencváros finished second, behind Fehervar and failed to qualify for the Europa League. They fired manager Thomas Doll. One season under Rebrov had them crowned Hungarian champions and en route to qualifying for the UEFA Champions League via the stronger Dinamo Zagreb. They lost. Instead, they got into the Europa league qualis beating the weaker Lithuanian Suduva before finishing third in the group stage behind CSKA Moscow, Ludogorets Razgrad and RCD Espanyol. 

Presently, Rebrov’s Ferencváros play in the UEFA Champions League. One can only imagine the immense pride, chutzpah and sense of foreboding that the Hungarians must have felt when they walked out onto the park at the Camp Nou to line up against FC Barcelona. They lost. The scoreboard read a dignified 5-1. Respectable and never in doubt from the Catalans. The gods who preordain football tales must have a wicked sense of humour, if only because Ferencváros’ next meeting was at home against the club that made him, remade him after England broke him and made him, again into the manager that he is, Dynamo Kyiv.   

Football matches today are muted, the effects of a pandemic of global proportions et al. yet that game in Budapest was anything but. The visiting Ukrainians fled with a two-goal lead only for Rebrov’s side to come out sickle and scythe in the second half to even the tie out 2-2, with perhaps the most passionate display in the last 10 minutes to get that equalizing goal. Ferencváros lead the league but face a trip to Juventus and a return match in the Champions League before Rebrov returns to Kyiv, against his home. One to watch.

Tactics- in brief

Rebrov’s sides play that modern, adaptive and expansive style that Valeriy Lobanovskyi lived and died for, and is accredited to the Pepa and Klopps of this age. Against teams he expects to beat without much fuss, he lines up his team in a high pressing 4-2-3-1. Against stronger sides, a 4-4-2 with a low block will be enforced, with the Hungarians, this season, being especially well versed in this and playing rapidly out on the counter-attack. 

Rebrov’s innovativeness should also grab our attention. This campaign’s Champions League qualification had him face Neil Lennon’s Celtic that tried to lure the Balkan centre-backs upfield by playing without a recognised striker. Even if this were to be contrived as a statement against his Board by the ginger gaffer, Rebrov beat the Scottish giants to set up a meeting against Dinamo Zagreb in the next round. 

The Croats, last time out, beat the Hungarians 5-1 on aggregate. However, they turned out 2-1 victors before winning on 3 away goals against Molde in the playoffs to get into the group stages if the competition Arsenal hasn’t been in for the last 4 seasons. Rebrov’s signings have also been inspired, especially that of Tokmac Chol Nguen, the right-footed Norwegian deployed as the left-winger, whose goals (6 in 5 games so far) have been critical in Ferencváros’ Champions League campaign. 

It will be exciting to watch and follow a David, the likes of Rebrov spurred on by the legacy and spirit of Valeriy Lobanovskyi from the folds behind the former Iron Curtain. More is certainly expected of him and a move to superior sides closer to the nought-longitude should be in the offing. Until then, we enjoy the prodigious talents of Ferencváros’ Serhiy Rebrov. 

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