If I told you I was going to write about someone who was a leader in participative working during the mid-twentieth century you probably wouldn't expect that person to be a football manager from the Soviet Union. However, Viktor Maslov was a football manager and his story illustrates some of the fundamental reasons why we believe that stakeholder engagement is so important to success in pretty much every walk of life.
Although he is now almost forgotten outside the Soviet Bloc, Maslov had a long and extremely successful career as a football manager which ran from the early 1940s to the late 1970s. The most notable periods were his four spells at Torpedo Moscow, and then at Dynamo Kiev who he joined in 1964. It was at Dynamo that his career reached it's peak as he constructed a team that became the dominant force in Soviet football. He has left a legacy that has been world-wide, irrevocably changing the nature of the sport - "If there is a single man who can claim to be the father of modern football," wrote the journalist Jonathan Wilson, "it is Viktor Maslov".
So what did Maslov do? Two things stand out. Firstly, he created the 4-4-2 formation which since the late 1960s has been the default tactic in much of the world, especially in English football. Secondly, he invented the tactic of 'pressing' - the technique of closing down (quickly getting close to) any opposition player with the ball in order to deny them the space or opportunity to pass or to make attacks. When Maslov introduced the tactic at Dynamo it sparked controversy and was regarded with suspicion by traditionalists, though this soon died down as it quickly became clear just how effective it was. The tactic gradually spread throughout the sport. The point at which 'pressing' truly came to prominence, certainly in Western Europe was with the legendary 'Total Football' played by the great Dutch national team of the 1970s that featured Johan Cruyff, and who to this day are regarded by many as the greatest team of all time. Today the method is implemented almost universally.
Viktor Maslov was regarded at the time more for his kind character than for his genius. He was chubby and bald-headed but his nickname 'Grandad' stemmed from what one of his star players described as "his colossal wisdom, humanity and kindness" rather than his appearance. He saw his team firstly as human beings and only secondly as footballers. He treated them with sincerity and as a result created a strong bond of trust and shared vision between himself and his team. As Dynamo Kiev's captain Andriy Biba said: "He trusted us and we responded in the same way". This trust enabled Maslov and his players to share responsibility for the making of key decisions. The night before each game Maslov would call his players to a meeting to discuss the coming match and to gather their thoughts before he finalised his tactics. Because the players and the manager were so close, Maslov was able to implement new ideas that a manager with a weaker relationship with his players would not have been able to gain the support for. As Wilson put it: "It was that level of trust and mutual understanding that allowed Maslov to implement his more radical tactical innovations. And they were radical, almost incomprehensibly so in the context of the times."
Joint decision-making didn't just happen in the dressing room before the game, it happened on the pitch too. A leading football journalist of the time, Arkady Galinsky, recalled witnessing something extraordinary at a couple of games he attended. On both occasions Maslov's team were playing badly and Maslov sent on a substitute to try and reverse the teams' fortunes. However, before the player could get onto the pitch the team's captain came over to his manager and overturned his manager's decision, telling him that the substitute was not needed. Normally in football such an incident would be regarded as a challenge to the authority of the manager and so the journalist was expecting Maslov to react angrily. He was therefore amazed to see that Maslov remained totally calm. Galinsky was a strong critic of Maslov and therefore could well have wished to use the incidents to denigrate him. However, he determined that they were indications of Maslov's strength rather than of weakness. The players had refused the substitution because they believed that it wasn't in the best interests of the team and they wished to take responsibility for rectifying their previous poor play. In both cases the team came from behind to win.
Maslov then, was a man who while being blessed with great individual vision and talent understood that those around him shared his objectives and had the ability to make important contributions to directing the team's success (beyond simply carrying out his instructions on the field). Maslov realised that they were not a threat to his authority, rather that by building mutual trust and strong working relationships with his players he would be able to be more inventive, flexible and successful than he would have been if he had worked alone. That ability to experiment and be inventive led to ideas that have reshaped one of the world's most popular sports.
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