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  • Writer's pictureJoe Campos

Smooth Operators

If you're reading this, you probably aren't a coach who blindly accepts US Soccer Federation's position on the use and value of rondos. "They aren't directional." "They aren't game-like". "They don't involve goals." "They aren't realistic." Reasonable people can disagree with USSF, and I'm a pretty reasonable guy. I disagree with them entirely. I hope you do as well. Hopefully, you understand that rondos appear everywhere in the game and if you are trying to teach your team a Positional Play style, rondos are an essential component of your training methodology. They are vital tool for us at Eagleclaw!

Moving beyond the rondo controversy, my thoughts lately are preoccupied with the concept of space; how to create it and how to exploit it. More importantly for the Eagleclaw project, how to teach our youngest players to find, create and exploit space, individually and collectively. Believe me, it can be done. At Eagleclaw, we prove it every day but it requires a coach to focus on the task and craft sessions that build awareness and understanding in the players of the concept of space. It also requires a coach to intentionally use language and imagery that reinforces the concepts of space.

Courage = Grace Under Pressure

The ultimate objective of player development at Eagleclaw is to form players who are decisive and who can make good decisions in high pressure situations. When the ball is in a tight area of the field, with lots of players around, the space to move is limited and the time available to make decisions is highly compressed. The ability to make correct decisions in such situations is precisely what we seek to develop.

In the groundbreaking series "All or Nothing" featuring Manchester City, Pep Guardiola passionately tells his players that that "To become a top, top team you must learn to play football with courage." As I watched Pep deliver that dressing room speech, to me he meant courage in a general sense. To a player in the dressing room listening to Pep, the takeaway was probably that they needed to work hard on the training ground, work just as hard in the matches and be brave when facing the opposition. There is, however, another way to view courage in a more definite context that relates to specific situations in a game.

In the November 20, 1929 issue of the New Yorker, Dorothy Parker published a profile of Ernest Hemingway. The article recounted a conversation with Hemingway on the subject of courage. He never actually used the word "courage" , but instead used the term "guts". Parker recounts the conversation as follows: "Exactly what do you mean by ‘guts’?” “I mean,” Ernest Hemingway said, “grace under pressure.”

Guts, courage, they are essentially synonyms. What intrigues me most about Hemingway's reply is "grace under pressure." There is a mountain of meaning in that simple phrase, and a significant, silent implication. "Grace under pressure" is a valued trait precisely because the one who has it can be in difficult circumstances, but still remain calm and composed while making a decisive, effective decision leading to a high quality result. To put all of this in football terms that can be useful to coaches, to have courage or guts is to be able to operate in high pressure situations and make good decisions leading to positive actions that help the football team achieve their objectives.

By pressure we mean the constraints of space and time. With defenders present close by and less space to operate, there is less time to make quality decisions. The time available to reflect, consider options, rule out some and act on others is extremely compressed. It certainly takes guts to make quick decisions in such pressured situations, but it also takes grace. By "grace" I mean a player who is not only gutsy, but also calm, composed, efficient and confident. Such a player is technically sound and very aware of how his/her team is trained and structured to play. In the Eagleclaw setup, which is based on Positional Play, this means a player who thinks quickly and knows that the ball wants to go into open spaces and that everything they do in compressed areas is about helping the ball and our teammates find their way into open spaces.

I was listening recently to Sade's hit song "Smooth Operator" and a lyrical phrase caught my attention. "He moves in space with minimum waste and maximum joy." I'm not really sure what it means in the context of Sade's song, but it really struck a chord with me in terms of football. That is exactly how I want my players to be on the field. I want them to find or create space and be efficient, calm and smooth in the way they exploit it. I know that if I can teach them how to do this instinctively it will only increase their knowledge and help them really enjoy their football. A player who embodies Pep Guardiola's "courage" and Ernest Hemingway's "grace under pressure" is definitely a "Smooth Operator"! That's the ideal. That is the type of footballer we as coaches must strive to develop - Smooth Operators.

Developing Smooth Operators

As I've written before, the 4v1 rondo is the essential exercise for developing players who can become Smooth Operators. It not only develops critical technical skills, but also begins to introduce the concepts of space, time and numerical superiority. The numerical superiority is obviously built into the exercise. As players develop their consistent technical quality, however, they begin to understand that their individual technical skills (proper receiving/passing technique) and anticipatory movement off the ball will give them the time and space to collectively maintain possession of the ball. As their technique and awareness improve, time and space increases.

The next step is to use other rondos and positional games that are contextually relevant to the game and the game model and put the player's technical skill and awareness under pressure. One of my favorite exercises for players, including young players, is the 4v4+(1) Positional Rondo. It is an ideal game for teaching players the importance of finding and creating space as well as movement to create positional and numerical superiority around the ball. Through progressions of this simple game, coaches can develop valuable traits in their players.

4v4(+1) Positional Rondo

Have a look at the photo below. It is from this season's game between Manchester City and West Ham United. In the area enclosed by the yellow lines, you can see five Manchester City players and four West Ham players. Obviously, this is a real game situation. However, notice that it is omni-directional. By omnidirectional, I mean that the team in possession can play the ball forward, backward and sideways. In its license courses, US Soccer actively teaches coaches that exercises built around omni-directionality are not appropriate. I completely disagree. The game of football is omni-directional, regardless of the fact that the goals are at either end of the pitch.

The situation presented is rather common in matches. The ball is in a wide area and Man City (black kit) has possession of the ball in the opponent's half. The area is quite crowded with 19 players on one side of the field. All 10 of West Ham's field players are in this photo. Only 9 Man City players are in the area. In the area enclosed by yellow lines, there are 5 Man City players and 4 West Ham defenders. Right away, we should be thinking about the other three players. Two of them are goalkeepers, of course. Where is Man City's remaining player? Obviously, somewhere unmarked as all the West Ham players are accounted for.

For the Positional Play coach, there are two immediate objectives in this situation. First, the players need to position themselves to achieve numerical superiority and to provide supporting passing options for the ball carrier. The second objective is to ensure there is a player far away, likely on the opposite side of the field where there is space and time to move the ball forward. If the team can keep possession successfully and draw in all the defenders, quickly switching the ball to the other side of the field should find the open player with plenty of time to receive the ball and advance up the field. The second objective is not achieved unless the first objective is achieved. This means our players must first be taught to play in tight quarters with grace under pressure!

To help young players solve this very real game situation, I use a very simple positional game that allows me to work on many concepts simultaneously - technical consistency, space, time, simple numerical overloads, individual and collective defending and quick transitions from attacking to defending and defending to attacking, width in possession, losing your marker and also the Third Man Concept.

4v4(+1) Positional Rondo

Phase 1 - Position, Possession, Numerical Superiority

Set up a playing area as shown. An ideal playing area is 10x20. To reduce the technical demands, increase the space to 15x30. A larger playing area for younger players, a smaller playing area for older and more skilled players.

There are two teams of four players each and one neutral player who always plays with the team in possession. Position 4 mini goals as shown, but move them away from the lines to start as they will not be used in the first phase.


  • Players on team in possession must stay in their zone (squares).

  • The neutral #6 may go into any zone at any time.

  • Defenders may go into any zone at any time. No limit on number of defenders per zone.

Play: This is a high intensity, omni-directional game. The coach should demand energy and a high work rate from the players. The coach plays the ball to a player. That player's teammates must stay in their respective zones. The neutral can move toward the player in possession to create a numerical superiority in that zone (2v1). If more defenders arrive, that means there must be space behind them and the goal for the team in possession is to find the open spaces and position themselves to be good passing options. If the defenders win the ball there is a change of role, they become attackers playing with the neutral and must move into their zones so there is one attacker per zone. The team that lost the ball must counterattack quickly to win back the ball.

Coaching Points:

  • Technical consistency. Open body position. Encourage players to receive to their back foot. Two touch play is encouraged with time and space. One-touch play when time and space are compressed.

  • Who moves closer to the ball carrier and who moves further away into space?

  • Can you lose your marker? If the defenders press the ball carrier with 4, you will lose your marker automatically. If the defenders press with less than 4 or decide to man-mark, then players must work harder to lose their marker.

  • Where is the space within your square? How should you position yourself to either be a supporting passing option or the Free Man?

  • Passing angles. How can we position ourselves to create proper passing angles?

  • How should we defend? Can we use the concepts of pressure, cover and balance? Should we man mark? If we man mark (we can only mark 4 players), how do we account for the Free Man?

Phase 2 - Position, Possession, Numerical Superiority and Finishing

Once the players are comfortable with Phase 1 of the game, you can introduce the goals and make the game directional in the sense that one team attacks the goals at one end of area and the other team attacks the goals on the opposite end. The game remains omni-directional, meaning that the ball can be played in any direction, but the objective is to score goals instead of simply keeping possession. All other rules of Phase 1 remain the same.

Progression: To make the game more complex, consider adding the following constraints:

  • One-touch scoring from a teammates' pass

  • Limit players to two touches. This will put pressure on teammates to move into supporting positions more quickly.

See video below:

This game can be modified if you need to adjust based on player numbers. For example, if you have 10 players instead of 9, you can use two neutrals. This would require imposing an additional rule. If there are two neutrals, they cannot be in the same zone at the same time. Below is a video example of this game played by a U13 Eagleclaw team as a 4v4(+2) - using two neutrals.


If you look at the entire situation between Manchester City and West Ham, you'll see a different picture. The situation is really 10v9. West Ham has numerical superiority. And as we mentioned above, Man City's 10th field player is elsewhere, unmarked and in space.

This situation is also something we can work on with our players by simply expanding and modifying the 4v4(+1) game. Rather than work on the exact 10v9 situation that Man City faced, the expanded game sets up similar conditions with 10 players in possession, but only 7 defenders. Creating this kind of superiority will allow coaches to accentuate the main coaching points of the game, which are movement and positioning to create numerical superiority, intelligent positioning to create space and opportunities for the Third Man Concept to develop, as well as intelligent, aggressive defending. Here's how it should look:

In this expanded version, players must remain in their zones when their team has possession of the ball. As before, the defenders can go anywhere without limits.

The three midfielders (#6, 8, 10) are neutrals and play with the team in possession. There are a few conditions on the midfielders:

  • They can go into any zone;

  • There can be no more than two neutrals in any one zone at any time. This can create a 3v1 overload in any zone, but if more defenders enter the zone the superiority can be reduced (3v2), equalized (3v3) or reversed (e.g. 3v4), depending on the numbers of defenders entering that zone.

Note that the two #9's are alone in their respective zones. If a #9 has the ball, it will be important for one or two of the midfielders to enter the zone to achieve positional and numerical superiority. Note also that the center zone is open. If the neutral midfielders are in possession in the center zone, it will be important for the defending team to pressure the ball in that zone in a coordinated way.

For this expanded game, the phased progressions and all of the coaching points from the 4v4(+1) still apply. The only difference is that there are more players, more zones and more neutrals. Since this expanded version results in 10 players when a side has possession, it is a valuable positional exercise that lends itself to many tactical concepts.

In addition, the game can be played in large and small areas. Obviously, the technical demands are increased in a reduced area set up. Here's an example of Eagleclaw players working in a reduced area:

There are many ways to use rondos and positional games to develop Smooth Operators. The 4v4(+1) and the 7v7(+3) proposed in this post are just two examples of a positional rondo perfectly suited for the task. There are many others and we'll share more ideas with you in future posts.

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