Rondos are hard. Don't let the simplicity of the exercise fool you. I'm not referring to a circle rondo with one or two defenders in the middle. I'm talking about constructed rondos that replicate game situations players will actually face in the game. You may think you're a good player, but a proper rondo will expose you. Can't pass with the left? Rondo will prove it. Your first touch on the ball is too heavy? Rondo will show it. Think you move well without the ball? Rondo catches you flat-footed. Can you play in tight spaces? Rondo says otherwise. Think you're a smart player, that you can always spot your teammates and make the killer pass? Rondo makes you look like blind and one step behind. And of course, your technical skills are good enough, right? Wrong. Rondo magnifies your skills deficit and proves you've got more work to do.
Used properly, rondo-based games can simultaneously develop technical and tactical skills. The key, however, is designing and conducting rondo-based games that transmit the underlying architecture of your game model. Positioning for width and depth, crafty movement off the ball that anticipates movement of other players and the ball, marshmallow-soft first touches, zippy passes with laser beam accuracy and the tactical awareness to know from where on the field the attack must focus - all of this can be developed in rondo-based games.
As a coach, if you want your team to have a possession-positional style of play, then rondo-based exercises and positional games should be at the core of your training program. But that isn't even the starting point. For rondos to be really effective, you need to connect them to your game model and to the specific principles of play and behaviors you want to instill in your players. If you look carefully, you will find rondos appearing all over the field. You will then begin to see how the rondos are connected to specific tactical objectives.
In the video below, an Eagleclaw youth team is working to play out of the back. Facing high pressing opponents, the keeper attempts to break a line of pressure by punting diagonally to the left outside back positioned higher up the pitch. (Forget for the moment that the keeper could easily have rolled the ball to the left center back who is moving to a wider position or even to the defensive midfielder in front of him. We're working on that!) The defenders converge to win the ball and nearly do, but their poor first touch allows Eagleclaw to win the ball. With one quick pass to a teammate, the team right away finds themselves in a wide area on the left side of the pitch and a 6v4 rondo develops. They need a solution and, as they are positioned really well, a good solution has already appeared. In the middle of the field, a lone midfielder (the "Third Man") has found a perfect pocket of space that could be used to launch a good forward attack. The Left Back moves wider to the touch line and receives the ball. The defenders drift further to the touch line, allowing the momentum of the play to carry them. Just as the Left Back receives the ball, his one touch pass splits three defenders, leaving them badly positioned to defend as the ball moves closer toward the solution. Brilliant!! Now Eagleclaw is one pass away. Its decision-making time again. As defenders converge, the ball carrier can either pass quickly to a teammate positioned centrally or keep the ball. He decides to keep the ball, and soon finds himself in an unnecessary 1v1 and loses the ball in a dangerous area of the field. The team works quickly to stop the counterattack, which fizzles out with the ball going out of bounds.
Watch this video a few times. We can learn so many things from it. One obvious take-away is that a "pass the ball or keep the ball" decision led to a loss of possession and a missed opportunity to attack while the opponent's defense was seriously imbalanced. But we can also learn about proper positioning, quick passing, line-breaking passes, the "Third Man" concept and the "Free Man". All of this can be taught in rondo-based games. Compare the video of Villareal above to the video of the Eagleclaw team. Through brilliant rondo play, Villareal found the "Free Man" in a wide area on the opposite side of the field. The Eagleclaw team came close to finding the same solution with a centrally positioned player. Yes, one team is a professional team and the other is a youth team, but the important difference is the decision-making.
Taking all of it one step further tactically, we can connect this situation to our Positional Play game model. If we think about the location of the ball and the positioning of our players in the context of zones, the transferability of rondo-based games to the actual game becomes clearer.
For ease of explanation, I will rely on the definitions used by Patrick J. King in his recent book entitled "Expansive Football - A Positional Play Game Model for Coaches." In the image below, which appears in King's book, we see three differently shaded zones. The Intervention Zone is where the ball is located and the player with the ball is confronted by one or two defenders. This is where 1v1 or 1v2 situations develop. The next larger zone is the Direct Cooperation Zone, where teammates are positioned in close proximity, ideally diagonally, with depth and width to provide passing lines. This is the zone where smaller rondos materialize such at the 4v1 situation depicted below between #5, 3, 10 and 6. As defenders move toward the Direct Cooperation Zone, they open up spaces in other important areas of the pitch. The much larger zone is the Indirect Cooperation Zone. This is the area where players can be positioned as the "Third Man" to provide opportunities for players in the Direct Cooperation Zone to quickly pass the ball into dangerous areas and take advantage of open pockets of space. The positioning of the players across all three zones is the architectural framework that can be used to design effective rondo-based games.
“Everything that goes on in a match, except shooting, you can do in a rondo. The competitive aspect, fighting to make space, what to do when in possession and what to do when you haven’t got the ball, how to play ‘one touch’ soccer, how to counteract the tight marking and how to win the ball back.” - Johann Cruyff
Let's back up for a bit of history. In 1960, a Spanish coach named Laureano Ruiz invented the "rondo". "Rondo" is simply an exercise or game of keep-away where the group in possession outnumber the defenders (e.g. 3v1, 4v1, 5v2, etc.). Kids call the basic rondo "piggy in the middle" or "monkey in the middle." The squad in possession try to keep the ball and the defenders try to win it back. Keep the ball! That's the objective. Simple, right? Well it gets more complex from there because despite their simplicity, rondos are powerful teaching tools. Although it is often used as a warmup exercise, experienced coaches develop variations of rondo that realistically simulate game situations. These are high pressure exercises requiring a good touch, quick, sharp passing, intelligence, awareness and, above all, masterful control of the ball - technical skill. In fact, by studying game footage of the best practitioners of the possession-style of soccer, you'll see rondos all over the field, all game long.
The video below is a good example of Barcelona essentially playing a rondo in the middle of the field. As you watch, look for the small details. The accuracy of the passes. The soft touch when a player receives the ball. Track the movement of players after they've passed the ball. Watch how they instinctively move into open space to create even more passing options.
Barcelona brought Ruiz to the club in 1972 to be head coach of Juvenil A, Barcelona's top academy team. In those days, Barcelona was all about tall, fast and physically strong players. Short players were not welcome. As the story goes, the was a sign hanging over the entrance to the club's main office that read: "Turn around if you are here to offer a Juvenil player that is shorter than 1.80m”. Ruiz took down the sign immediately. He then set about developing small, technically skilled players, and rondos were at the core of his training program.
In the years after Ruiz left Barcelona, the club continued to use and expand his training methods, and incorporated them into Johan Cruyff's "total football" philosophy. With that training philosophy, Cruyff and Barcelona built a youth academy that produced technically skilled footballers like Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Pedro, and Busquets who formed the core of a dominant Barcelona squad that under Coach Pep Guardiola ushered in a modern, revolutionary possession-based style of play that stunned the world. But Ruiz's 1960's-era rondos remain at the core of the modern possession style of play. And even to this day, Ruiz believes that a player who performs well in rondo has all the tools to become a professional player.
Developing The Rondo Player
Professional club coaches have it easy. If they decide to play a possession style, they simply need to assess their squad and determine who has the necessary skills and intelligence to play this style and who doesn't. Those who don't have the chops are released and new players signed.
It's not so simple for the youth coach, especially the conscientious youth coach. As we all know, there are youth clubs and coaches who act as if they were coaching a professional club, cutting players and recruiting others they think are better and can help their team win games today. I don't want to waste any more time on those coaches, as they are truly hurting the sport at the youth levels. Instead, I want to focus on the youth coach who loves the game, wants to see it flourish (particularly in the United States), and is willing to take the time to develop players as opposed to recruiting players. Such a coach needs to be a patient student of the rondo, carefully assessing each player in the exercise and noting where each player is can improve in their technical abilities and, most importantly, their decision-making abilities. I am a firm believer that progressions of rondos that are connected to and intentionally designed for a Positional Play game model are the best player development tools for coaches.
If you think about training in this way, you can also see where individual technical skills are needed the most - the Intervention Zone. In this zone the odds are roughly even between attacker and defender as we typically have numerical parity. Space and time are compressed more in this zone than any other. This is where quick thinking and deft, deceptive ball control are at a premium. However, let's revisit the youth team video above. When the Left Back received the ball , that became the Intervention Zone. The Left Back found himself in an extremely tight space facing one defender immediately in front of him and two more defenders in close proximity. With just a one-touch pass, the Left Back beats three defenders. That is technical skill! A combination of quick thinking, smart decision-making and tidy receiving/passing technique creates the solution. Had the Left Back faced only one defender with more space behind that defender, perhaps a Scissor move or some other deceptive move could have solved that 1v1 situation, but that was not the situation in the video clip. The Left Back made all the right decisions. including one I have not yet mentioned - the decision to turn upfield immediately after making the pass, drawing defenders with him.
I've found that in the United States, the most common weakness among youth players is technical skill. To make matters worse, this is also the area that is beyond most youth coaches as they are unable themselves to perform the techniques they want their players to master. Of course, this is not true of all youth coaches, but it's certainly true of many. To make matters worse, the U.S. does not yet have a culture that organically fosters development of technical skills. We are not like Spain, Brazil or Argentina where kids are constantly playing the game in the streets or in the city parks.
There is a school of thought holding that technical training, opposed or unopposed, is not necessary for youth players. By this view, rondos are all that players need and they should not waste valuable training time in sessions where the focus is individual skills training. They don't say technical skill training is unnecessary, only that players should seek individualized training elsewhere. I identify with this view. I really do. I agree with the proposition that many technical skills, particularly decision-making, can be taught really effectively in rondos. But remember, technical skills are most important in the Intervention Zone and less necessary in the other zones. With space and time, technical skill requirements are reduced. So in the zones of Direct Cooperation and Indirect Cooperation, players can succeed with skills that are directly developed in rondos such as a quality first touch, body position, receiving and passing technique, etc. My issue with the view that technical skills training is unnecessary is that it ignores the unique and disadvantageous cultural context in which many American youth exist. As a general proposition, American players tend to lag behind in the full range of technical skills needed in the Intervention Zone. We don't have a street soccer or pickup game culture. Technical skill may be a given for kids in Barcelona, Amsterdam, Buenos Aires or Sevilla, but it is certainly not a given in Boston, Anchorage, Burbank or Seattle.
So can rondos alone do the trick for American youth players? For me, the answer is no. American players in general need more technical work, but rondo-based games can certainly accelerate development of key technical skills mainly due to the time/space constraints that are found in well-designed ad well-coached rondos. The ideal space for a basic rondo is generally acknowledged to be no more than 7x7 meters . The tight space allows defenders to pressure the attackers with energy. The increased defensive pressure reduces time and space for the attacking team, which must then circulate the ball faster in order to retain possession.
To really hone in on technical skill development within rondos, however, the coach needs to make the playing area even smaller. For example, imagine a small box for a 2v1 rondo, about 2x2 meters. This simulates a common scenario in the Intervention Zone. Make the game a timed competition. Go for rounds of 30 seconds and challenge the team of 2 to see how many passes they can connect with each other before the defender wins it back. Challenge the defender to go at it 100%. It will be sloppy and ugly at first, but quickly you'll begin to see the players thinking about moving away from the defender into space, passing angles, etc. Because the space is small, everything must happen quickly. You'll also notice weaknesses in each player's individual ball control. The players will instinctively try to find ways to manipulate the ball to their advantage and may try things they've never done before. Maybe they'll try a pull-back, a step over or maybe a simple feint.
The concept of this exercise can be extended into a directional positional game that brings into focus the Intervention Zone and the Direct Cooperation Zone. (See below) This 4v4(+1) game is designed to create possible Intervention Zones in four different areas. The team in possession must have one player in each square. The neutral #6 plays with the team in possession and can go anywhere. The defenders can go anywhere. A goal can only be scored by a one-touch shot from a pass from a teammate. Wherever the ball is, that is the Intervention Zone and the adjacent areas of the Direct Cooperation Zones. In this game, coaches can focus on a number of important principles, including defending, counter pressing, width, depth, supporting movement, 3rd Man Concept and, yes, technique and technical skill.
The point is that when rondos and positional games are designed with a view to the underlying architecture of the game model, amazing levels of player development can be achieved - technically and tactically. There is a time and place for a player to work with the ball on their own and refine their own mastery of the ball, either with a personal trainer or a clinic program, but in the team training context a smart coach can use rondo-based training to really move the technical needle as well as the tactical needle.
Some youth academies worry about winning, we worry about education. You see a kid who lifts his head up, who plays the pass first time, pum, and you think, 'Yep, he'll do.' Bring him in, coach him. Our model was imposed by [Johan] Cruyff; it's an Ajax model. It's all about rondos. Rondo, rondo, rondo. Every. Single. Day. It's the best exercise there is. You learn responsibility and not to lose the ball. If you lose the ball, you go in the middle. Pum-pum-pum-pum, always one touch. - Xavi