Four blue cones mark a small square on the pitch. Inside the square there are 11 football players. Two of them try relentlessly to win the ball back, but just before they can reach it, it is passed on. The atmosphere is exuberant. The cheering seems to know no bounds as the goalkeeper plays the ball through the legs of one of the approaching players. A few hours later, these players would hold the Champions League trophy in their hands.
Barcelona were impressive in their victory over the English champions, Manchester United, in the 2011 UEFA Champions League final. ‘They hypnotize you with their passing,’ said a resigned Sir Alex Ferguson after the game. Again and again the Catalans played the ball with their short passes, the Red Devils chased after it without ever giving off the impression that they would actually win it back. By the end of the match, Barcelona had played 777 passes, 148 of them coming from their midfielder Xavi.
The scene described from the warm-up in the run-up to the game embodies the football played by Pep´s Barcelona like nothing else, and the video was watched over a million times on YouTube. But how can a training exercise, which is also regularly used by lower-level clubs, be of benefit to one of the best football teams of all time?
In the following two articles, the fascination behind el rondo will be addressed. In the first part, theoretical aspects of the training exercise will be laid out. In the second, the diverse scope of this exercise will be illustrated by examples from training sessions. However, theory and practice are by no means two strictly separate areas: they are always dependent on each other.
El rondo in theory
‘It’s all about rondos. Every single day. It’s the best exercise there is. You learn to take responsibility and to play the ball. Bang, bang, bang. Always with one touch. Think fast and find the free space.’ – Xavi Hernández
The basic idea behind rondos doesn’t take long to explain: A team with more players tries to keep the ball against the outnumbered team. In its most basic form, three players try to keep hold of the ball against one defender. This typically takes place in a square-shaped pitch. However, both the pitch’s shape and the number of players can vary.
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Barcelona’s former youth coach, Laureano Ruiz, is considered as the founder of rondos. Analysing matches (especially the Hungarian national team’s during the 1950s) he developed appropriate training exercises for the style of play he was aiming for. Starting with a small-sided game of 2v2 and a neutral player supporting the team in possession, Ruiz put his own twist on it, creating the rondo. According to Ruiz, the aim of the exercise is to run free, which is ironic in a certain sense, since the rondo can often fall into being a static possession game.
‚Rondos are physically demanding, they develop your technique and ask offensive and defensive tactical questions,‘ writes Ruiz. We will explain how conditioning, technique and tactics can be simultaneously trained in a rondo, which, according to the DFB training concept, should be a central characteristic of any training drill. The comprehensive nature of such exercises has particular advantages for lower-level clubs, as they often don’t have the time to train conditioning, technique and tactics in isolation. All three aspects can be trained simultaneously in small-sided games such as el rondo.
In terms of conditioning, speed, endurance and mobility can all be trained with rondos. All of the actions are typical football movements and can help to build up footballing condition. The players in the middle have to do lots of running work, consisting mainly of short, high-intensity sprints. Yet the players in possession also do running work as they need to move to offer themselves as a passing option. Due to the small number of players, the individual movements occur more frequently than in real matches or small-sided games with more players.
Rondos also allow you to train your technique in game-like situations, in particular your passing technique. Apart from trying out different passing techniques, you can hone your technique for a vertical playstyle or for playing with both feet. The pass should be played into the foot positioned closest to the desired direction of play in order to achieve a fast rhythm.
Ball control (first touch) is also trained in rondos. Special attention should be paid to a clean first touch and receiving the ball with a good body shape, i.e. aligning the body before receiving the ball in order to be able to play a first-time pass. In line with the differentiated learning method, rondos are not based around the repetition of a theoretically ideal technique, but about creating new situations and reacting to them. Players should train their technique in game-like situations in order to be able to appropriately apply it during games.
In terms of tactics, both individual and team tactics can be coached. You can coach your team how to play when they are in and out of possession. Transitions can also be trained depending on the variation of the rondo. Some coaching points for the team not on the ball could be the timing of the press, as well as how to use your cover shadow. If you play with more than one defender, tactical interactions with the other defenders take centre stage.
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The basics of ball-oriented defending can be implicitly worked on; for example, compactness, staggering of defensive lines, or forcing the opponent’s passes towards possible weak points where it will be easier to win the ball back. As a result of the numerical deficiency, the defending team cannot play with strict man-marking and are therefore forced to defend in a ball and space-oriented manner. For the team in possession, as in a real match, it is essential to create numerical superiority around the ball.
Staggered positioning not only helps to secure your own possession, but also enables effective counter-pressing in case you lose the ball. This requires triangles to be formed around the ball-carrier, whereby the players are to be positioned in such a way that an opponent cannot block two passes with their cover shadow. The players will improve individually as their movements in and out of possession will become instinctive, while the team can be improved tactically by coaching them to open up passing lanes or to attract opponents with short passes in order to then switch the play. If the positions in the rondo are not fixed, the players will implicitly learn how to scan the game and adjust accordingly.
A key element in all rondo variants is coaching the players’ decision making. They have to repeatedly find answers to the questions: ‚When do I pass? In what way? To which player?‘ Yet it is not only the passers who are repeatedly forced into making decisions, but also the potential recipients of the pass and the defenders. In contrast to passing exercises with a set passing sequence, the players have to adapt to new situations as a result of the opposition’s press and space and time constraints.
The decisions always depend on the rapidly changing environment; reference points for which decision to make could be the space available and the position of the ball, your opponents or your teammates. The new situations generated in this way lead to extremely positive training effects in line with the differentiated learning method (detailed information on this learning method and implicit learning can be found in the outstanding works of René Marić and Marco Henseling, which are mentioned in the bibliography). In addition, rondos train the players’ perception as well as developing their coordination – above all, their ability to anticipate and orientate.
Aside from these observations regarding the theory behind rondos, it is important to reflect on the exercise’s design. The coach and tactics expert David Goigitzer places rondos into two categories: he distinguishes between rondos for ball-progression and rondos for ball-possession. While rondos for ball-possession aim to maintain hold of the ball, a defined target zone must be reached in rondos for ball-progression. There are a series of hybrid forms which focus on both possession and progression.
Moving away from the different categories of rondos, the passes themselves can also be categorised. Jed Davies outlines three different types of passes: the 1st line pass does not bypass an opponent and is usually played to a receiver located directly next to the passer. The 2nd line pass bypasses one (at least) opponent. However, this pass is not played through the centre; the ball is played around the opponent. The 3rd line pass bypasses the defenders through the centre – the ball is played between two defenders.
According to Davies, we should aim for the last category of passes. However, it is important to time it correctly, only when the defenders have been pulled far enough apart can we look for the pass through the middle. Tactical aspects can also be addressed based on the different passing categories. For example, you can emphasise the difference between playing around and playing through an opponent’s defensive block. Another passing variation comes from former Barcelona coach Carles Rexach. He asked his players to pass the ball with a ‚Mig Toc‘ (half touch). Rexach understood this to mean receiving a pass that was played with sufficient pace so you could then play a pass with your first touch. The ball gains no new momentum, only its direction changes. As a result, the time needed to play the ball is reduced and the rondo speeds up.
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In terms of learning theories, the advantages of training in small-sided games such as el rondo are only briefly addressed here (detailed explanations can be found in the aforementioned works of René Marić and Marco Henseling). I will stick to the special role that motivation, volition and emotion play in learning. Hardly any player would like to be in the middle of a rondo, so the players are more motivated to make the best decisions. During the rondo you can clearly identify whether the decision has brought success or failure. In addition, training in dynamic small-sided games such as el rondo often brings about positive emotions, which, in addition to positive group dynamics, brings an advantage when learning.
‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’ is a well-known quote from Leonardo da Vinci. What looks so easy for Barcelona players in the match is, however, the result of years of training. The famous rondos play a key role in this. In order to be able to use this in your training sessions effectively it is indispensable to have a basic theoretical knowledge of not only the rondo itself, but also of the theory behind training in general. In the second article the theory will be put to practice: different rondo variations will be discussed with the help of examples.