El Rondo in Practice
‘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 don’t have the ball, how to play one-touch football, how to counteract tight marking and how to win the ball back.’ – Johan Cruyff
The rondo can be adapted in a variety of ways. You can emphasise different aspects depending on your preferred style of play. In addition to training your team’s behaviour in and out of possession, there are even variations if you wish to coach transitions. Pep Guardiola’s biographer, Martí Perarnau, writes that Guardiola always sets certain technical and tactical challenges in his rondos. In line with the differentiated learning method, these variations constantly create new contexts and challenges for the players.
The most common variation of the traditional rondo is a limit on the number of touches. Many coaches use touch limits without being aware of the theory behind them. Above all, limiting the players to fewer touches improves their passing technique. Their passes must now be played very precisely and weighted in such a way that the receiver can pass with their first touch and keep the rondo flowing. As a result of this one-touch play, there is a significantly higher speed, reducing the time available for decision-making.
This may overwhelm the players at first, but the overload will lead to the players adapting to the more difficult situation (cf. Verheijen’s overload principle). If the exercise is persistently carried out at too simple a level, there will be no or only minor improvements. The two-touch limit requires the players to control the ball in such a way that they will be able to play a pass with their second touch. The players’ weak foot will also improve, since they will often not be able to control and pass the ball with the same foot as a result of the opposing team’s press.
Another way to vary the rondo with touch limits is to introduce a 1-2 touch rule: if a player needs two touches, the next pass must be played with one. This requires a high level of attention and concentration – the players will be cognitively challenged as well. Thomas Tuchel, for example, is known to challenge his players to the maximum in training so that they are not overwhelmed in competitive games. The introduction of a back-pass ban (you can’t pass the ball back to the previous player) would additionally force the players to make quick decisions, challenging them on a cognitive level. The ball-receiver now has one less passing option than in a traditional rondo; the passing lane to the previous passer can be deliberately ignored by the defenders. This restriction will therefore demonstrate to the players the tactical advantages of a one-two, which can be used, amongst other things, to attract opponents.
Another frequently used variation is requiring the defenders to control the ball – just getting a touch on it is no longer enough to be able to leave the middle. The players must learn that in real games it is of no use to just get a touch on the ball if you don’t control it. Some simple rules to implement for this would be that the defenders need to touch the ball twice or play a pass between themselves before they can leave the centre.
To increase the challenge, additional tasks for the defenders can be included in the exercise. They can be required to dribble the ball out of the pitch or to pass into certain zones or goals outside the pitch. Simple changes can also be used to train transitions. For example, if the defenders are instructed to dribble out of the pitch after winning the ball, they will be training their offensive transition. The players who have just lost the ball will be training their defensive transition in turn. An effective counter-press will prevent the defenders from dribbling out of the pitch and resecure ball possession. This implicitly trains the players’ ability to react and anticipate.
Variants with two pitches represent an additional possibility to train transitions. By placing an extra defender in a middle zone to prevent the other team from easily switching the play, you will be able to coach the players to continually scan their surroundings, make blind side runs and use their cover shadow.
The suggested variations represent only a fraction of the ways in which you can adapt the basic rondo form. In addition, the different rules can be combined with each other in varying combinations. Your creativity should know no bounds when introducing additional rules, but the coach must be aware of the (implicit) consequences and whether they will lead to the training session’s objectives being reached.
Finally, two rondo variants from my training sessions at Alemannia Zähringen will be presented as examples:
Reaction Rondo (from a training session by Diego Simeone)
Structure: The pitch consists of two squares, one within the other. The distance between the small and big square should be approx. 3-5 metres. We’ve played this rondo as an 8v2, but the number of players is flexible and can be changed.
Process: The rondo takes place in the small square. The team in possession tries to keep hold of the ball against the defenders. After playing a pass, the player must sprint to one (if possible the nearest) of the big square’s sidelines and return to the small square before he can receive the ball again. Once this basic rule has been internalised, further rules can be introduced.
Explanation: As a result of this variation an extremely dynamic and intensive drill emerges. In order to keep up the rondo’s intensity, it is advisable to prepare a large number of spare balls so play can be immediately resumed. In addition, when playing with bibs, the defenders should not put them on but hold them in their hand to allow a quick and smooth change of roles. Through the vast number of short sprints, the defenders and attackers’ conditioning will be trained (especially endurance and speed).
Furthermore, the players will be highly challenged mentally. Free space can quickly open up where there was once a player if they have to sprint to the outer sideline after a pass. The players’ environment will be constantly changing. This helps the players to quicken their decision-making as a result of having to react to the rapidly changing situations. Moreover, the players returning to the rondo in the small square after the sprint must quickly reorientate themselves. As a result, their reactions and ability to orientate themselves will be trained, as well as their ability to anticipate other players’ movements.
Transition Rondo (from a training session by Arrigo Sacchi)
Structure: This variant also consists of one square within another. However, the distance between the sidelines is slightly larger. In addition, goals are placed on two opposite sides of the large square (alternatively, you can play with mini-goals on all four sides of the large square). We’ve played this rondo with 10 players before, but the number is again flexible (also depending on whether two goalkeepers are available).
Process: A 4v2 rondo is played in the small square, the rules within this square can be adjusted according to any aspects you wish to emphasise. The remaining 4 players are positioned outside of the small square – they play in the same team as the 2 defenders in the small square. If the blue team successfully intercepts the ball or the red team plays an inaccurate pass, the blue team will then try to keep hold of the ball in the large square in a 6v4 rondo. If the red team wins the ball back again, they will counter-attack towards one of the two goals or try to score in one of the four mini-goals. Points can be scored after a certain number of passes in both the 4v2 and 6v4 rondos.
Explanation: This variant trains all four game phases. In addition to working on concepts in and out of possession as is done in the standard rondo, the offensive and defensive transitions are also coached. Similarly to the previous variation, quickening the players’ decision-making process is a key element. The blue team’s players must react quickly as the two players in the middle will be outnumbered by the red team’s four-man press. The focus is not only on simply winning the ball, but also on choosing the right pass and switching to the requirements of the new game phase (e.g. forming triangles in ball possession). Further emphasis can be placed on counter-pressing. In addition to quick reactions, counter-pressing will also train the players’ decision-making. Depending on the coach’s preferred style of play, the team may be required to act differently when counter-pressing (whether they take their main reference point to be the ball, the man, or passing lanes).
Hardly any training drill is as popular as el rondo. At different levels it can be used as a warm-up game, a technical exercise or a small-sided game. The ways in which it can be adapted are almost infinite – the basic format can be modified depending on the goal of your session. However, in order to ensure a targeted and effective training session, it is essential that the coach has the appropriate knowledge of the drill used.
El rondo is often used in lower-level clubs solely as an alternative exercise to reduce the training session’s intensity. At Barcelona, on the other hand, the various rondo games are a key element in training, reflecting the basic principles of the club’s footballing philosophy. ‘Mes que un club’ is Barcelona’s claim to be more than just a football club. But not only for the Catalan club is el rondo more than just a training drill.
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Champions League Final Statistics: https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/13588273(2011).
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Goigitzer, David: “Mein“ Juego de Posición: El Rondo, http://fussballeinheiten.weebly.com/blog/mein-juego-de-posicion-el-rondo (2016).
Henseling, Marco/ Marić, René: Fußball durch Fußball (2015).
Henseling, Marco: Positionsspiele, http://www.spox.com/myspox/group-blogdetail/positionsspiele,168621.html (2012).
Townsend, Jon: The Allure of the Rondo, https://thesefootballtimes.co/2014/09/01/the-allure-of-the-rondo/ (2014).