Part 1: What are Rondos?
Rondos are deceptively simple, foundational exercises that are often misunderstood and misapplied by coaches—especially in the US. Because of this, their utility continues to be the source of frequent debate among coaches, clubs, and even throughout the ranks of US Soccer and their coaching education programs.
So whether you’re just learning about rondos or you’ve used them in your warm ups before, we’re going to dive deep into everything rondos and tackle those misconceptions along the way in the first part of this series.
There’s a lot to unpack, so buckle up!
In subsequent posts in this series, we’ll move on to position play games before covering how to use rondos as a framework in your training sessions.
What are rondos?
In their most basic form, rondos are an exercise — or perhaps more correctly: a game — in which the attacking team (in possession of the ball) is placed around the perimeter, and has a numerical advantage over the defending team. As the etymology of the term “rondo” implies, they are generally done “in a circle” (or square even).
In other words:
- Perimeter players as attackers
- Versus a fewer number of defenders inside
- Within an age- and skill- appropriate area
While rondos are often associated with the iconic 4v2 or 5v2 “warm up” or activation exercises we may see with regularity, they are not solely defined by these formats.
There are many variations of rondos that serve as tools in a coach’s toolbox. Each variation offers a different degree of complexity while integrating most of the technical and tactical skills required in a game.
“Everything that goes on in a match, except shooting, you can do in a rondo.” — Johan Cruyff
While Cruyff’s famous quip (above) isn’t necessarily true, as there are some aspects of a match that aren’t done in a rondo, his sentiment remains: most of the Beautiful Game is based around skills that can be developed through a single exercise: a rondo.
Since rondos can be easily misunderstood (as I mentioned earlier), I believe it’s important to get several of the common misconceptions out of the way before we continue.
What they are not:
- Rondos are not “pass and stand” exercises.
- Rondos are not “just for warm ups.” While they are often used as a warm up or activation drill, they are not limited to this or defined by this.
- Rondos are not simply “monkey in the middle” or a silly “keep away” game. To call them such does them a disservice.
- Rondos are foundational, both technically and tactically. They work on many key individual and collective concepts with direct context to actual games.
- Rondos build positive habits and increase soccer IQ.
- Rondos are serious activities, because they are so foundational. While they are a game—and they are fun—they should be taken as seriously as a real game of soccer.
“It’s with 100% effort or you don’t do them at all.” — Pep Guardiola, regarding rondos
Rondos are a microcosm of the game, representing every fractal or triangle created around the ball carrier. In fact, almost every situation on the pitch can be seen as a rondo. And for this reason, they’re used as the foundation of every training session at many of the world’s top academies and clubs, like FC Barcelona, Manchester City, Ajax, and more.
Where did the rondo come from?
Long story short, the rondo was invented by Laureano Ruiz at FC Barcelona’s academy in the 1970s. When Rinus Michels left AFC Ajax to be the head coach of FC Barcelona in 1971, Ruiz’s rondos became an important tool for developing players according to Michels’ “Total Football” philosophy.
A couple years later, a young, talented Dutch player who played for Michels at Ajax, named Johan Cruyff, was signed by Barcelona. The blend of Dutch and Spanish philosophies from Ruiz and Michels was beautiful and exciting to watch, and had a major influence on Cruyff during his career at Barcelona. The rondos and positional games he learned there became a central framework for his own adaptation of this philosophy when he returned to Barcelona as the head coach in 1988.
Cruyff’s new game model was such an overwhelming success at Barcelona that they won 4 La Liga titles in a row — totaling 11 trophies during the 8 years he was head coach , and turning a failing club into the household name it is today.
One of the key players in Cruyff’s famous “Dream Team” was an intelligent, creative holding midfielder named Pep Guardiola. Like Cruyff, Pep was heavily influenced by his mentor. And, when Pep later returned to Barcelona as a head coach in 2008, he continued to build on the Positional Play framework laid by his predecessors, and eventually became the most successful manager in Barcelona’s history (a title Cruyff held before him).
As a result of Barcelona’s successes through the years of Michels, Cruyff and Pep, the use of rondos as a framework has gained popularity — being adopted by other coaches and academies throughout the world. And, they are still being taught in FC Barcelona’s world famous academy, La Masia, where they have developed many of the world’s greatest players.
Rondos aren’t exclusive to Total Football or Positional Play either. While they’re foundational to teaching those philosophies, they can be equally important to many other game models and philosophies as well, including Functional Play (or “Jogo Funcional” in Portuguese).
“As an eventual receiver of the ball, you have to look in the open space for a position enabling you to get the football in good conditions. …It is often a matter of one step more or less.”
— Johan Cruyff
How they’re played
The smallest and most basic rondo is a 3v1. Rondos can vary in size, both in number of players and size of playing area depending on the age and skill level of the players, the concepts being taught, and the number of players in training. Other more common rondo ratios include the 4v1, 4v2, 5v1, 5v2, 6v2 and 6v3.
Regardless of the rondo size the game is played the same.
- Create an 8x8 yard grid (or larger depending on number of players and skill level).
- A higher number of players take up positions on each side of the square as attackers (e.g. 3–4 players).
- A smaller number of players are defenders in the middle (e.g. 1–2 players).
- The attackers try to maintain possession, scoring after a certain number of consecutive passes (e.g., 5–6 passes) or by splitting the defense.
- The defenders try to steal the ball, intercept a pass or force a mistake by the attacking team. If successful, the defender who has been in the longest swaps places with the attacker who made the mistake (e.g., bad pass or touch, etc).
Some rules have the defender who successfully steals, intercepts the ball or forces a mistake directly switch with the attacker as opposed to the defender who has been in the longest. This is good for encouraging a high level of effort from both defenders, but may affect their ability to work together (i.e. pressure, cover, balance). Keep an eye on this, and adjust as needed. Swapping with the longest in, is a good way to balance things for younger players.
- The difficulty can be increased by making the grid smaller, or decreased by making the grid larger. Having more space allows players to have more time and feel less pressure than they would in a more confined space.
- The ratio of the numerical superiority is another way a coach can increase difficulty as well as complexity. For example, a 5v1 rondo is easier for the attacking players than a 4v2 rondo, and may be ideal for younger or less skilled players.
- Having a coach play as defender—moderating their level and direction of pressure—is a good way to facilitate more success (and confidence) for younger ages.
- A coach might also limit play to one-touch for advanced players or two-touches for intermediate players.
- Setting up rondos in specific areas of the pitch can create additional situational context for the players. More on this later.
There are a lot of potential coaching points for almost every possible training session topic. We’ll cover all these next as we discuss the value of rondos.
The value of rondos
As coaches, we want our players to feel comfortable on the ball under pressure, and to know how and where to pass as well as receive the ball with good body positioning. We want them to know when and how to move to support their teammates when they don’t have the ball.
We also want them to learn how to manipulate the space on the field, so that they can more efficiently progress the ball up the field in order to score.
You may remember Cruyff’s famous quip from earlier:
“Everything that goes on in a match, except shooting, you can do in a rondo.”
Well, he continued that quote with the following:
“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” — Johan Cruyff
These are all wonderful concepts taught in a rondo. Yet they are still just a small sample of the core universal, collective, and individual concepts (and sub-concepts) that are learned and refined into skill through the frequent practice of rondos.
“[Through rondos] we continually ask the players to scan their environment, to choose the best option, and to execute that option with prowess.” — Todd Beane
You may be thinking: “Forty?! That seems like an embellishment.”
Well, I certainly thought so too, until I counted them. And, guess what; he’s right! I counted at least 42 total attacking and defending concepts!
Let’s take a look at them.
As for attacking, I counted at least thirty-four (34) individual and collective concepts.
These concepts are your coaching points when working on attacking principles.
As one might expect, rondos are more biased toward the team in possession of the ball. But, there are at least eight (8) important defensive concepts learned through rondos.
These are your coaching points for defensive principles.
That totals forty-two (42) — the answer to life, the universe and everything!
There may even be more that I missed. Some might seem somewhat redundant or be sub-concepts of others, like how Todd Beane, founder of TOVO Academy, groups many of these concepts under 5 core Position Play concepts: angles, distance, timing, lines, situation. Either way, though, that’s a ton of skills that can be developed through a single exercise!
Examples of these concepts
Let’s look at how a handful of the basic concepts are applied in rondos.
- Managing and opening space
The management of space is arguably the most essential of the fundamental concepts in soccer. When space is opened up, it creates the optimal conditions for the attacking team to maintain possession and progress the ball toward the goal in order to score.
- Creating and finding the Free Player
Continual movement of the ball attracts pressure from the defender, and creates a Free Player (or “3rd Man”). Now the Free Player can receive the ball with time and space. Contrary to what one might think, attracting pressure is a good thing! As we progress the ball up the field, we want to attract the opponent’s next line of pressure so that we can disorganize them and make space in behind them to exploit.
- Free Player movement and passing lines
Depending on how the defender is pressuring the ball, a supporting player may need to move in order to present themselves as a Free Player and to open up another passing option.
- Open body posture, scanning and passing with intent
Here, the receiver has an open body posture so that they are open to the play and can “scan” more easily — giving them awareness of more options. The passer is then able to “communicate” the next pass and the direction of play by passing to the back foot of the receiver.
- Maintaining possession
When concepts like opening space, body posture, scanning, passing with intent, creation of the Free Player and movement off the ball are learned, then maintaining possession and progression of the ball in order to score becomes much easier.
And there’s more!
Positional nature of rondos
This simulation is a helpful building block in establishing socio-affective superiority through common patterns between players, positions and roles.
Directionality of rondos
If rondos are positional, then they automatically have directionality too, simply through the relationship of the players’ positions with one another.
Rondos are not just aimless “stand and pass” exercises as some have criticized. When applied and taught properly, rondos can provide verticality and direction — a source of one of the many misconceptions at the core of the debate within the US.
In fact, rondos are multi-directional. While the ultimate goal in soccer (and Positional Play) is to progress the ball forward in order to score, the skills taught through the multi-directional nature of a rondo are foundational to a team’s ability to use short, quick circulation of the ball to move the opponent in order to progress the ball vertically.
“It’s not about moving the ball, it’s about moving the opponent.” — Juan Manuel Lillo, Manchester City FC
This verticality can be seen in the rectangular 4v2 rondo diagrams below. In these, we can give the players both positional context and directionality by associating the positions around the rondo with scenarios in a game. Providing this positional and directional context is an essential aspect of teaching through rondos.
Game-like contextuality of rondos
Perhaps what is most valuable in the rondo’s utility is how all of these same concepts we’ve discussed up to this point can be applied anywhere on the pitch. As I mentioned earlier, rondos represent every fractal or triangle created around the ball carrier.
This area — wherever the ball goes — is called the “game center” and it is constantly moving. And for that very reason, we want our players to learn to move with it (regardless of direction), to utilize the spaces created, and to support each other in their positional roles on the field.
This context can be enhanced simply by orienting the rondo around the specific location on the pitch that is relative to your training session’s topic. The lines of the pitch help provide visual cues on the rondo’s application in that specific game situation.
All of this goes back to Cruyff’s earlier quote: “everything that goes on in a match, except shooting, you can do in a rondo.”
So, all of this begs the question:
If you can teach so many universal, individual and collective concepts on both sides of the ball through one exercise, then why would you use up valuable team practice time working solely on individual skills through drills that are designed to improve only a couple of these concepts at a time?
Exactly! You really shouldn’t.
There are many variations of rondos, from simple rondos to more complex rondos, like the double rondo and “over the river” rondo. Each of these variations were designed to teach one or more of the many concepts we’ve discussed with further specificity.
We’ve already seen some of the more basic rondos, like the 3v1, 4v2, and 5v2. There are also several more common ratios, which I mentioned earlier: the 4v1, 4v2, 5v1, 6v2 and 6v3. Each of these can be used to balance difficulty or the player numbers in training as well as to add new dynamics to player relationships (both offensively and defensively). And, we’ve seen how making them rectangular can convey more directionality as well.
However, there are additional simple formats that can be employed, like Diego Simeone’s famous 3v3+3 hexagonal rondo below.
On the surface this looks just like a 6v3 rondo, and it is. But, what make’s Diego Simeone’s hexagonal rondo unique is that its set up with 3 teams of 3 allows for improving collective transitions between losing possession and gaining possession.
In this rondo, the 2 perimeter teams of 3 work together to maintain possession. Whichever team on the outside loses possession or makes a mistake switches with the defenders inside the grid on the fly. For example, if one of the red defenders intercepts the ball from the dark blue team, then red must quickly look to find support from the light blue team while they’re swapping positions as attackers around the grid. As you can imagine, this quick transition necessitates a high degree situational awareness (i.e. soccer IQ), which is something we’d hope to build through this exercise.
A double rondo is essentially 2 concentric rondos—a rondo within a rondo—where a smaller ratio of players work to maintain possession inside a smaller grid, while a defender or two attempt to steal the ball and gain support from their teammates who are waiting around the perimeter in a larger grid.
For example, the inner rondo could be a 3v1 that turns into 3v6, known as a 3v1+5 rondo (as shown in the diagram below).
In the diagram above, the red defenders inside the smaller 3v1 grid intercepts the pass, and immediately finds support from one of her teammates in the outer grid, turning this rondo into a 6v3.
These types of rondos are especially good at improving counter-pressing measures (by the team of 3 in the smaller grid) as well as transitional awareness by both teams. With an attacking player potentially remaining centrally (rather than around the perimeter), this rondo blurs the line a bit with a position play game. More on this later in the series.
Commonly conflated with double rondos, zonal rondos are two adjacent rondos (rather than concentric).
The general objective in a zonal rondo is for the defending team to gain possession of the ball and to then escape the immediate pressure of their opponent by transferring the ball to a teammate in a second zone (where there’s no immediate pressure).
A basic example of a zonal rondo is a 4v4 pressuring rondo. As in the diagram above, 2 teams of 4–5 players compete against each other. One team primarily occupies one zone, while the other team occupies the adjacent zone.
When one team is in possession of the ball, the opposing team may send in 1–2 players to try and steal the ball in a 4v1, 4v2 or 5v2 rondo (depending on your initial setup). If the defending team is successful, they attempt to quickly switch the play to their team in the adjacent zone, and try to maintain possession as the team that just lost possession has 1–2 players run into win the ball back.
Scoring can be based on which team can connect the highest number of continuous passes or by earning points based on connecting a set number of consecutive passes.
Depending on orientation and training topic, the coach can create situational context for this type of rondo. For example, the concentration could be about:
- Maintaining continuity of possession under pressure by passing backward or to an area where you may have a numerical advantage.
- Counter-pressing quickly after losing possession — cutting off passing options and preventing the opponent from transitioning effectively.
- Breaking lines of pressure.
Over the river rondos
The name “over the river” derives from the fact that a “river” (or middle zone) typically separates the two adjacent rondos.
While over the river rondos are incredibly similar zonal rondos, the general objective in these is to utilize possession to probe, manipulate and unbalance the defending team in order to penetrate a defensive line (i.e. breaking lines). These types of rondos typical feature 2 attacking teams working together in different zones against a defending team occupying the middle zone.
Let’s look at a couple common over the river rondos:
A) 4+4v4 pressuring rondo
Perhaps the most basic form of over the river rondos is the 4+4v4 pressuring rondo. In this rondo, 3 teams of 4–5 players are divided into 3 separate adjacent zones, with the middle zone often being a narrower “river-like” channel (as shown in the diagram below). The 2 teams in the outside zones are attacking, while the team in the middle zone is defending.
Play begins in either of the outside zones. The defending team sends in 1–2 players at a time to try to steal the ball from the team in possession as a 4v1, 4v2 or 5v2 rondo (depending on your setup). After a certain number of continuous passes, the team in possession may attempt to switch play through or over the middle zone to the other attacking team for a point. Play continues in the new zone, with 1–2 defenders rushing in to pressure the attackers. If the defending team steals the ball, they switch places with the team that lost possession.
With a “river”, this variation is great for teaching players how to “break lines” (as shown in the diagram above). And, since it uses 12–15 players, it’s also a great way to utilize most—if not all—of your players, so no one is standing around.
B) Defensive organization rondo
There’s another twist on this type of rondo that I love to use when teaching “pressure, cover, balance” and defensive organization. In the 5+5v5 rondo above, one of the defenders is designated as a #6 (or defensive midfielder) while the other 4 defenders take up positions in the middle zone like a typical back four. The defending team may have a maximum of 2 players pressuring the ball at a time, with the explicit focus of maintaining pressure, cover, balance at all times.
For example, in the diagram above, the red fullback is pressuring the player on the ball, while her teammates provide cover and balance. And, with the help of the designated #6, they attempt to steal the ball while the attacking team tries to maintain possession until they are able to break the defensive line by splitting them with a pass to the other attacking team. Similarly to the defending team, the team in possession may have 1–2 players (like a #9 or #10) move into the middle zone to try and disrupt their opponent’s defensive shape.
The attacking teams can earn 1 point for connecting a certain number of passes (say 5–8) to encourage pressuring, or 2 points for splitting the defense to encourage working together to maintain their shape (note: passes up the sides don’t count—they must split the defenders). Optionally, you can award 3 points to the attacking team for connecting a pass into their #9, and utilizing her to successfully break through to the other side. The defending team earns a points for every steal or forced mistake. Rotate teams after about 5 minutes or so.
Position play games
Position play games (a.k.a. positional games) are—arguably—another form of rondos, which are incredibly important to teaching Positional Play. The word “arguably” being a key point in what separates these from traditional rondos. And it’s for these reasons, they deserve their own post in this series, which we will cover next!
Continuing the series
Now that you know what rondos are and how they’re used to teach an abundance of universal, collective and individual skills we’ll continue the series by learning more about position play games and then diving deeper into how to implement rondos as a framework in your training.
- Part 2: What are Position Play Games?
- Part 3: Using Rondos as a Framework in Training (coming soon)
Questions, comments or feedback?
With that, I welcome any comments or feedback in respect to rondos, positional games, and Positional Play (Juego de Posición).
And, if you’ve enjoyed this series so far or found it helpful, please let me know with a “clap” or two. Thanks!