Call is Piggy in the Middle, 3v1, 5v2, 5v5+2 or any variation where a numerically superior group of players has the ball and a smaller group of players tries to win the ball back. Great players do this with precise and frenetic one-touch passes to someone else, creating dizzying pinball-like combinations and working those in the middle to exhaustion. Usually, if the players in the middle are split, they stay in again.

But there’s more to the rondo than organising some players in a circle, putting two unfortunate souls in the middle and torturing them with a teasing game of keep away. The rondo is the reinvention of modern football. As a staple in the training systems of some of the world’s top academies like Ajax and Barcelona, the rondo’s effectiveness has become increasingly popular for the common coach to implement, partly due to its perceived simplicity.

What makes the rondo so useful is the close proximity it’s played in, which forces players to exhibit all the qualities required to succeed on a full-sized pitch. Players can’t hide by stretching the space to allow for more time on the ball. In the rondo, players must continuously identify and make decisions with respect to the shifting environment. That is, players are subject to instant decision making in close quarters based on what others do. Technical ability is paramount as is the ability to communicate, compete and anticipate while remaining composed offensively and defensively. The demands the rondo places on players are match realistic.

Johan Cruyff described the rondo adequately in Stan Baker’s book Our Competition is the World: “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.”

It’s obvious why the rondo is a coveted discipline. The transition from attack to defence is instantaneous, accomplishing training principles that are the underpinning of the fluid passing style that clubs like Barcelona, Ajax, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Bayern Munich employ to great effect. Initially instituted by Johan Cruyff at Barcelona, the rondo’s usefulness has sparked a belief that the drill is the secret of possession-based football. Conceivably, part of the formulaic success behind tiki-taka football is found in the rondo.

The modern game is dictated by effective possession on both sides of the ball. The modern defender operates as a playmaker while the cerebral output of midfielders has increased to accommodate possession-based football. The days of defenders merely hoofing a ball forward with regularity are gone. Outside backs tend to occupy a starting position at least 10-15 yards more advanced than a decade ago. Nearly every player is expected to be technically adept and play box-to-box. Total Football’s revitalisation means quick interchange and passing are the norm. In a national side profile from UEFA’s official website in 2008, El Rondo was credited with being “used to develop and refine the quick passing style is El Rondo. It breeds quick passing, short-distance sprinting, stamina, intelligence of movement and speed of thought.”

In Simon Kuper’s book Soccer Men, Pep Guardiola stated: “Without the ball we are a horrible team. So we need the ball.” In context, Guardiola was referring to Barça’s smaller physical size and superior technical ability against oftentimes physically dominant opposition. The ability to keep the ball and resist playing panicked football in possession has long been valued. However, when the collective nous of a team is built upon using possession to devastating effect, the game transcends the conventional.

In an interview in with the Guardian in February 2011 referencing Barcelona’s philosophy, Xavi Hernández, one of the great passers and technicians of the modern game stated, “Some youth academies worry about winning, we [Barcelona] 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. If you go in the middle, it’s humiliating, the rest applaud and laugh at you.”

Perhaps the most famous Barcelona rondo was seen at Wembley before the 2011 Champions League final. In that match, Barcelona played Manchester United off the pitch in a blustering display of incisive one-touch passing combinations that forced United to chase shadows. As Barcelona’s warm-up footage spread around social media, the rondo garnered attention. Most videos show players groomed at La Masia display an unrivalled silky first touch, balance, mercurial creativity and flair. That match also demonstrated how teams mastering the cognitive and technical abilities the rondo hones can translate a simple game of “Piggy in the Middle” into an exercise of segmented isolation and decimation of opposing players all over the pitch, nullifying opposing teams unable to cut off passing lanes. Passing of such tempo and precision is akin to exacting a “death by a thousand cuts”-style of football torture to teams subjected to its hypnotic and frustrating effects.

In his post-match 2011 final comments, Sir Alex Ferguson candidly stated, “[We were] well beaten, there’s no other way to address the situation,” he said. “They do mesmerise you with their passing.” The legendary Scot went on to say, “They’re the best in Europe, no question about that. In my time as a manager, I would say they’re the best team we’ve faced. Everyone acknowledges that and I accept that. It’s not easy when you’ve been well beaten like that to think another way. No one has given us a hiding like that. It’s a great moment for them. They deserve it because they play the right way and enjoy their football.”

Predictably, coaches on the outside looking in are keen to emulate the magic on display. At a national coaching convention, I witnessed a slew of coaches create entire training sessions based on the rondo. Initially, their rationale was unclear. Top academy players were used as training subjects as top level coaches attempted to teach those in attendance the “secrets” of the mystic movements of the rondo.

In one particular training demonstration, a coach from an established academy assembled players in a 10×10-yard grid and said, “OK, today we’re working on 5v2’s or the “FCB Rondo”. This is exactly what they do there, but to start, we’ll allow two touches. If you get split you stay in the middle. Got it?” Everyone nodded. “Last two down are in the middle,” the coach said as players suddenly dropped to one knee to avoid being on defence first.

The trepidation of the players was surprising. These players were considered the area’s “elite talent”, many of whom were touted to play at top universities or, according to their coaches, go on to play professionally. These claims of grandeur are not as far-fetched as one might imagine. This particular medley of handpicked talent included four players who had earned a Youth National Team call-up.

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La Masia Barcelona

Read  |  La Masia: dilemmas from inside the world’s most famous academy

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From the start, rarely was there more than five passes strung together as the players engaged in a haphazard series of 5v2, 3v1, and 5v5+2 rondos in the 10×10 yard grid. However, there was no shortage of elaborate flicks and attempted nutmegs on display. Rather than playing simple passes, players opted for the complex. What was more troubling, however, was the players seemed conditioned to fear being in the middle. Perhaps, years of misguided coaching have associated being on defence with being punished.  As the intermittent quality on display continued to plummet, the coach grew frustrated and resorted to spewing off incessant instruction to the point that all anyone could hear was his voice, making him the focal point of the rondo.

Inevitably, the players began to criticise one another. Communication turned to borderline ridicule for those taking more than two touches, kicking the ball out of play, or taking a poor first touch. With each roar of “Let’s go!”, “The split’s on!”, and “Get the damn ball!” the players in the middle recklessly chased the ball while those on the perimeter panicked. Defensively they weren’t dictating or shaping the offence with any intent. The beauty and hypnotic rondos mastered by the world’s elite had morphed into an exercise in sloppiness and pure panic. It was hard to imagine the players gained much from the exercise.

After twenty painful minutes, as the speed slowed to a mind-numbing, gelatinous crawl, the tackles flew in. Each split sparked audible blame. At this point, instead of working as a unit, those in the middle jogged around lazily chasing the ball individually, praying someone on the ever-expanding perimeter would make a mistake and grant reprieve. Was this the exposing of exhibitionists and scared players? Most poorly-executed tricks seemed to stem from something most players have seen on YouTube and it’s painfully obvious these tricks and flicks are equated with true footballing quality.

After a ten minute lecture from the pontificating coach, the players continued and followed the cliché of passing the responsibility, not the ball. Again, the rondo’s perimeter grew, swelling to accommodate poor technique and lack of adequate footwork. “I want to see better rondos!” the coach bellowed. Not once did the coach set an objective for the players.

Better rondos? The thought perplexed me and it was clear this coach (and countless others) expected professional-grade skill and execution out of teenage players. So, how could this simple drill performed by young players at Basque and Catalan Canteras at Athletic Club, Real Sociedad, Espanyol and Barcelona’s youth academy, La Masia, have gone so far off the mark with these players? Culture and coaching are part of the answer.

Young players in the world’s top academies take a great sense of pride and responsibility on being technicians on the ball. They are seldom seen without a ball at their feet. Each training session warm-up involves a ball instead of rote running at academies like De Toekomst and La Masia. Ball work is precursory to most other movements and subsequently, a player’s ability to control the ball with polished touches becomes natural and is proportional to the amount of time they spend with a ball in and out of formal training.

Leaving that convention I surmised that a new wave of coaches underestimated the rondo. Had they thought that it that simple? Coaching lectures, training breakouts, and side conversations seem hell-bent on extracting a single part of the total approach used at the world’s top clubs. In short, coaches want to see their young players do flawless and flashy rondos like Barcelona without working on the basics of passing, receiving, and movement off the ball. As a result, they implement training sessions from La Masia hoping for overnight success. Training practices like the rondo necessitate hours upon hours of deliberate training. The rondo is less about flashy skills than it is about utilising sound footballing basics. The best players play a simple game, thus minimising the frequency of their mistakes. The rondo stresses the importance of individual responsibility in possession football.

So how do players with less skill perform this drill? The systemic issue is rooted in an abundance of coaches expecting players with less skill to play overly complicated possession games over the expanse of a large field. Such practices only serve to hide the lack of technique under the guise of athleticism. Players simply aren’t getting enough touches on the ball and the ebb and flow of their involvement hampers their progress. The lower the level of skill, the simpler the game should be. A lot more time must be dedicated to the basics. At all levels, it’s glaringly obvious who has spent additional time working on technique and who has not. Contrary to conventional belief, as players, artists, musicians improve they must dedicate even more hours to the basics. Mastering the basics has been devalued as impatience plagues the youth game.

What coaches overlook is the process involved in something like the rondo, which seems simple. The failure to institute methodologies with consistency and patience results in overly complicated drills circulating coaching circles. Sure, these drills look great, but without proper implementation the only place those drills will ever look good is on paper. Long-term development can’t be sacrificed by rushing the process. In an age of global connectivity, it seems everyone and anyone can parade around with training plans without fully understanding the basic principles. The rondo’s assumed simplicity uncovers its true complexity.

Great players aren’t born with a ball at their feet. Their culture demands they take pride in their technique. What one will rarely find in top academy training sessions is the ostracising of players who make mistakes. In these environments, mistakes are accepted, processed, and then corrected, but not at the expense of quality. Players are given more reps with a specific skill set for longer periods of time. The goal is skill acquisition, not rushing through a developmental model. Young players need more involvement and it’s no surprise they learn better with small-sided games, evidenced by the technical proficiency of recent generations of Spanish and Dutch players groomed in technique-focused academies. But this development isn’t rigid. Brazilian and Uruguayan players grow up playing futsal on small courts or football in the streets, and the current golden generation of Belgian players has been armed with a restructured possession-based footballing education curriculum.

The disconnection between the purpose and employment of the rondo extends to the psychology behind possession football. Where one finds technically proficient players, they will find players who excel at the rondo. What one is less likely to find in advanced environments are players who allow fear to affect their play. While the focus is the circulation of the ball and operating as a unit offensively and defensively, teaching something like the rondo is made possible by engaged and prepared players capable of performing at high levels with consistency, not the fear of being “in the middle”. There’s no shame in defending against larger numbers, yet young players tend to view it with disdain.

What is seldom mentioned by impatient coaches are the defensive principles the rondo teaches. Defenders can control the game as much as the players with ball. With the rondo, high level players on defence shape and dictate the direction of the passes, effectively forcing the predictable pass the ball to the ‘weak link’ most likely to concede possession. Players stopping the ball, panicking, who are stationary, or fail anticipate generally end up in the middle, and rightly so. It would be no different in real match play. Watching proper rondos, it’s clear the exercise scales down possession football to the molecular level.

Confined areas of play aren’t exclusive to football. In basketball, training sessions and pick-up games often take place on half of the court. As a student-athlete at the University of Kentucky, a powerhouse in collegiate basketball, I often spoke with members of the basketball program and was able to watch training sessions on occasion. I witnessed many of the country’s elite basketball players, many vying for careers in the NBA, literally deconstruct their game and rebuild it so they could play in the specific system a program like UK demanded. Activities included players focusing on their weak hand on the dribble for entire training sessions, shooting on modified hoops without backboards, hundreds of basic jump shots were commonplace. Processes were deconstructed and focused on in isolation and in depth before players were allowed to advance onto more complicated drills. The sooner coaches focus on deficiencies, turning them into strengths, the sooner they can expect players to perform at advanced levels.

Football comes in all forms. There’s the unpolished version slogged out on muddy Sunday league pitches the world over. In perfect juxtaposition is the intricate and artistic kind of football radiating off the pristine pitches in the top leagues at the weekend. Much like art, football gets away with being undefinable. Once you “get it”, the game never quite looks the same again. From every vantage point and for every apparent movement on the pitch, there remains much we simply do not see at first glance. The rondo beautifully epitomises Leonardo da Vinci’s words, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3