Train of Thought – Why you should be more defensive about rondos

The mental side of the beautiful game is at least as important as the physical side, but is often neglected by coaches in training sessions. In this series, Travis Norsen, author of Play With Your Brain, will discuss small tweaks to standard training exercises and the large positive effects they can have on players’ decision-making and soccer intelligence. This week, Travis explores why you should be more defensive about your rondos.

Coaches who value possession — and the quick thinking and passing that sustains it — already give rondos a central place in their training sessions. Rondos are a great way for players to develop passing technique, receiving technique, off-the-ball movement, speed of play, reading the defense, decision-making, penetrating defensive lines, and many other fundamental facets of the game.  Johan Cruyff, whose implementation of rondos at Barcelona was central to that team’s legendary dominance in the 1990s, was not wrong when he noted that rondos feature every part of the game except shooting.

Sometimes, though, coaches can forget that this includes defending. Too often, that is, coaches (and players) consider defending in rondos to be mostly punitive: somebody has to apply some pressure to make the offensive players’ job (namely, moving the ball around quickly to maintain possession) challenging and game-realistic, and playing this role for a turn is simply the price you pay for making a mistake that leads to a turnover.

But this attitude is a mistake. There are valuable lessons to learn and skills to develop in all aspects of the rondo, and coaches should give the same constructive attention to the play of rondo defenders that they give to the play of the offense. Indeed, there is a natural mutually reinforcing harmony between improvement on the offensive and defensive sides of the rondo: raising the quality of the defense will require the offensive players to figure out how to raise their quality as well.

So, how can coaches use rondos to help players become smarter and better defenders? Here are some concrete ideas to get you thinking.

defenders must clue into cues
Embed from Getty Images

Even in a simple (say) 4v1 rondo, players should be encouraged to think explicitly about the ways the lone defender is going to be able to generate turnovers. Often, for example, the defender can win the ball by tackling it away from an offensive player who gets “caught in possession”. So…how can the defender maximize the odds of that happening? Possibilities include identifying players who tend to hold the ball too long and preparing to pounce when the ball reaches them, and being on the lookout for short or inaccurate passes that will leave the recipient without adequate time and space.  Defenders can also generate turnovers by intercepting passes. So…anticipating where the next pass is going to go (and indeed manipulating where the next pass is going to go by pressuring from a certain side so you give the passer only one realistic option) is really helpful! The point is, players will get better at winning the ball if they are thinking explicitly about strategies for doing it. And coaches, of course, can encourage this by asking questions about what works and why, and making interventions when positive or negative situations happen. 

Defending becomes more interesting and even more game-like in rondos with two or more defenders. For example, in a 4v2 rondo, the two defenders need to learn that they will have a much greater chance of winning the ball if they don’t just take turns trying to win the ball the way the lone defender in a 4v1 would do, but instead genuinely work together in a coordinated way. For example, whenever defender #1 steps to apply pressure to an offensive player with the ball, he should apply directional pressure that forces the next pass to go toward his teammate, defender #2. And while this is happening, defender #2 must recognize which way defender #1 is about to force the ball, anticipate where the next pass will therefore be going, and position himself appropriately to intercept it.  

the milner rule
Embed from Getty Images

Similar but more complex tactics arise in more complicated rondos, for example 5v3’s.  But the principle is clear: the goal of defending is to win the ball back (so the other team can’t score and your team can!) and doing this consistently and effectively requires a coordinated group effort.  This can and should be trained, using the rondos that your team is already doing.

In addition to just highlighting and explaining these ideas, I strongly recommend coaches implement the Milner Rule. Under this rule, suggested by James Milner under Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, all defenders (in a multiple-defender rondo) get to leave the middle and rotate back to offense when a turnover is generated.  In the more standard policy, it is only the one defender who happens to actually get a touch on the ball who earns the right to rotate back to the offensive side. But letting the whole defensive side earn their freedom as a unit will help them think of themselves as — and will hence help them play as — a unit.  

In a real game situation, it is always better for the defending team to allow a short lateral pass that keeps the defensive unit in their cohesive shape and allows them to continue pressuring by just shifting as a unit, than to allow a pass that penetrates through (and thus effectively eliminates) an entire line of defenders.  We can train this concept in multiple-defender rondos by making sure that defenders work together to avoid being “split” (i.e., allowing a pass that goes between two defenders).  We want defenders to be thinking “We’ll work together to win the ball back, and the other team might complete a few passes before we get it, but we will NEVER let them split us!”  Coaches might be able to achieve this mindset “culturally” just by praising the offense for splits.  If something more draconian is needed, you could require the defense to win the ball an extra time for each split that occurs, before they earn their freedom.

transitions & the importance of the rondo

Finally, there is an opportunity in rondos not only to focus on defense but to work on transitions.  For example, requiring the defense to not only touch/win the ball, but to (say) complete two or three passes (the last of which might be to a coach or other observer outside the rondo area) will have players learning not just how to win the ball but how to keep it after they win it. Or coaches might place two small goals just outside the rondo area and allow defenders the opportunity of trying for a quick counter-attack goal.  

There are of course endless possibilities.  But coaches who have been thinking of rondos as primarily just a way for offensive players to practice keeping possession, already get the point:  there is a lot more that can and should be done with them.  So, help your players suck more of the marrow out of your rondos. They’ll enjoy the fresh opportunities to learn and improve, and you’ll all enjoy the game-day improvements that will result!

So there it is! Rondos are one of the most used coaching tools, however as Travis points out, coaches must have a keen understanding of why rondos are useful for their players. Be sure to check out more of Travis’ work on Train of Thought below. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

more in this series

You might also enjoy…

-> 13 Warm-Up Activities with the Ball
-> Restricted vs. Conditioned Games – Coaching Soccer
-> Progressive Possession – Full Session Plan & Key Coaching Points

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