“The intention is not to move the ball,”
Pep Guardiola once said. “Rather, it is to move the opposition.”
The Catalan coach is a master of controlling games through complete domination of the ball,
but it’s not something his teams pick up overnight. It takes constant work on the training
ground, and high levels of concentration and tactical understanding from his players.
The most significant and important of Guardiola’s training ground routines is the Rondo, which
he has used at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now Manchester City with great success. As
with many of his ideas, Guardiola was influenced in his use of the Rondo by the great Johan
Cruyff. “Our model was imposed by Cruyff,” said
midfielder Xavi Hernandez when Guardiola was at Barcelona. “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 go in the middle, it’s
humiliating. The others applaud and laugh at you.”
So what is the Rondo? In effect, it is a game of piggy in the middle, only played with the
feet and with almost inconceivable levels of technical proficiency.
Most commonly, Guardiola uses an 8 vs 2 Rondo: eight players stand in a circle and attempt
to pass to each other, while the two in the middle aim to dispossess them. It’s a simple
drill but one that has proved highly effective. The goal of the players on the outside of
the circle is to reach a target: usually 30 passes. If one of the players in the middle
retrieves the ball, the drill restarts, and the man responsible for losing the ball takes
his place. For Guardiola and his players, the Rondo has
multiple benefits: it improves technique in tight areas, encourages intelligent movement
and forces players to pass the ball in neat triangles. All of this is in evidence when
his teams take to the pitch, and Manchester City’s improvement in these areas is clear
to see. From a defensive point of view, the Rondo
is perhaps even more valuable. Those in the middle learn to press with maximum efficacy,
closing down passing lanes and attempting to read the intentions of the player on the
ball. “Everything that goes on in a match, except
shooting, you can do in a rondo,” Cruyff once said. “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’ football, how to counteract the tight marking and how
to win the ball back.” Guardiola clearly took this to heart. Every
training session at Manchester City – and at Barcelona and Bayern – begins with a
Rondo. There are variations, too: sometimes it may be a 6 vs 2, a 5 vs 2 or a 3 vs 1 Rondo.
And sometimes Guardiola switches to a positional game, similar to a traditional Rondo but with
an added element. The drill is 4 vs 4 with three ‘neutral’ players, who take the
side of whichever team has the ball. In effect, it becomes 7 vs 4, although when one team
wins the ball back the drill continues. The team who have lost the ball can immediately
counter-press in an attempt to win it back. More than anything, it teaches the players
to move intelligently off the ball. The intensity of the drills is crucial, too.
Guardiola insists on maximum focus, not allowing any player to slack off or joke around. “Even
the rondos: it’s with 100% effort or you don’t do them at all,” he has said. “If
the players don’t like them then they are welcome to go mountain running, but in that
case we’ll never reach our potential.” Gradually, after the initial shock, the players
become accustomed to the intensity required in Guardiola’s rondos. It’s not a casual
exercise to warm the players up before the training session begins. It is, without doubt,
a fundamental part of the development of Guardiola’s teams.
A story told by Domènec Torrent, a former coach at Barcelona and Bayern, shows the process
that took place after Guardiola arrived in Munich. In Martí Perarnau’s book, Pep Guardiola:
The Evolution, Torrent explains the transformation on the training pitch.
“What happened with the rondos is probably the best example of the process of adaption
they all went through,” he said. “The players started out seeing them as a bit of
a laugh, a good way to start and end the warm-ups. The ball could end up ten metres outside the
perimeter of the rondo circle without ever having touched the ground. But from day one
Pep insisted that they pay attention to how they positioned themselves, how they received
the ball, whether they controlled it with their left or right foot.
“The Bayern players grasped his point very quickly. I remember one day comparing the
rondos of the early days with what they had become by the end. It was amazing. Like looking
at two entirely different exercises. By the end of our time there, that ball was flying.”
The same level of discipline has been instilled at Manchester City. And the players, already
performing at an extraordinarily high level, will only get better as time progresses.
The Rondo, a humble training drill, has been a crucial part of the team’s improvement
over the last two years. It is an encapsulation of Pep Guardiola’s coaching philosophy,
a conduit through which his basic principles are channelled onto the pitch.