Water Polo Tactics by Dave Maynard

Volume 3 Number 10 March 1, 2012
Imagination is more important than knowledge - Albert Einstein.


We have talked about them numerous times in the column.  They’re the standard defensive tactics of “Press & Front” or “Zone.”  We’ve discussed several options of Zone defenses, because not all are the same.  We’ve also discussed “fronting the wing” as well.  All of these are viable defensive tactics in their own right, but there comes a time when just one defensive style won’t work.

Many have run into it in the past.  You’ve done your homework, know your opponent, understand their strengths, and you’ve put together a defensive scheme to neutralize their attack.  Then it happens… someone you didn’t expect gets the hot hand and now the defense that you have prepared for isn’t effective, and your teams struggles again.

Let’s take a closer look at the situation where an outside shooter becomes “hot.”  Every shot they take finds the back of the net, and your defense isn’t geared for it.  What do you do in a case like this?  One defensive tactic won’t solve this problem, so we have to look at a hybrid of several defensive tactics in order to 1. continue to shut down the known threats coming into the game, and 2. eliminate the new force in the water that came to be within the game.

So, with respect to the even strength game, this is what we are going to do.  At some point in the game, you are going to have to “respect the hot streak” that this player is generating.  So, no matter what, this player is going to get pressed.  Every possession, the hot shooter gets a full press.  In addition, we are still going to respect the high shooting positions, specifically the 3 position.

In the illustration below, we are going to take this a little further.  Going into the game, your team would be outmatched in the Hole, a position your opponent has been thriving with all season long, so you would have to go into a Zone defense to shut this position down.  The unforeseen hot player coming down the field is a lefty, and has been successful from the 4 position all game and has rung up 5 goals already part way through the 3rd quarter, with 3 coming in the first half alone.  Your defense should have shut this team down, but because of this one shooter emerging as a force, you have a serious problem.  It’s time to respect the hot streak and make some adjustments.  On this possession, the lefty shooter will take their customary role at the 4 position, and we are going to adjust our defensive scheme with a hybrid of zones, pressures, and gaps…

With this scenario, we keep a solid double team on the Hole, dropping the defender from the 3 position.  Our lefty hot hand comes down to the 4 position, so we press them, not giving the attacker room to breath, much less take a shot.  Even passing to them may be difficult, and would likely kill some game clock.  After pressing the hot shooter and taking that shot away, the other high percentage position in the tank is the 3 spot, so we press there too, not allowing a shot to be taken.  The wing positions at the 1 and 5 spots are very low percentage shots, so you play relaxed at the 5 position, providing additional coverage on the Hole position to cut off entry passes.  On the other side, we gap our wing defender in the 1-2 gap.

As the play progresses, the ball finds it’s way to the 2 position, the best shooting angle in the pool.  Their defender has dropped to cut off the pass to the Hole and they also have entry pass support on the backside from the 5 defender, so now our 2 defender can adjust their position to help with field blocking on what will likely become a shot from the perimeter.  And on top of that, we have a gap defender in the 1-2 gap.  So what is the 2-attacker looking at, a field blocker, a goalie that is in good position, no safe entry pass into the Hole, and at the moment a choice between one of two options, pass the ball to a closely defended attacker, or take the shot.  The player tries to go far side with a lob, and the goalie knocks it down.  Attack neutralized.

Now, enter into your transition, and this is where the force of a gap defender comes into play as they have inside water on their counterpart and can generate an odd-man rush going down the pool.  Additionally, your wing defender, with their relaxed defense at the 5 position, finds themselves in a direct line to the Strike Zone at the end of their transition with their counterpart having to play catch-up as well, and now we are talking about doing a “Funnel Transition.”

The 1-2 Gap Defender isn’t just there to get a break into the transition, though.  We are going to break the traditional rules of the gap defender duties and actually offer a little defensive support on that shooter in the 2 position.  The longer a shooter has to pump-fake with the ball, the more dangerous the shooter becomes.  If that ball is getting dry in the shooters hand, the gap defender does a backside (blind side) play for the ball in the shooters hand and could knock the ball away for a legitimate steal. 

And there you have it, a Hybrid Defense that takes care of your initial concerns going into the game, but also respects the hot shooter that emerged.  And when it’s all said and done, it also feeds your transition.  It’s a tactic that puts your team back in control of the game… that is, unless your opponent reads my column too, because next time, we are going to talk about what it takes to beat this Hybrid Defense

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