Five Player Defense: Part 1

Monte Nitzkowski
US Men's Olympic Coach '72, '80, and '84
09/15/06

Among the major tactical areas of water polo, most coaches give far less attention to Five-Player Defense than to other aspects of the game. There never seems to be enough practice time for everything. As a result, Five-Player Defense often is neglected.

Historically, there was a time in water polo when few ejections took place. Players wrestled in the water while referees watched. With fewer five-on-six situations to deal with, coaches naturally took less time with this tactical aspect of the game. However, that has changed. As the game is called today, teams may be faced with as many as 15 ejections per game. This has brought greater emphasis to coaching both the five-on-six and the six-on-five. Games can be won and lost in these two tactical areas of water polo. The coach who does not spend adequate time preparing both of these tactical strategies makes a great mistake.

In today's game, five-player defenses must be prepared to defend three separate offensive strategies. In order of importance they are the Four-Two offensive structure, the Three-Three offensive structure, and the "play" or rotational structure of six-on-five offense. Although rules have shortened player ejection time from: 35-seconds to: 20-seconds, teams still have the time to run an effective Four-Two, Three-Three or rotational offensive plan. The defender's job is as important at: 20 seconds as it was at :35. Indeed, the need to remain focused probably is greater with the: 20-second rule. Shots will come more quickly as the offense faces shorter time with the advantage situation

Reacting To The Kick Out

Teams need to have a five-player defensive philosophy. When the ejection takes place, players must be trained to react individually within a team plan or team philosophy. To do this with any semblance of discipline and order, players must be taught how and what to think, from the time of the ejection through the :20 seconds of offensive opportunity. Once they know what and how to think, they must be trained in water drills to make sure they can apply what has been taught. In sequential order, the teammates of the ejected player should:

Know the referee's call and immediately identify which teammate is being ejected. This is particularly necessary when the ejected player is in the back line of defense. It's better for the ejected player not to advertise to his/her teammates that he/she has been ejected, but to move toward the penalty box as expediently as the situation demands. The thinking here is that the offense doesn't know any better than the defense who has been removed. Many times the "lost" player momentarily can contribute to the defense as the transition takes place. If the offense isn't sure which defend­er is "out," there is not as great an opportunity to locate the quick shot. I don't mean to imply the ejected player should not be moving out of the field of play, nor am I recommending that he/she interfere with the offense. But, within the rules, the ejected player must know the game situation and remove himself/herself as intelligently as possible. In water polo, winning depends upon putting the percentages on your side. Never miss an opportunity to improve those percentages.

Once an ejection has been called, the defense immediately should crash back into the two-to-four-meter area to try to prevent the quick shot. With the :20-second rule, more than ever before, the offense is looking for the quick. While the defense is crashing back to cover the inside, the free offensive player is isolated to the outside. Teams with a player advantage are far less apt to take a "quick" from an outside position. As such, once the inside is shut down, most teams will move to set up their regular six–on–five structure.

Teams need to practice stopping the quick. The situation needs to be scrimmaged under gamelike conditions. There are a number of ways this can be accomplished. My favorite is to start the scrimmage with the offense in the restart, halfcourt position. From here the offense can set up quickly and the coach can call ejections rapidly, duplicating quick situations the defense will have to face when playing in games.

Once the quick is shut down, defensive player thinking must shift immediately to defending the first pass. Many first passes in six–on–five offense are poor passes. This is true at all levels of play, but particularly true with less experienced teams. When the defense has the quick covered, the player with the pass often will grow anxious, knowing he/she has approximately three seconds to put the ball in play. When the quick is not there and the other five offensive players have started to move to their positions in the Four–Two or Three–Three structure, oftentimes the inadvisable pass is taken, catching the offense off guard. All five defenders should be concentrating on the first pass, "baiting" it whenever possible. When the pass is thrown, defenders should go for the interception. Teams trained to focus on the first pass following the ejection will make many interceptions over the course of a season. First-pass interceptions in the six–on–five situation have great psychological impact on both teams and are a particular plus for the defense

Another discipline I impress upon my players is "getting on the eyes." Even the best of six–on–five teams "telegraph" the next pass. Many players receive a six–on–five pass and not even look at the goal, instead seeking out the player to receive the next pass. Even when a player fakes the shot, he/she oftentimes comes off the fake, turns, and looks directly toward the player to whom he/she desires to pass. The eyes of the passer tell you where the next pass is going. This is a very common occurrence. If each of the five defenders "get on the eyes" of the passer, they can effectively anticipate the player who will be receiving the next pass. Teams who play the eyes intercept a good number of passes. Even when the ball is passed successfully, the "on the eyes" pass anticipation allows defenders to move to proper defensive positioning much quicker. Arriving earlier discourages shots. When using the "on the eyes" principle, all five defenders are constantly cutting down the distance between defender and potential shooter.

This is a very effective concept which should be ingrained into the players. The system I use is to set up a six–on–five scrimmage and force the defense, using the "on the eyes" principle, to either intercept or knock down ten passes before moving on to another drill

The above four points definitely can help prepare a team to play effective five-player defense. Now, before getting into five-player defensive structures and player responsibilities within these structures, let's discuss the final key to making the five-player defense successful. That key is scouting. Scouting is just as important to water polo as to all other team sports. Scouting the opposition's six–on–five offense is a must. No matter what the structure, young teams tend to go with one or two shooters, one or two shooting positions, and several plays. When these areas are scouted, defensive adjustments can be made to shut down the opponent's offensive tendencies. Scouting is of equal value at the national and international levels of play. Although the players at this level are highly skilled, teams still have identifiable tendencies with both shooters and offensive tactics. Through proper scouting, these tendencies can be identified and the defense can make its adjustments accordingly. Scouting definitely is the key to playing outstanding five-player team defense. No matter what basic defensive structure is used, players can be moved in one direction or another to help take away the strengths of the offense.

Once the scouting notes or video tapes are evaluated, the coach should come up with a five-player defensive game plan and then practice against teammates emulating the opponent's offense. With a good scouting report, proper evaluation of that report, and in-water practice, five-player defense can be immensely successful.

Basic Structure For Five - Player Defense

The basic structure for five-player defense is the Three–Two zone. See Figure 1.

Figure 1

The Three–Two zone can be used against both the Four–Two and the Three–Three offensive structures. It is the base from which all zone defenses are built. See Figure 2 and Figure3

Figure 2: Basic Three–Two positioning against the Four–Two Offense


Figure 3: Basic Three–Two positioning against the Three–Three Offense

There can be a number of variations to three–two zone posi­tioning, but the basic structure starts with the three–two. Players need to master the defensive requirements for their particular positions (locations) within the Three–Two before variations are practiced.

For simplicity of explanation, the defensive positions are lettered for discussion of each of their responsibilities. See Figure 4.

Figure 4

Illustration in Figure 5 shows a variation to the basic Three–Two zone. The defensive player in the  E  spot (outside right as you look to the goal) has moved in to defend the inside creating a Four–One zone affect. This particular variation is used against teams which tend to go a lot to the 3 post.

Figure 5

Other popular variations against Four–Two Offenses are to split the 4 and 5 offensive positions with one outside defender and move the other outside defender between either the 1 and 4 position or between the 5 and 6 offensive position. As with all variations within the basic Three–Two zone defense, these moves are intended to take away strengths and playing tendencies of the opponent's Four–Two offensive structure.

To be continued …

(Monte began coaching water polo internationally with the Pan American Games in 1967 and retired following the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles . He served as Assistant Pan American Coach in 1967 (Gold Medal) and 1975 (Silver Medal), and as Head Pan American Coach in 1979 (Gold Medal) and 1983 (Gold Medal). Monte was the Assistant United States Olympic Water Polo coach in Mexico City (5th place) and Head Olympic Coach for the 1972 Munich Olympics (Bronze Medal), the 1980 Moscow Olympics (boycott) and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (Silver Medal). The 1980 Olympic Water Polo Team was one of the finest teams ever to represent the United States and was con­sidered a strong contender for the Gold Medal. During his career, exclusive of the boycott, every Olympic Team which Monte head ­coached won an Olympic Medal. Monte was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale , Florida in 1991.

Monte has written two excellent water polo books, United States Tactical Water Polo and Water Polo, Learning and Teaching the Basics. Starting March 15 , Water Polo Planet will feature a monthly water polo article by Monte Nitzkowski. His books can be found at his Water Polo Consulting Service web site. - Doc)