The Counterattack: Part 4

Monte Nitzkowski
US Men's Olympic Coach '72, '80, and '84
04/15/07

Counterattack Shooting Structures

Once down the field of play, it's important for counterattack­ing players and the Goalkeeper to know which shooting structures help create the highest percentage shots.

The One-On-None Breakaway (1 vs 0)

The player receiving the pass in the one—on—none breakaway should work to improve his/her angle on the goal to create the best chance of beating the Goalie. When time permits, the shot should come from the vertical, faking position. If the chasing defender is tight on the shooter, the shot should come from the semi-vertical position, with the ball being wrist-shot from in front of the offen­sive player. Seldom should T-shots, push shots, or pop shots be taken at the end of a counterattack. Remember, no mater what the structure (1 vs. 0; 2 vs. 1; 3 vs. 2; or 4 vs. 3), the player, while attacking the defense and the goal, must stay aggressive the last seven meters if he/she wants to convert. Too often, young players counter hard then slow down and lose aggressiveness the last few meters. Don't let this happen! The best way to get the ball into the goal is to penetrate the outnumbered defense in an aggressive man­ner and stay in that mode through to the shot.

The Two-On-One (2 vs. 1)

As soon as two players are attacking—two against one—the leadbreak principle is established. The two countering players who first get down the pool should not both attack the goal from the same side. If they did, the one defender plus the Goalkeeper would have a much easier time defending. What should happen is one of the two countering players slides across the face of the goal, spreading the defense and creating the leadbreak principle. Once the defense has been committed, the ball can be shot or cross-passed for a shot.

The single defender near the goal, and the Goalkeeper, can always be outpositioned if the attack is correct. When properly exe­cuted, the two–on–one should score 100% of the time. The previ­ously discussed one–on–none situation is more difficult to score than the two–on–one, as the Goalkeeper always can go one–on–one with the shooter and, in this situation, doesn't have to worry about either a cross pass or positioning of the fellow defender.

Once the countering players have bracketed the goal, the two–on–one attack must follow a few basic principles. The player with the ball must pick up the ball from underneath approximately three meters away from the single defender. This is important and prevents the single defender from "storming" the offensive player and either pushing the ball underwater with the offensive player's hand on top (turnover), or stealing it outright.

Once the offensive player has picked the ball up correctly, he/she must always attack the single defender. This attack takes place in the vertical position, with the ball held high and ready to shoot. The attack must be aggressive, penetrating toward the defender in a determined fashion. Remember, other defenders are chasing, and will soon arrive on the scene. Once the player with the ball is attacking the defender, one of two things will take place: First, the defender will tackle the offensive player with the ball. When this happens, the offensive player should reach the ball around the tackling defender and make the cross pass to his/her fellow player. Be careful when making this pass; oftentimes the offensive player will try to go straight over the top with the ball and get it knocked down. The offensive player making this pass should check out the defender and make the appropriate pass. Reaching around the defender to make the pass may be the answer. In any case, this is a critical pass. If the ball arrives safely to your fellow offensive player, most often a goal is scored. A good pass is one which can be caught and shot immediately.

If the defender fails to tackle the attacking player who is car­rying the ball and instead drops off to take the other offensive player, the attacking player should continue to penetrate, staying aggressive, and improving the angle on the goal. Once optimum position has been achieved, the player should shoot the ball. The player attacking with the ball cannot allow "faking" or "stunting" by the single defender to slow the attack. If this is allowed, the other defenders have the opportunity to get back on defense. The player with the ball must go after the single defender and force him/her-to make an immediate decision. Once that decision is made, the attacking player has either a cross pass or a shot. In either case, if the attack is properly conducted, the counteroffense has a great chance to score.

Figure 19

Wrong - In the Two-on-One (2 vs. 1) the player with the ball needs to commit the defensive player before making a pass to teammate or a shot. The offensive player (white hat) just passed the ball without getting the defensive opponent (dark hat) to commit. He allowed both the field defender and the Goalkeeper to cover the ball.

Figure 20

In Figure 20 the Two-on-One (2 vs. 1), the offensive player needs to pick-up the ball quickly. In the photo, the offensive player (dark hat) kept the ball in the water too long. The defender (white hat) got too close and is pushing the ball under with the offensive player's hand on top of the ball thereby creat­ing a turnover.

Figure 21

In Figure 21 the Two--on--One (2 vs. 1), the offensive player (dark hat) picked up the ball early, attacked and got the defender (white hat) to commit to the ball. The offensive player reaches around the defender to safely make the pass to his teammate who is now completely free. This is the correct execution for the Two--on--One counterattack.

The Three-On-Two (3 vs. 2)

Most teams should be able to score one-on-none and two-on-one. When a team reaches three-on-two, the chance for a score is still great, but aggressive execution of the proper counter shooting structure is critical if a goal is to be scored. Most teams which can score in three-on-two situations produce winning programs. The three-on-two calls for the triangular structure of attack. The leadbreak arrives and ties down the inside defenders. The freebreak should come toward the middle and form the point of the triangle. See Figure 22.

Figure 22

The leadbreak players each are guarded by a defender. The beaten defender trails behind the freebreak player. The freebreak forms the point of a triangle.

Once the counter shooting structure is formed, the rules of attack are the same as with the two—on—one. Next, the free (point) player should be in possession of the ball. The ball can come to this player in a number of ways: direct pass from the Goalie, pass from one of the leadbreak players who may have received the ball from the Goalie, or a pass from a field player squaring-out near halfcourt. With the ball in hand, the point player should start the attack by coming to the vertical, aggressively attacking and pene­trating. Again, depending on the decision of the defensive players, one of two things take place. In the one option, the inside defense stays at home, continuing to guard the leadbreak players. In this case, the point player attacks hard and shoots the ball.. See Figure 23.

Figure 23

If one of the defenders attacks out, the point player should penetrate the ball toward this defender and make a safe pass to the non-guarded leadbreak player. See Figure 24 and Figure 25.

Figure 24 Figure 25

A defender can go to cover the free-break Here the freebreak gets cov­ered and makes a pass to the open player on the right side. A shot follows.

When attacking three–on–two, the triangle structure has sev­eral important advantages: First, when brought in by the point, the ball is kept at maximum angle for shooting advantage. Second, the ball never has to be passed over more than one defender. Third, at all times while attacking, the penetrating point player is in position to see the defensive players and offensive players in the area of the goal.

When all three offensive players arrive at the same time in the four-meter area, the center player does what I call popping the point, meaning the point player reforms the triangle by moving out and backwards "against the grain" and reforms the triangle. The popping player should angle out, looking to get to free water away from arriving defensive players. The popping player should move out while in a vertical shooting position and should get an arm up, ready to receive a pass. If three players arrive at the same time, forcing the point popping maneuver, the offensive Goalie will most likely have passed the ball to one of the two leadbreak play­ers. If undefended, that player takes the ball in for the shot. If defended, player with the ball should look to the player popping the point. If that player is free, the pass goes there for the shot. If the point is covered, the pass goes cross-cage to the opposite lead-break player. See Figure 26 through 29.   

Figure 26 Figure 27
Figure 28 Figure 29

In Figure 26 the player at the point reforms the tri­angle by pop­ping the point In Figure 27 popping thepoint, without the ball, gives the teammate extra room and could draw out a. defensive player. In figure 28 if the defensive player stays at home and covers the ball on the wing, pop­ping the point. Can lead to a shot. In Figure 29 if the defense attacks the player popping the point, a wing pass to the other side can lead to an open shot.

Three countering players arriving simultaneous in the four-meter area often occurs. Therefore, the "popping the point" maneuver should be regularly practiced.

Figure 30

Figure 30 shows improper positioning for the Three-on-Two triangle for counterattack shooting. The player in the right leadbreak position (at the top of the Figure 30) is reaching to catch the pass. This player has backed in and is forced to make a backhand shot while not seeing the goalie's position in the goal. The player in the right lead break position should be able to catch the pass on balance to the goal and be in position to observe the Goalie while taking the pass across his or her face before the shot.

The Four–On–Three (4 vs. 3)

The four–on–three situation is difficult to score and any team which makes more than 50% of their shots while in this structure is doing exceptionally well. The four–on–three calls for a rectan­gular shooting structure. The rectangle structure is shown Figure 31.

Figure 31

Once the rectangu­lar structure is formed by the leadbreak players tying down the inside of the defense, the outside player with the ball must attack in aggressively on the POINT DEFENDER The oppo­site outside player moves in simultaneously and in a parallel posi­tion. If the PONT DEFENDER commits to the ball, the cross pass is made. Generally, the shot comes from the cross pass as probably time is running out for additional maneuvers. If the point guard takes the other outside offensive player, this player should contin­ue in for a shot (3 vs. 2) and, again, if the inside defender attacks out, this player passes the ball to the free leadbreak player (2 vs. 1) for the shot. The rules remain the same whether attacking two–on–one, three–on–two, or four–on–three; only the initial structures change. As with the triangle, the players forming the rectangle structure keep the ball in the best shooting position, force passes to cross over the fewest defenders, and allow the player, while attacking in with the ball, to see the position of all the defenders. The player with the ball also can see all of his/her offensive teammates in the scoring area. Because the leadbreak ties down the inside defense, the attacking players always know where their free players are, no matter how the defense attempts to move. Proper counter shooting structures make for good percent­age water polo. See Figure 32, Figure 33, and Figure 34.

Figure 32 Figure 33

In Figure 32 the attacking player makes a pass for the shot. In Figure 33 the player with the ball attacks to the inside and can shoot when the defense takes the other outside player. The rectangle structure now becomes a triangle.

Figure 34

In Figure 34 when the attacking player is picked-up by the inside defender who was guarding the wing, the WING PLAYER gets the pass and shoots the ball.

In my counter system, the offense does not attack with five–on–four or six–on–five. Percentagewise, when the offense attacks with these numbers, the advantage is with the defense. Should the ball be turned over, five–on–four gives the defense a two–on–one advantage at the other end. Six–on–five is difficult enough to score when in the set, extra-player situation. At the end of a counter, it gives the defense an opportunity to "cherry pick" and creates a one–on–none situation. In my system, playing the per­centages (unless an obvious defensive error creates an easy shot), the team does not attack five–on–four or six–on–five. The players simply make the transition to the regular frontcourt offense and begin the attack.

In nearly every counterattack-shooting-structure, the hole position stays vacant for penetrating players. Other than the one–on–none breakaway, none of my structures places a player in the middle in front of the goal. The mid-area is kept free for pene­trating players. Whether it be the two–on–one leadbreak structure, the three–on–two triangle or popping-the-point structure, or the four–on–three rectangle, don't clog the hole or counterrotate. Create the leadbreak, then set the proper shooting structure based on the number of opposing players getting back to defend.

Over the years, this approach to counterattacking has been extremely successful and, in my opinion, far superior to other counterattack philosophies.

In addition to his lucid explanation of The Counterattack, Monte presents in his book, United States Tactical Water Polo, a series of excellent drills which will reinforce the concepts taught in the last four articles on The Counterattack. WPP will not have an article on these drills; however you can buy Monte's book and get them - Doc


(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.