Five-Player Counterattack

Monte Nitzkowski
US Men's Olympic Coach '72, '80, and '84

In the mid-1970s, I developed a five-player counterattack which I used extensively with the United States Olympic Team. Over the years, it provided some important victories for us in close games. The five-player counterattack is not the answer to your entire offense but, at times, it can provide some crucial goals. It definitely has value and is worth the coach's time and effort to install as a part of your overall game plan.

In concept, the five-player counterattack differs completely from the normal counterattacking system. Rather than trying to beat the opponents with all the variables of the Cardinal Rules for counterattacks, the five-player counter is designed as a set play. Each time the ball is turned over in the six–on–five, the five-player counterplay automatically "kicks in." There is no middle ground. Either it will free a player for a two-on-one or a three-on-two shot, or it will be stopped completely. It either works for a high percentage shot, or creates nothing, forcing a transition to regular frontcourt-offensive play.

To get a player free for a shot, the defense basically must make two mistakes - attack the Goalie after the shot in an effort to get a rebound goal; and attempt to defend the first field pass in the counterplay. Fortunately for the offense, this situation is a regular occurrence. If it does happen, chances are the five-player counter-play will work for a high-percentage shot. Many teams running a four–two, six–on–five structure attack the Goalie from the post positions when the Goalie has successfully knocked down the shot. The five-player counterplay is based on this move by the defense.

As aforementioned, the attacking of the Goalie by post players, followed by any defensive player attempting to defend the first or second field pass, allows the five-person counterplay to free a player for a shot. Let's take a look at how the play works.

All five defensive players react the same way with the shot or turnover. The players in Figure 1 are numbered so their moves easily can be followed. It shows the defensive players in the Three-Two (3 – 2) zone defense.

Figure 1: Three-Two zone, defensive players numbered

With the shot the following actions take place by the five defenders as they start the five-person counterplay. See Figure 2.

Figure 2: Movies of the inside WING DEFENDER.

 Players 1 and 3 break to "clear" water in what I call the "flat" area. They will move as far away as possible from the for­mer offensive players who were in the 1 and 6, Four-Two positions. The reason they go to clear water in the flat is to permit the Goalkeeper to "bail out" the ball quickly, safely, and success­fully when under attack. If a Goalkeeper is under extreme pressure from attacking post players, the Goalkeeper must know there is a safe area where the ball can be immediately thrown. If the WING DEFENDERS don't move immediately to the flat area, the Goalie is in deep trouble. The Goalkeeper may have to throw the ball out of bounds. Otherwise, the alternatives are not good - ball under is a penalty throw for the opponents; and a turnover in front of the goal without defensive help is a near-certain goal for the other team. This is why WING DEFENDERS, when the Goalie is under attack, must always move to the flat and provide an area where the ball can be safely "unloaded."

Player 2 counters hard and straight down the center of the pool. Players positioning in the middle spot in the back line of the Three-Two zone must be big and have good end-to-end speed. The only time player 2 would not go with the shot is if the shot rebounds into his/her area. If this happens, he/she should help con­trol the ball. For all intents and purposes, when the rebound lands in the area of the 2 defender, the five-person counterplay is dead. Again, percentage wise, the rebound does not often end in this position, so the 2 player must be ready and willing to counter out of the center position in an aggressive fashion. When successful, the "streaking" 2 player ends up being one of the two offensive players in a two-on-one shooting situation and, generally, the point player if the three-on-two triangle situation is created.

Figure 3: Center defender player “streaks” the middle.

Players 4 and 5 also counter hard down the field of play. They must be "look-swimming" (looking to see to which flat the Goalie is bailing out the ball). Whichever side that is, either the 4 or 5 player executes a square-out. The other player continues the counter. See Figures 3 and 4.

Figure 4


The ball goes from the goalie to player 3, which means player 5 will square

Figure 5

The ball goes from the goalie to player 3, which means player 4 will square.

Now we come to the key pass. The 1 or 3 player (whichever player gets the Goalie pass) must kick up hard and make the next pass. If he/she has broken to free water in the flat (free and not being attacked), this player has time to read the counter defense quickly and make the correct pass. If the middle player 2 and the other outside offensive player have created a two-on-one, the pass should go directly to the square-out 4 or 5 and that player should pass to the freest player in the two-on-one. If the defense attacks the flat area player, he/she should absorb the foul, then quickly throw a lead pass to the squar­ing player on his/her side.

A lead pass is a pass thrown past the squaring player and not directly to the square-out position. By leading the squaring player, that player is immediately forced to come off the square, get to the ball and dribble downcourt. In this case, a three-on-two will be formed among this player, the streaking center player, and the opposite side, outside player.

If the player receiving the Goalie pass in the flat area is not guarded, he/she should pick up the ball and read the defense for a two-on-one or a three-on-two situation. If it's a two-on-one, hit the square. If it's a three-on-two, lead the square.

For young teams, I would advise always leading the square. Although this forces some two-on-ones to become three-on-twos, it's an easier and safer "read" for young players. Experienced teams should be able to master both the two-on-one and two-on-two “reads”. See Figures 6 and 7.

Figure 6

This shows a counter situation with Goalie going to the 1 player and the 1 player passing to the squaring 4 player who, in turn, passes to either the 2 or 5 player for a two-on-one counter attempt.

Figure 7

This shows the Goalie passing to the 3 player and the 3 player throwing a lead pass to the squaring 5 player who attacks with the ball, creating the three-on-two triangle with the 2 and 4 players.
As you can see, the five-person counter is a set play. It will work well if the defense makes several early defensive commit­ments. This happens all the time. If the counterplay doesn't work, the offense still can control the ball, get their ejected player back in the game and set up the frontcourt offense.

Most plays, no matter what the sport you are playing, are set to run in the same general fashion each time. This is true of the five-person counterplay. The only exception to the rule would be if there is an immediate breakaway by one of the two outside defend­ers. In this case, if the Goalie has the time, he/she should go to that player with the ball. However, even when a breakaway occurs, if the Goalie is under serious attack, the Goalie has to go to the flat area with the first pass. Other than the breakaway, the Goalie or field players should not break the progression of passes as set up for the play. The play is based on certain early commitments by the defense. When the ball is advanced out of progression (skip­ping ahead of the play with a pass), the defense will likely drop-back, jam the middle and defeat the counterplay. It is extremely important that the passing sequences of the five-person counter-play be followed in proper order.

If the ball is not shot, but intercepted by one of the defensive field players, the five-person counterplay should advance from that spot as if the Goalie pass had been made. Example: If the ball is intercepted by the 1 or 3 players, the 4 and 5 players should counter, with the appropriate player squaring and the 2 player streaking. If either the 4 or 5 player intercepts the ball, they should treat it as the second lead-pass and counter, with a three–on–two in mind. In this case, the 2 player should be streaking. If the 2 player intercepts the ball, the play is broken. Simply control the ball and move to your frontcourt-offensive ­transition game.

Once the five-person counter is underway and the 1 and 3 players have moved to the flat, with the ball moved up to the 4, 5 or 2 positions, players 1 and 3 should stay briefly in the backcourt and watch the outcome of the two–on–one or three–on–two counter. This is for defensive purposes in case the counter fails. Once the outcome of the counter is evident, with their team still controlling the ball, players 1 and 3 should start moving into the frontcourt. The ejected player should be monitor­ing the situation carefully from the penalty box and when waved in by the referee, should move either to a defensive position or quick­ly toward the frontcourt. The situation at the moment helps deter­mine this decision. If in doubt, the ejected player should move out in front of his/her goal and take a defensive stance.

With the rule change allowing only :20 seconds of extra play­er shot clock time for the six–on–five team, the five-player coun­terattack becomes even more important to the game. Many six–on–five teams shoot sooner, before they are completely bal­anced for the attack. Because of this, the present rules enhance the five-player counterattack possibilities.

Monte Nitzkowski(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.