Offensive Structures: Part 1

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

The Umbrella Offense

Water polo has known many different structures and patterns of frontcourt offense. Before the 2-M PLAYER (or set player) became the hub of the offense, teams played driving and rotating patterns with no one single player staying in the hole or set position. The "lung" and "triangle" were, as their names suggest, breaking patterns for players to follow. These patterns stayed popular into the late 1940s and early 1950s. At that time, the 2-M PLAYER started to come into vouge and, since then, offenses have been built around this position. Today, it's difficult to produce a winning team without strong two-meter play.

Presently, the two most popular structures of frontcourt offensive play are the Umbrella and the Three—Three (3-3). Both are built around the 2-M PLAYER, but similarities end there.

Throughout the rest of the world, the Umbrella is the most popular structure of frontcourt offense. In the United States, particularly at the high school level, there are far more Three—Three Offenses than Umbrellas.

Let's take a look at the Umbrella. It gets its name from the positioning of the players. When a line is drawn through each position, it takes the shape of an inverted umbrella. See Figure 1.

Figure 1

The Umbrella is particularly effective against pressing defenses. Its effectiveness is increased when played in Olympic size playing courses (30 meters x 20 meters). As this size course is generally the only one used in European water polo, the Umbrella has become the offensive structure of preference throughout this important part of the water polo world.

Positioning the 2-M PLAYER to the right or left of center goal creates excellent driving lanes. Drivers can be very effective against pressing defenses, and the Umbrella provides plenty of space for Drivers to operate.

As we look at Figure 1, we see the 2-M PLAYER has set up to the right (looking in from the perimeter) of center goal. This opens up optimum driving lanes for righthanded players. When the 2 M PLAYER 1 moves to the left of center cage, driving lanes for lefthanders (or off-the-water shooting righthanders) are opened. With the driving space available in the Umbrella, players also can cross-cage drive, thereby opening up the shooting side of their choice. Most international teams can work effectively to either side, so the 2-M PLAYER can take the side the defense is giving.

High school teams which use the Umbrella usually set it to work to their righthanders. For young teams, this can create a roblem for the 2-M PLAYER. Young athletes playing this position tend to work to their left when looking for a shot. If already playing to the right side of the cage, it can become difficult to get off a righthand sweep, as little room is available for this particular shot. This is one of the reasons high school teams favor the
Three–Three, where the 2-M PLAYER sets up center cage, there by allowing plenty of room to work to the left. Internationally, 2-M PLAYERS are so skilled that they can work to either side with nearly equal efectiveness.

Again, looking at Figure 1, the players in the 11-o'clock, 12-o'clock and 1-o'clock positions have excellent driving lanes open to them. If they beat their defenders, they can go to right or left or cross-cage. Also, the two wing-area players have plenty of space to drive the near side if the opportunity should arise. The umbrella creates wonderful picking opportunities from all the outside positions. The 12-O'CLOCK DRIVER can easily excute to either side what is called the "moving" pick. See Figure 2 and Figure 3.

On the next four diagrams the darker, thicker driver lines indicate the initial break. The second break is shown with gray, thinner lines. The sequence of the breaks are marked if possible.

Figure 2

A moving pick is shown with the POINT PLAYER driving to the right.

Figure 3

In Figure 3 a moving pick is shown with the POINT PLAYER driving to the left.

Crossover or wing picks can be run easily by the 11-O'CLOCK DRIVER and 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER in conjunction with the wings on their side. See Figure 4 and Figure 5.

Figure 4

Figure 4 shows a crossover wing pick on left side.

Figure 5

Figure 5 illustrates a crossover wing pick on right side.

As you can see, when attacking the press, the Umbrella has several advantages: easy access with the ball to the 2-M PLAYER, provided the 2-M PLAYER has at least partially fronted the defensive player; excellent one–on–one driving lanes; and excellent "picking" opportunities.

Disadvantages of the Umbrella are twofold: A strong 2-M PLAYER is required. If the 2-M PLAYER cannot get and hold front water on the defender, the Umbrella structure makes passing to this key position very difficult. Much time can be lost trying to properly position the ball with the 2-M PLAYER. Secondly, the Umbrella is very weak against good dropback defenses. See Figure 6.

Figure 6

Against the dropback defense, the only opportunity to free the 2-M PLAYER for the incoming pass is to have the player, who has been dropped off, swim through, thereby removing the defender. See Figure 7.

Figure 7

There can be problems with attempting to swim off the 2-M DEFENDER. First, every time a player swims through in an effort to clear the two meter position, approximately :07-seconds are lost from the shot clock. Second, teams which have physically big players find it very easy to simply step back in with another defender to front the set position. The successful effort to swim off the defender is oftentimes negated by another defender before the ball can safely be passed to the 2-M PLAYER. Big players can cover a lot of water simply by stepping out with their legs. When playing in a dropback, the distance to step in front of the 2-M PLAYER is shortened for the other defenders.

It is my personal opinion that the Umbrella is a very poor choice of offensive structure to attack the dropback defense. Interestingly enough, most of the world's top teams still use an Umbrella when playing against a dropback defense, oftentimes with limited success.

The question arises, "Why do so many European teams stay in the Umbrella against the dropback?"

I really don't know, but it's my opinion that with the tremendous physical and fundamental skills of so many of the European players, coaches have approached the game with more concentration on the individual skills of the players than on overall tactical concepts. Wins have resulted from the high skills of the individuals, who learn to overcome occasional tactical deficiencies. This is precisely the reason that the United States with a team of limited international experience and limited practice time, was able to catch up with the rest of the water polo world in the late 1970s.

To be continued...

In addition to his lucid explanation of Offensive Structures: The Umbella, Monte presents in his book, United States Tactical Water Polo, a series of excellent drills which will reinforce the concepts taught in the last the articles on Offensive Structures: The Umbrella. 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.

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)