Offensive Structures: Part 3

Monte Nitzkowski
US Men's Olympic Coach '72, '80, and '84
01/15/08

The Thre—Three Offense

  The Three—Three Offense Against Dropback Defenses  

At this time in water polo history, the dropback defense has become the most popular form of team defensive thinking. This is particularly true at the collegiate and international levels. Internationally, far more teams now use some form of dropback defense, abandoning four quarter of the press.Modem day rules interpretations have made it very difficult for the 2-M DEFENDER remain in the game past the first or second foul. No longer can the defender "hack" away on the 2-M PLAYERS and expect to remain in the game. By the same token, with the rise of big, strong, talented 2-M PLAYERS, an ordinary foul does not always prevent the high percentage shot.

Coaches planning team defensive strategies have been left with few alternatives. The obvious way to prevent the 2-M DEFENDER from being ejected is to deny the ball to the offensive 2-M PLAYER. To do this, teams have continued to develop successful dropback strategies.

Interestingly enough, when it comes to the dropback, offensive thinking has lagged far behind defensive thinking. Referee interpretations force coaches to plan different defenses, but different defenses have not forced coaches to design new offensive philosophies. The world continues to play against sophisticated dropbacks as if they were presses or simple sloughing styles of defense. The Umbrella offensive structure, which spreads out in a way to successfully attack presses and sloughs is not suited for attacking sophisticated dropbacks. Still coaches continue to employ it against dropbacks. This is a great mistake!

Can you imagine National Football League coaches attacking changing defenses with only one offensive structure?

It would be a sure way to both a losing season and unemployment.

Figure 10

Shows and Umbrella Offense against a Drop Defense.

The problems the Umbrella structure encounters when attacking a dropback are listed here: See Figure 10.

By design of the Umbrella Offense, defensive players can be positioned to play effectively on their perimeter opponents and still have a short distance to cover back and take away the pass to the offensive 2-M PLAYER. The distance is shortened further when the defense plays in a "gap" dropback.

When attacking a dropback with the Umbrella, the popular method of freeing the 2-M PLAYER is for the offensive player who has been dropped from, to swim through and remove the defender from in front of the 2-M PLAYER. In concept, this is a good idea but, in reality, it doesn't work well against highly skilled defensive teams. First, it takes approximately :07-seconds for the offensive player to swim his/her player off the 2-M PLAYER. These :07 seconds can be put to better use by the offense. Second. teams playing physically large defenders can simply step in front of the 2-M PLAYER with another defender before the 2-M PLAYER either receive the ball, or effectively position for a shot. Again, this is particularly true if the defensive team is playing a "gap" dropback.

When using the swim through method to remove the defender from in front of the 2-M PLAYER, oftentimes teams swim their top shooters out of the perimeter area, the very location where most of the best shots will develop against dropback defenses.

Again, the way the Umbrella forms, WING PLAYERS are not in high percentage shooting positions should they become free for a shot. Also, they are pushing the 11-O'CLOCK DRIVER, 12-O'CLOCK DRIVER and 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER too close together. This not only limits shooting lanes to the goal, but makes it easier for the defenders covering those players to position themselves to shut down both the two-meter game and the perimeter game.

What then is the best structure for attacking a dropback defense?

In my opinion there is only one, and that is the Three–Three. The Three–Three, properly taught, trained and staffed can be highly effective against all styles of dropback defense. Either it is not employed, or it is not employed correctly against drop defenses because many coaches don't know how to apply the Three–Three in drop situations.

The keys for making the Three–Three work against the drop-back are personnel and positioning.

Figure 11

Figure 11 shows the Three–Three Offense against a Drop Defense.

  Pesonnel and Positioning  

See Figure 11. In the Three–Three Offense Against Dropbacks, the 2-M PLAYER takes position on the two-meter line at center goal. It is particularly important that the 2-M PLAYER stays directly in front of center goal as much as practical. The center goal positioning for the 2-M PLAYER opens up the outside shooting lanes. The wings play at two-to-three
meters, approximately four meters to the sides of the goal posts. The outside line finds the 11-o'clock and 1-o'clock positions out about six meters from the face of the goal and just outside of the goal posts. The "point" or 12-O'CLOCK DRIVER plays center goal, about seven meters to the outside. It is critical, if outside passing lanes are to remain open, that outside players form and maintain a triangle configuration.

  Shooting Specialists  

The key players in the Three–Three as it plays against drop-backs are the 2-M PLAYER, 11-O'CLOCK DRIVER,12-O'CLOCK DRIVER, and 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER. All should be specially trained for their positions. This always is expected of the 2-M PLAYER no matter what the structure of the offense but, in the Three–Three against the dropback, the three outside players also must be specialists in their positions. This means all the players in the outside triangle must be outstanding shooters, trained to read the defense and to recognize when shots should be taken.

Basketball has done this for years. Basketball teams work to create shots for players who, in turn, are highly skilled in taking shots from certain positions.

Looking at the outside triangle, the 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER must be a righthander and the 11-O'CLOCK DRIVER should be a lefthander. If a lefthander is not available, a quick release shooting righthander with good size and leg support should be utilized. Ideally, the point player should be righthanded and one of the best players. The point player quarterbacks the Three–Three against the dropback. Looking at Figure 12, see the heart of the Three–Three Offense—the 2-M PLAYER, the 11-O'CLOCK DRIVER, the 12-O'CLOCK DRIVER, and the 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER.

Figure 12
These four players make or break the offense. All must be trained in their positions. All the outside shooting specialists need to be good-sized players, with the trained ability, when shooting lanes open, to catch and quick release shoot the ball. Both the 11-O'CLOCK DRIVER and 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER should have the size to get up and over the defense. Small players, even when possessing good shooting ability, may find it difficult to keep the ball "above" the defense. The 12-O'CLOCK DRIVER does not have to be as big as the (1-O'CLOCK DRIVER and 11-O'CLOCK DRIVER, but needs great quick shooting ability and also must be able to read the defense. Many times, the Goalie's view is screened out by the 2-M PLAYER and the 2-M DEFENDER. When the ball is brought from the 11-O'CLOCK DRIVER to the point, and the defender is dropping off the point, a quick release shot low to either the right or left corner is a high percentage opportunity.

The concept of shooting specialists in the correct positions is employed extensively in basketball and is sound theory. Water polo plays with a :35-second shot clock. Considering that at least :15-seconds are lost in the counterattack and transition to front-court offense, ball possession time is extremely limited. To use these precious, offensive, :20-seconds against dropback defenses with anything but your strongest players in the key offensive positions makes little sense and plays into the hands of the defense.

This is why I oppose swimming through to remove the dropping defender on the 2-M PLAYER. Swimming through, besides wasting precious seconds, requires the offensive players to rotate positions, oftentimes putting weaker shooters into key shooting positions. This is not good percentage water polo.

The WING PLAYERS have a role to play as well, although not as important a role as the other four players. The wings must monitor the position of the ball and rocker arm toward the outside when the player with the ball on the opposite side appears to be ready for the shot. Rocker arming is a teeter-totter effect to improve wing positioning against the counterattack. As the Three–Three is easy to read when it comes to the shot, the wings must be in a position to cover back when it appears a shot is coming from the opposite side. Also, the wings must monitor their defensive players and be prepared to receive the pass if a defender is dropping too far from his/her position. This happens on occasion. The WING PLAYERS should always be on balance to the goal (in good shooting balance), and have their shooting arm up and ready to receive the ball throughout the entire time of possession. The left WING PLAYER should be a righthander and, if available, the right WING PLAYER a lefthander. In any case, the wings should be adept at quick release shooting, as this is the type of shot which has the best opportunity of scoring from their positions.

  Cardinal Rules of the Three—Three  

There are certain Cardinal Rules which must be followed if the Three–Three is to be effective against the dropback defense.

  The Ball Moves Faster Than The Defenders  

Defensive players cannot swim or step in and out in the drop-back defense as fast as the ball can be moved with the pass. Simply put, no swimmer in the world can swim faster than the flight of the ball. Therefore, when the offense plays in a properly spread Three–Three and the ball is moved correctly, the pass always outpositions the defense. Either the (2-M PLAYER) or one of the offensive players on top (1-o'clock, 12-o'clock or 11-o'clock) are always free. If the defense chooses to over drop from the wings, one of these players will be free.

  Positioning The Ball  

The Three–Three attacks the dropback defense from the outside (the outside triangle with shooting specialists properly positioned). The following three rules must be followed by the offense if high percentage shots are to be created:

Remember, the ball should always be with the freest player. This can be the 2-M PLAYER if the team beats the drop. If not, it should be with one of the perimeter shooting specialists. On rare occasions, the WING DEFENDER drops too far and the attacking perimeter player may want to put the ball to a wing.

When the attacking perimeter player draws his guard off the 2-M PLAYER but another defender drops in before the pass can be made to the hole, the attacking player should give a fmal chest fake (lift the chest, arm, and ball in the shooting motion) to lock the Goalie onto the ball, then make the cross pass to the freest player in the outside triangle. Generally, this is the player whose defender has moved in to front the 2-M PLAYER. The ball should be passed firmly and to a position where it can be caught and immediately shot. This does not mean the player receiving the cross pass always shoots; it simply means a quick-release shot can be taken if a shooting lane has opened, and the Goalie was properly locked to the other side of the goal. This type of situation develops if the offensive execution is sharp. If the player receiving the ball does not choose to shoot, he/she should immediately start attacking in on the defense and the entire sequence begins again.

The Three–Three uses ball movement rather than swimming movement to create a shot. Properly executed, the defense can be outpositioned most of the time. The Three–Three allows the best shooters to be in the right spot all of the time. The time on the shot clock can be used to best advantage, as little time is wasted in setting up and starting the attack and no time is lost to players driving through and cluttering the two-meter area.

Can a drive ever by used while playing a Three–Three against the dropback?

One never says "never." However, there are only two cases where I might use a drive against the dropback. The first would be at the end of the transition from the counterattack to frontcourt offense. It can be made to appear that a driving offense is being initiated by first foul driving to get shooting specialists into their correct positions. Secondly, on the rare occasion when the dropping defender turns his/her back to the perimeter offensive player, this player (11-O'CLOCK DRIVER, or 1-O'CLOCK DRIVER) can drive and hope to receive a timing pass from the 2-M PLAYER Past these two situations, there should be no drives in the Three–Three Offense when playing against a dropback. Driving only clutters the area around the 2-M PLAYER and takes good shooters out of prime positions. The way to outposition the drop-back is with ball movement, not body (swimming) movement.

To be continued...

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