Six on Five Offense: Part 1

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

A productive Six-on-Five Offense has never been more important to the successful team than it is today. Under present rules (and the interpretations of those rules), numerous ejections take place during the course of a game. Teams find themselves either up or down a player as much as one-third of the game. With this in mind, it behooves the successful coach to spend considerable time developing an efficient Six-on-Five Offense.

Six-on-Five Offenses fall into three main categories: The Four-Two; the Three-Three; and revolving combinations of the two. The revolving combinations provide opportunities for specific plays and can be used as a part of either structure to create certain shots. Plays can be overdone but do have value in the Six-on-Five Offense.

Recent rules have reduced the time for Six-on-Five Offense from: 35 seconds to: 20 seconds. This has changed the game significantly. During the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, team after team struggled with this aspect of the game. The low scoring percentage for Six-on-Five Offense demonstrated that teams had not caught up offensively with this rule change. From a coaching standpoint, a few things become immediately apparent:

First, if the ejection takes place during the transition, there may not be enough time to set up in a Four-Two structure.

Second, when it is possible to get to a Four-Two, there may not be time to get the players to positions they play best. In other words, even when there's time to move into a Four-Two structure, with the :20-second ejection, players may have to learn to play effectively in more than one position.

Third, the quick (shot taken immediately following the ejection call) has gained even more importance than it possessed under the :35-second rule.

Fourth, plays take time and, under certain conditions, may not be advisable for a particular ejection.

Finally, the Three-Three structure will become even more important, as it sets up quicker than a Four-Two and requires shorter passes through to the shot. Whatever course is followed, teams must improve their six-on-five scoring percentile over the Barcelona Games if they wish to be successful.

No matter what structure is being used in the Six-on-Five Offense, coaches must prepare their teams for that moment when the ejection takes place. Players must be trained to look immediately for the quick. In most cases, the quick shot should be taken by a player within the four-meter area and in front of the goal. Second, players should be aware of the ejection situation and set up in a structure which allows them maximum scoring opportunity. They need to consider where the ejection has taken place and the time it takes them to get into their offensive structure. Twenty seconds goes by quickly. Thirdly, players must be trained to be extremely careful with the first pass following the ejection. If the pass is not going to the quick, the passer must be aware of the positioning of fellow offensive players. They will be moving toward a Four-Two or Three-Three, and the first pass is an easy pass to throw away. For ball control to be maintained, players need to be specially trained with the first pass. Finally, if a shot is not created in :20 seconds, the opposing player returns to the defensive structure. It is better to control the ball and continue an intelligent attack for the final :15 seconds than to take a low percentage shot.

The Four-Two Offense

When we consider that over the course of a game, a team may have as many as ten six-on-five opportunities; it becomes apparent that it is important for the coach to be able to successfully teach the fundamentals of a Six-on-Five Offense. Top teams should score at or above the 60 percentile for this element of the game. To achieve success, a considerable amount of time must be spent practicing this essential phase of offense. In Six-on-Five Offenses, all players are in a static, vertical position, which can become extremely boring during a lengthy practice session. Most players enjoy the movement aspects of the game, so it is easy to see that this practice can stagnate, causing the patience and the level of concentration necessary of success to vanish, particularly among the younger players. When this happens, the practice rapidly falls apart.

The coach can avoid these problems and still put together a successful Four—Two Offense.

The Four-Two structure places four players across the front, near but not on the two-meter line (offensive players must be outside the two-meter line). The remaining two players take up a position six-or-seven meters from the goal line and on, or slightly outside, the posts of the goal. See Figure 1.

Figure 1

A variety of numbering or name systems have been used to describe player positioning, the most popular being the one shown in Figure 1. By numbering the players, it is easy to create passing sequences through number identification. Players quickly learn this system.

In my opinion, the Four-Two is the most versatile of the Six-on-Five Offensive structures and it creates the greatest number of shooting possibilities. Depending on the type of defense being played against the Four-Two, the free player on offense is most often in the front, or four-player line. Every player in the Four-Two Offense is a potential scorer, which creates problems for the defense. Every player needs to be skilled in the shots which might be attempted from his/her position.

The weaknesses of the Four-Two structure are:

It is a weakness that the Four-Two Offense plays wide. The Four-Two Offense uses up a lot of pool width and may be difficult to employ in narrow pools. It takes longer to set-up than a Three-Three. The Four-Two requires a greater number of experienced players, as the passes are longer than the Three-Three and all six players, when the opportunity occurs, are required to score from their positions. Many young teams have two or three good players and several weak ones. Playing an effective Four-Two Offense with several weak players may be enough of a reason to employ the Three-Three structure, which requires fewer quality athletes.

In positioning for the Four-Two Offense, either the 1 player or the 6 player should be outside of the other three front-line players. See Figure 2 and Figure 3.

Figure 2

Figure 3

It is important that either player 1 or 6 player be moved out away from the front line, as this opens the passing lanes. The coach must avoid placing all four front-line players in a straight line. Also, the players should never allow themselves to get into a 2-2-2 alignment, where player 2 and player 3 are on the posts, players 1 and player 6 are both out at four meters, and player 4 and player 5 are in their normal positions. When either of these two situations occurs, passing lanes are immediately destroyed and turnovers take place. Depending on which alignment gives the best attacking possibilities, player 1 and player 6 can easily rotate in and out from the front line.

The outside players in this offense means players 1, 4, 5, and 6. One of the main problems for the outside players in the Four–Two Offense is knowing what to do with the ball once it is received. A player with the ball sees the opposing Goalie, five defensive players, and teammates—a total of eleven people with whom he/she must deal. It can be overwhelming, particularly to younger players. What most often happens is this player can't read what the defense is giving. He/she can't find a proper pass. Chances are, no matter what the situation calls for, if this player possesses a strong arm, he/she will shoot the ball. If the shot is not taken, the player may turn away from the cage, ignoring the Goalkeeper, and simply look for a safe pass to one of the other outside offensive players. This happens regularly and neither of these decisions gets the job done. Shots should be taken when the opportunity to score is there. Passes should be thrown with more in mind than simply "unloading" the ball.

The offensive team needs to get the defense "locked on to the ball" before any delayed pass is made. The Goalie's position, as well as the other defensive players' positions, must be read at all times. The Goalie either should be beaten with the shot or "locked onto" by the player with the ball so the next pass forces the entire defense to move. With improper "reads," passes are wasted. With even one overthrown pass, the six–on–five can fall apart. The :20-second clock and offensive player advantage can rapidly disappear.

To overcome these problems and become a good six–on–five team, I teach three basic drills. Each is extremely important to mastering the Four–Two Offense. I like to work toward a 70% scoring average for attempts taken. If this can be achieved, a number of additional games are won. Even if the team is able to improve its six–on–five scoring average above the 50th percentile, it has taken a giant step forward.

Drill Description

The Hot Potato Drill

This is the simplest of the three six-on-five drills to be discussed, but it may be the most important to the success of the Four-Two structure. With the players in their normal Four-Two positions, and without defense, the ball should be passed quickly and logically among the six players. The passes need to be thrown high and with accuracy. All passes should be firm and the ball kept dry (never touching the water). Each pass must be thrown so it can be caught and immediately shot. It is extremely important that players learn that each pass must be placed so it can be caught and shot.     

Starting positions for the hot potato drill is the same as a Four-Two structure.

Figure 4

Actually there is no shooting in the Hot Potato Drill. Players work only on their passes. The important thing for the coach to monitor is that each pass is made to a shooting position.

The post players need to constantly and correctly position themselves in relationship to the location of the ball. They must learn to always be on balance and in position to accept a logical pass. When the ball comes in to a post player, it should always be placed high. The post player receiving the ball should immediately pass it to the other post position. This is for ball handling purposes, although post-to-post pass plays can be employed in later stages. The second post player should immediately pass the ball outside and the drill should continue. The Hot Potato Drill should be practiced daily.

Logical passing sequences should be encouraged, with the ball staying high, firm, and in constant receiving position for a shot. The ball must never be put on the water. Dry passing accuracy is the entire basis for a successful Four-Two Offense. Goalies and defensive field players must be constantly challenged and moved. When the ball is on the water, it can't be shot, and the defense has the opportunity to recover its balance.

As aforementioned, the Hot Potato Drill is simple, but it creates the entire base for a successful Six-on-Five Offense. Teams must be able to move the ball properly before they can achieve success with the extra-player offense.

(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)