The counter-attack is a critical offensive weapon to any team in that it can create easy goals and sets the tempo for the teams next offensive possession. Ted Newland, Monte Nitzkowski and Coach at Stanford were critical in advancing counter attack philosphies in the US game today. Teams that employ these strategies must have good game awareness and anticipation, decent team and individual speed, and knowledge of when to be patient. Coaches must be able to teach their team when to counterattack, how to generate good quality shots from a counter attack and how to control the ball when a counter attack breaks down from good defense.
A counter attack can be broken down in to a number of phases in water polo. The initial phase of the counter-attack can be characterized as the Anticipation phase. The second phase of the counter-attack can be characterized as the Attacking phase. And last, the final phase of the counter-attack can be characterized as Finishing phase.
All good counter-attack opportunities begin with good anticipation. This can be broken down into a number of areas. One, good clock anticipation can be characterized by teams that anticipate the later stages of the shot-clock and prepare themselves in body position and tactics to transition from defender to attacker. This can include sliding up from a pure defensive position to a more agressive transition position of being even with your defender. This is fairly safe at the deep wings or weak side of the defense but can be very dangerous if done on the strong side or at the 2m position. A good team or player will weigh the risk of positioning themselves relative to the player based on their ability to score or be involved in the offensive attack. A coach must instruct the players on the difference here as their primary responsibilty is to play defense and there is nothing more determental to winning a game then giving up goals late in the shot clock---it kills moral and the counter-attack.
Anticipation is critical for certain players that a coach may designate as critical to a counter-attack. On certain teams that I have coached, I have given certain players who possess good judgement and speed the ability to leave early late in the shot clock to make this a bigger threat in our game plan. I would especially use this tactic early in a game to attempt to establish this portion of our game plan and get early goals. It is amaziing what this will do to the opposing teams game plan if they are thinking of playing defense rather than offense late in the shot clock. In these cases, I would instruct players with the above charachteristics when they were up top in either the 2, 3 or 4 position to leave early but they must get on their back within 2 strokes to assess the situation. If a shot has been taken and the team retains possession is their job to get back into the defense position. The team was also instructed on how to cover up or press-away from the inbounding ball to help that player in transition.
Role of the Goalie
The goalie plays a critical role in starting and establishing the counter-attack. The first responsibility of the goalie is to collect and protect the ball from the offensive attack. This may include swimming the ball out to the flat or clear water to establish space for passing the ball.
The second thing a goalie must do is show the team that he has possession of the ball by either holding the ball high once he has clear water so that players in transition can see that they are free to counter. Additionally, the goalie can use his most important asset "his voice" to communicate that the team can transition. The goalie can call out "white or blue ball" or "counter" or any verbal indicator that allows his team to leave the defensive mindset and transition into the offensive attack.
The third priority for the goalie is passing the ball to safe water but not too safe that he pulls players out of the attack. This is a difficult balance as goalies that force the ball can kill counter-attacks by turning the ball over but passing the ball too safe will pull players out of position and allow defenses to recover and kill the counter. Passes include making safe passes to one on nobody's that don't make the ball that the opposing goalie can steal or narrow the shooting angle of the attacking player. A good rule for one on nobody breakaway passes should be either to hand or to water outside of 8 meters. If you can't get the ball to the player before they reach 8M then the player should outlet for the ball. Outlet passes should be within two strokes of the player and to the side that the player has open water. This will give the player the ability to protect the all from a defender but also maintain their momentum up the pool.
Lastly, it is critical for coaches to teach each of these skills in different drills for goalies. These skills can be worked on by designing drills that require goalies to make a block and swim the ball to open water. Passing drills that require them to make outlet passes to one on nobody or outlet passes (3 on 2 drills). Additionally, a drill that I liked goalies to do while warming up was starting at different lane markers on the bottom of the pool make 5 passes to another goalie and then back-up until they were inside 6 M. Once they were inside 6 M they would then work their way back to the opposing 6 M line. Goalies should focus on good mechanics of making sure the ball tethers are spinning backwards. Another benefit of this drill was that it accentuated mechanic problems with passing for goalies and field players (if you have stubborn student-athlete this is a great drill to have them do with a goalie to ensure they see that they are throwing the ball incorrectly).
Releasing for the Ball
This is one of the most important parts of teaching a successful counter-attack. This is especially crucial in preparing High School student-athletes for the next level. In HS, the one on nobody is a real opportunity especially as athletes take advantage of game and situational knowledge and anticipate turnovers effectively. However, most counter-attacks are 2 on 1 and 3 on 2 type opportunities so releasing for the ball is essential to getting the ball into the front court.
A good release starts with proper swimming skills. The first move into the counter-attack is generated by 3 to 4 hard freestyle strokes with their head down followed by 3 to 4 strokes backstroke. The move to the backstroke allows the player to determine if the ball has been recovered and if not return to play defense or to make eye contact with the goalie or field player who has recovered the ball. The player on his back can also see if his defender is behind, even or in front of them and to determine if they must release for the ball.
A good release is made at a slight right angle to the side the ball is passed. Again, goalies should be instructed to make the pass to safe water so that the defender must go through the offensive player to get to the ball. This may take this player slightly out of their swimming angle but gives them the chance to have safe water to make the next pass.
Once the player recieves the ball in the outlet the player can pass the ball to the next offensive player who has the best chance of either scoring or advancing the ball. If the player is going to pass the ball they should take the time to get in good body position and make a good solid ball side pass or late dry pass to the point man (3) in transition or the right top flat (4) in transition.
Ball side Driving
The 3, 4 or 6 (2 meter defender) in transition should be working up the court to gain ball side advantage. They can do this either by stop and start driving, changing speeds, or picking with other offensive players. The ball side drive is the most effective drive because it makes for a safer pass from the releasing player in the counter-attack. The ball side drive is an offensive drive from the minute the ball turns over. The goal is to drive with space and position to somewhere inside 5 meters between the posts for a pass that they can either shoot with a strong side turn, layaway or backhand (if the defender has overrotated to the inside on the pass). If a foul occurs while making this move or the defense is too good the player should look to retain control of the ball and act as a 2 meter man and look to pass to the offensive player coming up the pool. Jim Sprague taught this concept to perfection by teaching players to move the ball to the deep wing if fouled inside the attack zone (5 meters inside the 2 posts). This opening up of space allows the players trailing the counter-attack to become attacking players or opens up the water for the 2 meter man to establish the offense. It is my experience that most goals or mismatches at 2 meters occur when this takes place.
If a player can not establish ball side on a drive in the counterattack he/she is still a threat. The player should look to push the player towards the middle or right post as much as possible and within 6 meters make a drive at a quick angle by changing direction and pace to separate from the defender. Once the player has seperation he/she should get to their back and get hips set in ready position to be able to get elevation for shot. This will also provide some space that the defender will be reticent to come through to get the shoulder. (This is where the player should have practiced water polo backstroke e.g. backstroke arms with breastroke kick). This will allow the player to open up a dry pass from the release player to a quick rare back (RB) or as Tony Aczevedo once displayed in a Stanford vs. UCLA game a great directional shot with the inside left hand.
If the 3 and 4 player or the 4 and 2 meter guard are working hard in the transition game and communicate they should look to set picks occasionally to keep the defense honest. This can be highly effective in drawing kick-outs as defensive players tend to grab in the open court off picks and the proper vocal and good body positions can draw attention to this for the official. The pick is also very effective in getting defenders to drop their hips and put them in a position where even big players can drive past more agile defenders. Picks should be set at half-court or just inside the offensive end of play. Additionally, a good way to teach this is to teach this in response to a foul on outlet pass. If a player hears a whistle look for a pick to set. This is remember dead time and therfore prime time for kick-outs to be called by the official.
Counter Attack Defense
There are several defensive strategies that should be taught to teams about how to stop a counter-attack. The most conservative is to teach the team to protect the middle of the pool first and always be congniscent of players behind them. This is especially difficult to teach High School players. The key to instruction is again good body position in swimming. Teach defenders to swim 3-4 strokes on freestyle and then get their head-up to look for holes in the defense in the center of the pool. Once the middle of the pool is covered defensively and you are even then you need to think about whether to help middle to establish a drop or press the outlet to stop offensive momentum.
Pressing the Outlet
Pressing the outlet pass may be counter intuitive with the above advice but it also can be an effective weapon in stoping the counter-attack. However, it is a tricky tactic that is dependent on adjusting to the referee's. Referee's are apt to call quick fouls in the counter-attack so you must decide if you are going to foul and drop or press and disrupt. I have seen both tactics work well.
Fouling and Dropping
Foul and drop defenses are best as they allow the defender to stop the ball in the back-court but still help in the attacking defense. If the referee's are letting you play then you should instruct players to foul the outlet and ensure they separate the ball from the player. This can be done over-agressively so instruction is key by the coach to ensure it is done with the proper intention and skill to ensure there is no kick-out. Once the ball is separated, I have seen coaches instruct players to bury the offensive player underwater. This was not a philosophy that I liked.