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How to Beat a Dropback Defense in Water Polo

For many water polo teams, offensive passing and driving revolves around the hole set. It is for this very reason that dropback defensive strategies, such as crashing, dropping, and sloughing have been developed. Since these popular tactics effectively shut down the hole set, your team's offense needs to be prepared for them.

It is important to work on your dropback defense strategies in practice to accurately mimic a game situation. Luckily, there are several excellent ways to thwart a dropback defense, and having a team that knows more than one approach is a good idea. This guide explains the most common and effective ways to work around a dropback defense.

Drive the Defender Out

The most straightforward way to force a dropped defender out of the hole set's area is for one of the flats or the point to drive. When any of these top three players moves toward the goal, they become a bigger threat and force the dropped defender to cover them.

If your defender has dropped, it is your responsibility to drive. While it is possible for another perimeter player's drive to clear out the area in front of the hole set, your drive to the cage is the best way to get your defender to cover you again.

That drive will open up the hole set for a pass for a small window of time, before another defender is able to drop or crash. There are a few things to remember if you are the one driving to clear a defender out of the hole.

  1. Don't drive between the hole set and whoever has the ball: Since the point of this drive is to open up the hole set, you should drive your defender towards the goal and away from the ball rather than choosing a path that runs between the two.
  2. Don't forget that you're still a potential shooter: As with any drive, there is the chance that you will become open for a shot. If the defender doesn't follow you to the goal, you will be in prime scoring position, so always look for a pass from a teammate.
  3. As soon as the hole set is open, pass: Don't wait too long after a drive has been run to pass the ball into the hole set. The moment the hole set gets open, their teammate with the ball needs to give them a good wet pass.
Hot Tip: Tell Someone Else to Drive

If it doesn't make sense for you to drive — if you're playing at the bottom as a wing, or if it would be more effective for a different perimeter player to drive — don't be afraid to tell them. Sometimes someone just needs to make the decision to prevent wasting precious seconds on your shot clock.

Pass the Ball Strategically

As an alternative to running drives, a team playing against a dropback defense can also capitalize on their passing abilities. The right passes can maneuver someone into a shooting position. This tactic requires the ball to always be in the hands of the most open player; the player whose defender is dropping. This will usually be the 2, 3, or 4 perimeter positions. However, if a wing's defender decides to drop, that wing should also be considered a potential shot because of their close proximity to the goal.

As soon as the open player has the ball, they need to become a threat, treading in toward the goal and pump faking. If and when their defender returns and a different defender drops, the player with the ball can quickly pass it to the newly open player. The newly open player will probably be able to fire a shot into a cage with an unprepared goalie and minimal field defenders in their way.

Mental Edge

Don't get discouraged. It's easy to be stymied by a dropback defense, especially if you're used to relying on the set for plays. Remember: The key is to move. Running drives and shifting into shooting lanes is the only way that you'll be able progress your offense. Further, a strong shot from the perimeter may be all you need to scare the defense into guarding man-to-man again.

Use the Umbrella Setup

Rather than trying to drive dropping defenders out of the hole, the offense can also remove the hole set entirely. This means setting up in a semicircle — also known as an "umbrella" — around the cage. Since there is no longer a hole, there will no longer be any droppers.

This offensive setup needs some practice before it is used in a game, since coordinating drives and picks is a little trickier. It is also much easier to guard from a defensive standpoint than a 3-3, since the offense tends to be much closer to each other.

Shoot the Ball

If your defender has dropped off of you to guard the hole set, you are open to shoot. If you have a good position relative to the cage and get a strong pass from a teammate, this shot may work. Accuracy is important, so practice shooting from the 2, 3, and 4 perimeter positions. This is a good time to try a skip shot and aim for the high corners.

Another way to get open for a shot if your defender has dropped is to fake a drive. If they commit and blindly head to the cage, you can pop up instead of finishing the drive and receive a pass for a shot.

Dropback Defense Leaves Plenty of Options

A dropback defense should never be the end of your team's offense. Remember that during a dropback defense, the other team has decided to shut down one — just one — player. This leaves another player constantly open. Between the five remaining field players, a few good drives and accurate passes should result in scoring opportunities. Use good judgment, move around, and make accurate passes to thwart their defense.

Dropping back is a common defensive strategy in water polo. This guide explains the basics of how to keep your offense strong against crashing, sloughing, and dropping.
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