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Understanding Power Plays in Water Polo

After committing a major foul, a water polo player is ejected from the game for 20 seconds. This situation goes by many names, including: Power play, six-on-five, man-up, ejection, or exclusion. There may be several of these major fouls over the course of a game, and each team must quickly adjust to the new power play conditions when they occur. During the blur of action and the shift to an entirely different organization, it can be easy to lose track of what’s going on in the water. This guide explains the 6-on-5 setup from both an offensive and defensive standpoint.

What is a Six-on-five?

A six-on-five is exactly what it sounds like: An offense of six players versus a defense of only five. If your team is on offense, you now have a distinct advantage for a shot on goal. If you’re on defense, someone on your team will always have the challenge of covering two players at once.

During a six-on-five, both teams shift to a different setup around the goal. The offense does so to take advantage of their now-extra player, and the defense to keep their weakness to a minimum. The ejected player must swim to the side of the pool, usually behind a lane line and inside the five meter mark, and remove themself from play until a shot is scored, the 20 seconds are up, or there’s a turnover.

Mental Edge

React to an exclusion call quickly. If on offense, try to immediately take advantage of any open players near the goal. If on defense, quickly covering those players closest to the cage can prevent them from scoring an easy goal.

The Four-two Setup: Offense

The most common offensive setup for a six-on-five is a four-two. Four players line up on or near the two-meter line (two on the goal posts and one outside the each post by a few feet), while the other two players position themselves on the five-meter mark and in line with the goal posts.

The players in the first line of offense — those nearest the goal — are numbered (from left to right) one, two, three, and six. The top two players are numbers four and five.

The perimeter players must make fast, dry passes to one another as the defense attempts to cover them. There are a few things to keep in mind to make a four-two setup during a six-on-five effective:

Shoot Quickly

The defense is often at their weakest and least organized in the seconds immediately following the ejection. A quick pass to a teammate with a good position who is not covered yet has a high success rate.

Be a Threat

One option in the four-two is to make a quick pass to a perimeter player who, before the defense and goalie can shift accordingly, shoots and scores. That means that in order to throw the goalie off as much as possible, passers must look like they are going to shoot. Players must execute good fakes and fast, accurate passes for this shot to work.

Don’t Forget About the Middle Players

Another tactic is to pass around the perimeter until one of the inside positions on the post opens up. The ball is then passed in for a tip shot. These shots are very effective, but the player on the post needs a dry, accurate pass to make the shot.

Spread Out

Bunch together and you’re making the defense’s job that much easier. Staying wide and maintaining good spacing will make it harder for one defender to guard two players at once. This will also help players on the post to get open.

The Four-Two Setup: Defense

As soon as an ejection is called, the defense needs to quickly cover the biggest threats in the water: The players closest to the goal. In a defensive four-two setup, the five defensive players in the field are numbered one through five, starting at the defender on the left post and moving clockwise.

In a standard defense for a four-two, three defensive players position themselves between the four offensive players in the first row (those closest to the goal). A player should guard each post and one more player covers the middle. All three shift back and forth to cover the two players nearest them and closest to the ball. The remaining two defensive players position themselves between the bottom two post players and the top two post players. They will go back and forth between these two positions to fill in defensive gaps as the ball and other defenders move.

Cover the Biggest Threats First

The biggest threats will always be the players closest to the goal and closest to the ball… which changes as the ball moves. Each defender will constantly be shifting between two players depending on where the ball is. Defensive players should keep one arm up as much as possible in order to maximize coverage of the goal.

Force the Goal from the Weak Shot

Whether it’s from a weak position (one outside the posts) or a player with a known weak arm, try to force the offense to take their least-powerful shot. Working together as a team becomes even more important at this point. The field players and the goalie need to communicate with one each other to decide where to force the ball.

Don’t Panic

It’s rare for a water polo game to end without at least a few six-on-fives. An ejection call isn’t the time to panic. Rather, it’s time to assess the situation, react to major threats or opportunities, and to help your team by filling in the gaps. Knowing each of the positions on both offense and defense and what their responsibilities are will help your team transition fluidly as soon as someone is ejected. With any luck, all your practice will result in a quick goal while on offense, or a turnover if on defense.

Ejections and man-up situations are not uncommon in a game of water polo. Check out this guide to understand what goes into a successful six-on-five.
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