Water Polo Analysis

How will new FINA rules change the water polo game?

FINA RULES
Photo: Massimo Finizio

During the past four years, FINA, the world governing body for aquatic sports and water polo, has proposed a number of water polo rule changes, supposedly in order to speed up the game and make it more attractive for spectators and to make it easier for emerging countries to adopt the sport. During this time period, a number of international tournaments have used the new FINA rules to see how they would affect the game and how it is being played. Most of the tournaments have been Junior and Youth World Championships for boys and girls, including the recent FINA Youth Boys Championship in Montenegro; but also included several senior games and tournaments for men and women, including World League tournaments.

Following are my conclusions on what I feel will be the effect of these rules (if they are adopted) on the game that is being played today. My conclusions are based on my direct observation of many of the “experimental” games that were streamed, as well as published reports from coaches who participated in experimental games like the recent FINA World Youth Championships. I have also corresponded with one of the foremost authorities on water polo, eight-time Olympic player and coach, Mr. Tom Hoad from Australia, who personally attended many of these major International men and women’s senior and junior tournaments. I personally attended the Men’s World League Finals in Italy last year that used some of the new rules.

I recently watched parts or all of many of the games at the FINA Boy’s Youth World Championships in Montenegro. These games were played under all of the proposed new FINA rules of 5-a-side in the field, 11 players on the team, 25-meter playing course, 25-second shot clock, 15-second exclusion period, and the women’s size ball.
Keep in mind that not all of the proposed new rules were used in every tournament. Women and girls, for instance, did not use a smaller water polo ball in their tournaments. At the Men’s World League Tournament in Bergamo, Italy last year, the only rule change was shortening the pool from 30 meters to 25 meters. The fact that all of the proposed rules were not used in every tournament actually allows us to distinguish between different rules, and how they individually affect the game.

The new rules were supposed to SPEED UP THE GAME AND CREATE MORE MOVEMENT.

In theory, playing with two players less (5 against 5) in the water was supposed to create more space in front of the goal to allow players to drive and move more. Those of you, including myself, who were hoping that the new rules would open up the game and create a faster and more exciting game, are going to be disappointed. In the forty or so games that I watched that used the 5 on 5 rule, I could not see any discernable difference in movements (i.e. driving) in front of the goal when compared to the six-against-six game that we now play.

The Championship game of the recent World Boys Youth Championship between Montenegro and Croatia was a good example of the lack of movement in the frontcourt. When I charted the complete game, I found in the 80 or so total possessions between the two teams, there were only two (2) of what I would call  “drives”; a movement toward the goal in order to beat the defender with the idea of receiving a ball to score a goal. In almost all of the 80 possessions, both teams still utilized the standard center forward attack with four players playing in a half circle on the perimeter surrounding the center. NOTHING HAS REALLY CHANGED AND MOVEMENT HAS NOT BEEN CREATED. The style of play remained the same under the new rules, but with one less player on each team.

Because of the lack of 50-meter pools in some countries, the new rules of the smaller pool and fewer players were supposed to ALLOW MORE COUNTRIES TO ADOPT THE SPORT AND BE MORE COMPETITIVE AGAINST THE ESTABLISHED COUNTRIES. We really won’t know the effect of using a 25-meter pool on helping countries expand the sport until this rule has been around for 4-8 years. However, we do know that in the tournaments using experimental rules, the dominance of the bigger established teams was even more obvious than it was in the bigger 30-meter course for men. The shorter pool meant that the bigger teams did not have to swim as much, had more total possessions, while the extra time gained in the front court attack actually gave then more time to use their size to dominate the game. The discrepancy in scores between stronger and weaker teams was actually greater in the smaller 25-meter pool.

The primary goal of most of the teams that I have seen playing 5 against 5 field players was still to get the ball into the center and draw an exclusion foul. This was even more of a priority than it was during the standard 6-on-6 attack, mainly because of the ease of scoring on the five against four extra-man.

WHAT ACTUALLY DID HAPPEN UNDER THE PROPOSED WATER POLO RULES

1.    INCREASED SCORING
One aspect of the game that we saw under the new rules is that there are definitely more goals being scored. In the boy’s youth championship games, higher scores were the norm, with some games accounting for as high as 40 total goals, with low scoring in the 18-20 total goal range for both teams combined. The girl’s youth games also saw increased scoring, somewhere in 20-30 combined goal range.

An experimental game between Serbia and the USA men’s teams a few years ago, saw a 15-10 first half score; projecting to 50 total goals for the game if they had continued using the new rules in the second half. (As far as I know, this was the only game where men’s national teams used the smaller size 4 women’s ball). Fifty is a lot of goals in a game where the teams line up at the half and restart the game after each goal. If you add eight time-outs and three quarter breaks per game, you will have a total of 61 stoppages of a one-hour plus game. This doesn’t do much to keep the game flowing.

While both men and women in all games with experimental rules saw scoring increases, the increase among the men (boys) was even more dramatic than for the women. There are obvious reasons for this. The one rule that both men and women had in common in most games was the five against five field players, instead of six against six. The main reason for increased scoring for both men and women playing 5 against 5, was the INCREASE IN SCORING ON THE 5 AGAINST 4 EXTRA-MAN.

Not only are there more extra-man situations being created, but the percentage of goals scored in games with the extra-man 5 on 4 attack has gone up dramatically from games using the 6 on 5 extra-man attack. There is indisputable evidence that this has been the case in almost every experimental game that was played five against five, and for almost every team in every game.

In the women’s game, the scoring percentage has gone up from an average of around 20-25% on the 6 on 5, to almost 50% for the 5 on 4; in effect doubling the goals scored on extra-man. The men have also seen dramatic increases from about 30-35% to 50-60% or more in some cases. In some men’s games at the Junior and youth levels, teams were scoring on 70 to 80 percent of their extra-man opportunities.

Since this increase has occurred for both men and women, it leads me to believe that the main reason for increased extra-man scoring is that there are two less players in front of the goal, creating more open space and making it very difficult to defend a 10 by 3 foot goal with only four defenders and a goalie. Teams have used all kinds of different defenses to stop the 5 on 4 scoring onslaught, including bringing two field players inside the goal; but to no avail.

The percentage increases were similar for both men and women playing the five against four extra-man, but for different reasons. For the women, the effect of one less defender is more dramatic because of the physical size of the women defenders. The overall shorter stature and arm length of the four women defenders and the goalkeeper make it more difficult to cover the same size goal that the taller and longer armed men use. The effect of shorter arms in 5 against 4 was even more obvious in the Junior and Youth girl’s games, where the young players are physically not as tall as the senior women.

The effect on the men’s defenders playing 4 against five was not quite as much as it was for the women; mainly because of the longer arms of the taller men that could more effectively block shots and cover more goal area. But the long arm advantage in the men’s game was more than offset by the effects of the smaller ball, and in the FINA Youth Championship, only a 15-second exclusion instead of 20 seconds. Knowing that they had less time to shoot the ball, the youth men shot the smaller ball with more confidence, and earlier in the shot clock. In addition, the smaller ball was much easier to shoot around the long arms of the defenders, resulting in more goals being scored.

The final conclusion is that both men and women increased their scoring on extra-man, mainly because of the inability of fewer defenders to cover the same size goal. The numbers (increased conversion percentage) for men and women was about the same (a doubling of extra-man goals); but for slightly different reasons, as pointed out above (mainly the smaller ball for men). Opening up more space in front of the goal without the presence of one offensive player and one defensive player was still the primary reason for more scoring on 5 on 4 extra-man.

water polo rules podgorica youth championship

2. MORE EXCLUSIONS
I didn’t keep statistics on this, but in theory, the men should have also had more opportunities for drawing exclusion fouls in the frontcourt because of the shorter pool; and in the case of the Youth World Championships, a 25-second shot clock resulting in quicker and more possessions. In drawing exclusions at center, both men and women had the advantage of one less perimeter defender in the 5 on 5 game to “drop” in and steal the ball from the center; again giving both men and women less steals at the center position, and more opportunities for exclusions drawn.

Many games in this and other experimental rule tournaments had total exclusions of 25 to 30, well above normal. These many exclusions in a game with only four players on the bench on a nine-player roster caused some coaches to be concerned that they would not have enough players to finish the game. I have heard that one youth girl’s team actually had to use the back-up goalie in the field to finish a game.

3. HOW ARE MORE GOALS BEING SCORED?
To evaluate the reason for increased scoring, we have to look at how the goals were scored and what contributed to the increased scoring. As we saw for the 5 on 4 extra-man, increased scoring probably had to do with two fewer players in the water creating more open space to shoot, and the smaller ball for men. Since the women’s games did not produce the same dramatic increase in scoring that the men had, I would conclude that the 5 against 5 even-up game, and the 5 on 4 extra-man resulted in increased scoring for both men and women; but that the smaller ball for men helped boost the total goals for men even higher.

LENGTH OF POOL, SHOT CLOCK AND SMALLER BALL-The smaller pool length from 30 meters to 25 meters may have produced more scoring opportunities for the men because of more possessions, resulting in more shots on goal and more opportunities for exclusions. Since the boy’s youth tournament was the first International tournament that also went with a 25 second shot clock, as well as a 15 second exclusion, it’s possible that the shorter shot clock may have also contributed to more scoring opportunities. I did observe that teams in the boy’s youth tournament were running out of time in both the front court attack and the man-up attack because of shorter shot clocks and exclusion times; causing them to force hurried shots from distance.

Because of the ease of shooting a smaller ball, these hurried shots sometimes paid off with goals from 9-10 meters out. It seemed that players were not shy about shooting from long distance because they could still put a lot of heat on the shot with the small ball, and even score a few more goals. Teams very rarely dumped the ball in the corner when they ran out of time on the shot clock, electing to shoot instead; and perhaps getting a cheap goal with the small ball, even from distance.

I also think that the scoring on extra-man for the boys was a little higher because teams were taking early shots when they knew that they had limited time to shoot the ball. Knowing they were running out of time, shooting early in the shot clock on extra-man may have kept the teams from over-passing the ball, and may have actually increased their chances of scoring early in the shot clock. The extra-space in front of the goal with only four defenders, combined with the ease of shooting with a smaller ball, may have also given them more incentive to shoot on the 5 on 4 extra-man.

While extra-man scoring still contributed to substantial goals being scored, there was also an increase in scoring from other methods as well. Once again, we have to determine the effects of fewer players for men and women, and the extra-added affects of the shorter pool and smaller ball for men. We would have to play quite a few more games under these rules and do a complete statistical analysis and evaluation of effects of these different rules on the increased scoring, but the following is what I saw from just watching the game and taking a few stats.

WC Youth Podgorica ITAvsMNE

COUNTERATTACK
There was an increase in scoring on the counterattack in the 5 on 5 attack. Tom Hoad attended both of the past World Junior and Youth men’s Championships, and he also observed this phenomenon. I did not notice this until he brought it to my attention; so I wasn’t looking for this until the World Boys Youth Championship. Because of that, I did not notice if this also occurred in women’s games as well.

The scoring did not come from front line 2 on1 or 3 on 2 counters, as much as it came from the five against four counterattacks, mainly when the center defender beat the center-forward down the pool. Because of more space created at the end of counterattack with two players less in the water, the center defender was able to take the ball all the way into the area in front of the goal and get a shot off.

In the Youth Championship boy’s final game, four goals were scored in this manner. Besides having more room to operate at the end of the counterattack, part of the reason may have also been the ease of shooting the smaller ball from a position of 5-7 meters in front of the goal, and from a sharper angle to the side of the goal. As mentioned above, I’m not sure if this also happened in the women’s games that used the normal size ball women’s ball. So we really are not sure whether it was the affect of fewer players creating more space or the smaller ball that caused the increased scoring on the five against four counterattacks.

CENTER SCORING
In the boy’s youth tournament, scoring also occurred from the 2-meter center position, a very rare occurrence when teams have six players against six.  In the championship game, four goals were scored from center, with three out of four coming from backhand shots. There can be several reasons for this. One of the reasons was that there was one less defender to drop back and steal the ball from the center; thus giving the center more time to shoot. In addition, the smaller ball is much easier to handle for boys and men, especially on backhand shots. In the championship game, there were at least 8-10 shot attempts from the center position that did not score.

Until we look at the scoring results from the center position in the women’s games, we will not truly know the exact reasons for the increased scoring at center. Was it the smaller ball, or one less defender dropping in and stealing the ball? (I have a suspicion that it was the small ball) Another affect that cannot be discounted is the ease of passing the ball to the center with only two defenders back in zone defense, rather than the normal three defenders falling back.

PERIMETER SCORING WITH SMALL BALL AND ONE LESS DEFENDER
Again, in the boy’s games, there was increased scoring from the perimeter. It was amazing to see the zip that was put on the ball from the 17 to 18-year-old youth players shooting the smaller ball. In many instances, the goalie did not have a chance to react before the ball was past him. Goals were being scored from all positions, from all angles, and from distances as far away as 10-12 meters from the goal. Add in the effect of one less defender in front of the goal, and we really saw more scoring from the perimeter, end of the counterattack and the 5 on 4 extra-man.

SMALL BALL AFFECT
The small ball probably played a big role in the increase in scoring in the boy’s youth championship; but once again, we need to compare the results from the women’s games that use the normal size women’s ball. I am just wondering what will happen when giant 6’8” men start shooting with the small ball in their hands. So far, only youth and junior boys have used the small ball in experimental games (except for one half of Serbia-USA men). Are we to expect 50 plus goals in a game from senior men, as well as increased head injuries to goalkeepers? I really don’t want to think of the consequences.

SUMMARY- INCENTIVE TO DRAW EXCLUSIONS AT CENTER- WHY DRIVE?
There definitely is increased scoring with the new rules. In the women’s game most of the increase was due to the extra-man five on four attack; while in the men’s game the increase was due to the 5 on 4 extra-man, and also from the use of the smaller ball. Because of the ease of scoring five against four for both men and women, the incentive to draw exclusions is now even more than it was in the six on six game. Coaches are still electing to get the ball to the center to draw exclusions, and to shoot the small ball from the perimeter. There really is no reason to drive to the goal when scoring is easier on extra-man and shooting the smaller ball. The result is no additional motion or movement in the five on five game over the six on six game.

Almost all that I have heard from the USA, Europe, and Australia, or from what I read from articles in European publications, everyone seems to be against the adoption of the new rules. Almost all of the coaches who had teams in the recent FINA World Youth Championships didn’t like any of the experimental rules that they played under. Coaches are saying “what other sport in the world has reduced the number of players playing the game”, and “the size 4 ball is too small for men, as goalkeepers cannot block it”, and “there has been no increase in movement, or more counterattacks”, and “coaches will still try for the exclusion because it is too easy to score five against four”, and finally “I had to warm-up my back-up goalkeeper for fear that I would not be able to finish the game with four players left”. If the coaches had to accept one rule change, it would reluctantly be the 25-meter pool for men. Then does that mean that we should go to a 20-meter pool for women?

Even if a few rules are changed, we are still stuck with the problem of a static game that is getting less popular in the world; and the problem of trying to create a fast moving game with more motion, a game that will appeal to more people. The only experimental rule that I saw that created any kind of movement in front of the goal was employed by the HaBaWaBa development games in Italy for 13 year-olds. In their experimental rules, they had a 5-second lane rule, like in basketball, that created all kinds of motion. If we do that, and also eliminate zone defenses (as youth games now do), we will not only see more motion; but increased counterattacks as well. The problem is that FINA is not even close to considering the kind of rules that could change the game for the better. THE PROPOSED EXPERIMENTAL RULES OF WATER POLO GAME THAT WE HAVE TRIED FOR THE PAST FOUR YEARS ARE CERTAINLY NOT THE ANSWER UNLESS ALL YOU CARE ABOUT IS MORE SCORING!

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