In the past two years, the Japanese men’s water polo team coached by Yoji Omoto has intrigued the international water polo community by achieving success and rankings in the top ten in the world; something that they have never accomplished in the history of the sport in Japan. Despite have no players over six feet tall, and the best player on the team being only 5 foot 8 inches tall, they have battled the top teams in the world in a sport where physical prowess, size and height are usually necessary attributes for success.
How have they managed to do this in a sport where no other country outside of Europe, USA and Australia, have managed to crack the top ten World Ranking in the past 30 years? I have been intrigued about this accomplishment since Japan qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympic games, the first time that they have done so in 32 years. I began to study their style of play during those Olympic games, and have been following them ever since. I was fortunate to be able to speak with Coach Omoto during the FINA Conference in Budapest, where he was willing to answer any questions that I had about his team and coaching methods.
It all started when Coach Omoto was training his team for the 2016 Asian Championships, the qualifying tournament for the Olympics. In the 40 year period since 1974, the Japanese team has placed everywhere from 2nd to 4th position in the Asian Championships; but not first place, the position they would have to achieve to qualify for the Rio Olympics. After failing to qualify for London in 2012 by losing to Kazakhstan and China at the Asian Championships, Japan brought back Omoto for a second try with the national team.
Coach Omoto realized that he had to make drastic changes in the way that they played the game. “If we kept doing what we were doing, we could not win”. He realized that his smaller players could not compete against the “bigger” European teams by using the static zone and vertical style that everyone else in the world was playing.
So he decided to change the style of play to one that would fit the smaller, quicker and faster players that he had to work with. To take advantage of the speed and agility of his players, he devised a high press style defense that would lead to counterattack after counterattack, an aggressive driving attack in front of the goal, and a conditioning program that would promote the speed of his players and wear down their bigger opponents.
“It was a style that no one else in the world was playing” Omoto says. “Under the old system, we would lose the battle to win the war”. At first the strategy met resistance, even from his own players. Once he got everyone on board, victories over China and Kazakhstan to win the 2016 Asian Championships and qualify for the Olympics; and a victory over top ten team Russia, convinced everyone, including the Japanese Water Polo Federation, that this was the way to proceed in the future.
Even though they did not crack the top ten in Rio, their dynamic style of play and their fighting spirit intrigued the water polo world. They did place 12th, their highest finish since 1984 (11th), back when everyone played a style that was more conducive to smaller and quicker players like Estiarte of Spain and DeMagistris of Italy.
They followed up their success in Rio in the following year with an upset over a world ranked USA team to finish 10th in the FINA World Championships in Budapest, their highest finish ever for this event. Most recently they placed 4th in the FINA World League Final, once again upsetting the USA, and losing by only two goals to a top-eight world-ranked Spain in the 3rd place game, a team that just found itself the silver medal winners in the recent European Championships.
PHILOSOPHY AND TACTICS
In the following section, I will attempt to explain the philosophy and tactics of the Japanese team that have been credited with their recent success.
Defense starts with a high press, in which the defender plays slightly behind and to the side of the player with the ball, while playing in front (passing lanes) of the center and wings and any player who is to receive the ball during he counterattack. The team does not make the deliberate foul on the player with the ball, as most teams in the world do.
The player with the ball is actually allowed to swim toward the goal with the ball, followed closely by the defender, but WITHOUT committing a foul. This tactic can create confusion for the attacker, because many players do not often find themselves in this position in the pool during the attack, and do not know what to do with the ball.
The attacker has three choices— shoot the ball from the water, pick up the ball and shoot it, or pass the ball. If the attacker continues toward the goal with the ball, a defender will “help in” from a wing, making it difficult for him to take the shot. If the attacker picks up the ball to shoot it, the defender behind him can take the ball or the arm from behind. If he does take the shot, the attacker is many times off-balance because of being harassed by two defenders, allowing the ball to be blocked by the goalkeeper.
Opponents have a tendency to turn the ball over against the high press because they are not used to having to pass under pressure, and without receiving the free pass from a foul. The fact that the Japanese team is in a press instead of a zone then puts them in perfect position to achieve good results from the resulting counterattack when the ball turns over.
WHAT THE HIGH PRESS ACCOMPLISHES
The Japanese team hopes to accomplish several things with this defense. First is to cause the attacking team to use too much time on the shot clock. Without fouling, they hope to run the clock down so there is little time to attack and shoot the ball. This puts additional pressure on the attacking team as they find that they have less time to run their attack.
It takes 12-15 seconds for most teams to get the ball and players down the pool and into scoring position. As the clock keeps moving, the “no foul” Japanese “high press” defense, fronting the center, and fronting the wings can cause an additional 10 seconds to get the ball into favorable scoring position; thus leaving a short time of 5-7 seconds to try and attack and score a goal.
The result of less available time can result in opponents taking hurried and poorly executed shots. This is exactly what the Japanese are hoping for. Opponents will pay for missing a shot with an all out six-man counterattack in the other direction. If they fail to cover back quickly, the result could easily be a goal for Japan.
Besides a poorly executed shot, the Japanese team also is hoping to win the ball back from a bad pass or a turnover (steal), which in turn also fuels their counterattack. Opponents have to constantly be aware that they could lose the ball at any time, and that the Japanese will counterattack at every opportunity, consequently causing the attacking team to be less aggressive and hesitant in their own attack.
WEAKNESS OF THE HIGH PRESS DEFENSE
There is no doubt the high press defense is a high-risk defense. The biggest problem with the defense is that because the defenders are pressing everywhere in the pool, they are not in position to help back to cover the center from the other team. The Japan coach is well aware that they will give up some goals from the other team’s center. This is partly because of the size difference between the small Japanese center-defender and the opponent’s large center, and the fact that there is no defender in front of the opponent’s center. This will cause the ball to arrive at the opponent’s center position more often, with more opportunity to score or draw an exclusion foul.
The coach knows that the other team will probably score some goals because of the high risk of their press defense; but they are willing to take that risk if they can score more goals from their counterattack than their opponent scores from center. So they are hoping for a high scoring game; and because of their counterattack and movement attack in front of the goal, they hope to score more goals than the other team. Consequently, a high scoring game is in their favor.
The Japanese feel that even if they were playing a standard zone defense, the bigger teams would overpower then at center anyway. So if they are going to give up goals at center anyway from a zone, then why not put defenders in a press position instead of a zone, and create easy goals on the counterattack?
The strategy of other teams is to try to get goals from their center forward, while the Japanese try to limit as much as possible these goals from center. They will play in front of the center as much as possible, drop in from the wing defenders, or bring the goalkeeper out in hopes of stealing the ball from the center; or simply hope that the center misses the shot when he is under pressure from the defense.
The opponent’s center must be aware that if he misses the shot, he will have to swim back to cover on the counterattack, as the Japan center defender will immediately counterattack on the shot. This constant swimming up and down the pool also has a tendency to wear out the larger players who play the center position, something that that Japanese coach counts on in games against bigger opponents.
The Japanese score more goals from the counterattack than any team in the world; even against the top teams. Not only do they get down the pool quickly with all six attackers, but they get the ball deep down the pool and in position to pass to the free man that they have created in front of the goal. The pressure of a six man high-speed counterattack often forces the opponent to make quick decisions on defense in front of the goal. The Japan counterattack tries to create confusion in front of the goal with movement, and then take advantage of the defense that makes a mistake or is not yet organized.
Their objective is to get a shot on goal quickly at the end of every counterattack, even if there is still a lot of time left on the shot clock. This goes against what most of the other teams do. Because teams are afraid of the counterattack in the other direction, they very rarely try to score at the end of their own counterattack unless it is a sure goal. Shooting early in the possession actually becomes an advantage for the Japanese. Because they are very fit and excellent swimmers, after a few counterattacks up and down the pool, the opponent is too tired to counter back in the other direction. Advantage Japan.
Any slight confusion or mistake by the defense as they are retreating back to defend can create a good shot on goal by the Japanese. Because of the high press, they also create higher percentage one against the goalkeeper, 2 on 1, and 3 on 2 counterattacks that have an easier chance of scoring. They are also very capable of scoring with 4 on 3, 5 on 4, and 6 on 5 counterattacks as well.
Even if they do not have a free player on the counterattack, they can still create an open player because they do not block the area in front of the goal. Rather than have the center or other players stop in front of the goal at the end of the counterattack, they create space in front of the goal by not initially occupying that space. Once the ball gets to the deep wing, several players will then drive or run a screen and create movement and penetrate into the open space that they have left open in front of the goal. The result is usually a high percentage shot on the goal.
FRONT COURT CONTINUOUS ATTACK
If Japan fails to shoot or score on the counterattack, then they will attack in the front of the goal with drives and screens. Their attack is based on creating space, and then driving into that space. They do this in different ways. Many times they will not occupy the space in front of the goal with a center; but leave it open for attackers from drives and from screens.
If they do play a center, he is not the priority of their attack. First they will drive to one side of the center. If the player is open, he will receive the pass and attempt the shot. If his driver is covered and he does not receive the ball, then simply by driving, he has committed defenders to him, and has opened up space in other parts of the pool.
The first drive may simply be a decoy movement that forces defenders out of position; thus opening up space on the opposite side of the center. Creating a distraction by driving may be their intent in the first place. Once defenders have committed to defend the first driver, the next option is to pass the ball to the open side and get it into the center; or create a second drive into the new space that is formed by the decoy movement of the first driver. They then continue attacking until they find an opening and take a shot or turn the ball over.
Movement is the basis for the Japanese attacking philosophy. What they hope to accomplish with a quick strike at the end of the counterattack, and with constant movement in front of the goal from drives and screens, is to take advantage of defenders who may become confused by the movement, or are playing out of position to defend the driver.
They hope to use their speed and quickness to get past bigger defenders. Once the attacker gets past a defender on the counterattack, or on a drive, the only option for the defender is to let the player go and give up a good shot on goal; or foul from behind, hoping that they can stop the resulting extra-man attack. If the referee calls the pull back or impeding foul correctly, the result will be an exclusion foul. In most games that Japan plays, they actually draw more exclusion fouls from movement (drives and counterattack) than they do from their center position.
A good example of this occurred in the game with the United States in the FINA World League Final. In that game, the Japanese drew 16 exclusions against the US team. 3 exclusions came from the center position, 6 came from the counterattack, and 5 came from drives. From that they scored 6 goals. In addition, they scored 4 natural goals from the counterattack.
In summary, 7 of their 14 goals came from the counterattack, 3 as a result of exclusion fouls on the counterattack, and 4 natural counterattack goals. Four goals also came from drives, two from exclusion from drives and two natural goals from drives. That is a total of 10 of their total of 14 goals coming from counterattack or drives, or from exclusions called on counterattack or drive.
COULD THIS BE THE GAME OF THE FUTURE?
This kind of attack fits nicely into the Japanese overall philosophy of scoring more goals than the other team in a high scoring game. To do this, they have to score more natural goals from the counterattack and from drives than the other team can score from the center position and from the 6 on 5-attack. No other team in the world does this.
Coach Omoto has a built a team that takes advantage of the kind of players that he has to work with—- small, quick and fast. He has specifically designed high intensity training sessions, and constant driving and counterattacking during practice to develop a team that can be better fit than his opponents. His philosophy is that if he trains his team correctly, they will not only be better fit, but can win the game in the second half by tiring out their bigger opponents.
As mentioned above, reliance on a relentless counterattack that is initiated from the high press defense, and use of a constant movement attack in front of the goal, is the only way that his team can be competitive with the top teams in the world. They may not win all of their games; but they are certainly more competitive than they have ever been in their history. Where once they barely made top 15 in the world, they now are in the top 10.
Where once they would lose to top-ten teams by 8-12 goals, they now keep the game within 2 or 3 goals, and realistically have a chance to beat anybody in the world. Teams can no longer look past the Japanese team as an easy victory. They now have to prepare for their unorthodox style of play. If they don’t prepare properly, they could be on the losing side.
While it may be unorthodox, anyone who has watched the Japanese dynamic game for the past two years can tell you that it is an enjoyable game to watch. The Japanese style should, at the very least, become a model for countries in the world who find it difficult to play the current style suited to bigger teams. IS THIS THE WATER POLO GAME OF THE FUTURE? Who knows? Hopefully new rule changes from FINA will eventually produce a similar kind of dynamic game for the future of our sport. Even without rule changes, the Japanese have shown the world that teams can play a different style game and still be successful in our sport.