Water polo is relatively fluid when it comes to player positions. There are seven players in the pool at once for each team, including goalkeepers.
Water polo is different from other sports because the pace and strategy of play require players to take up different positions at different points during a game.
In water polo, there are certain positions that correlate to specific spots on offense or defense. Like other sports, these positions are indicated by both names and numbers for quicker recall. All 12 non-goalkeeping players swim from one end of the pool to the other when possession of the ball changes teams. The one position that rarely moves is the goalkeeper.
Offenses are usually set up in a semicircle around the strike zone with one player (the center forward) in the center, positioned right in front of the opposing team's goalkeeper. The perimeter players on the outside of the strike zone feed the ball into the center forward. This formation gives the offense multiple angles to shoot at the cage (goal) from while also disrupting the defense with the center forward.
As in other sports, there are different defensive approaches that can be taken, with some teams playing man to man defense and others opting for more of a zonal or hybrid defense. Common to all defenses is the sentiment of getting in the lanes, or directly in between the shooters and the goal. However, different defensive schemes may require defenders to switch around their positions.
Here are the basic water polo player positions:
A good goalkeeper has to be incredibly athletic; the goalkeeper must be able to jump out of the water to track and save a shot. The goalkeeper is the only player allowed to use both hands or a clenched fist to control the ball. The goalie is not allowed to cross the halfway line of the pool and may not hold the ball underwater; this results in a five meter throw (penalty shot) for the other team.
The left and right wing players must be quick movers and fast swimmers. They have the most ground to cover when possession changes, so they must act quickly to either get back on defense or present more attacking options. Left wingers are preferred to be right handed, while right wingers are ideally left handed. This is so that these players might cut back into the middle and get cleaner shots off at the cage. The wings initially guard the opposing team's wings on defense, but offensive movements and defensive rotations can change this.
Size is not as big of a requirement for wing players as much as quickness of movement and arm strength. These players need to be able to handle and distribute the ball, as well as participate in swift attacking movements and track back on defense to try and prevent breakaway chances by the opponent.
The left and right drivers, also known as the left and right flats, hold similar roles to the left and right wings. Ball control and shooting skills are key, and size is a plus at this position to block openings as part of the drivers' defensive duties. The left and right drivers also have to be fast swimmers to get back on defense, but they do not have quite as much water to cover between sides of the pool compared to the wings. Similar to the wings, the drivers ideally play with their dominant hands to the inside, left drivers being right handed and right drivers being left handed.
Drivers are positioned halfway in between the point (at the center) and the wings, who often start out at the two meter line near the boundary. This position offers more advantageous shooting positions, but usually only from long range. Drivers are mainly used to feed the ball in towards the center forward.
It is not uncommon for one of the wings or drivers to tuck in and pair up with the center forward, essentially taking up spots in two post positions as part of a 4-2 offensive scheme.
The player in the point position runs the offense. This player usually starts the attacking possession with the ball, directing the offense and distributing the ball to teammates where necessary. The player in the point position should be experienced enough to recognize and exploit the defense's weaknesses at will. The point player defends the opponent's point on defense. This defensive role requires quick movements to block inside passes to the center forward. The point plays a similar offensive role to that of a point guard in basketball or a center back in handball, except the center forward is considered more as the focal point of the offense in water polo.
The center forward (also known as the center, hole, hole set, set, setter, two meter man, or two meter specialist) is the most important attacking position in water polo. Positioned in the heart of the defense between the point defender and goalkeeper, the center forward seeks to cause confusion in the defense. The center forward looks for gaps in the defense, jumping into passing lanes to receive the ball from perimeter players and quickly turning to fire shots past the goalkeeper in the cage. The center forward ideally has the complete skill package: strength, agility, and accuracy.
On offense, a team's scoring prowess will heavily rely on the skill and effort of their center forward. Most of a team's goals will be scored from this position. An ideal center forward is a player with creative flair and enough strength to receive the ball and get shots off from close range.
There are seven players in the water for each water polo team at a time, including goalkeepers. The goalkeepers usually stay in their team's cage area, so that one team attacks with six offensive players, while the team on defense has six of their own plus a goalie. This means there are usually 13 players on each side of the pool at a time with one goalie on the other side, although 5 on 6 matchups are common due to defensive fouling temporarily removing a player.
Each side may have up to six substitutes. These substitutions may occur after a goal is scored, when a timeout is called, or at the end of a period. Each team has an unlimited number of substitutions. Substitutions are allowed during the run of play, but they must occur through the team's re-entry area, which is located at the corner of their side of the pool.
There are seven explicit starting positions in water polo. There are many more positions that players might place themselves in due to offensive strategy, however. The main seven positions are as follows: goalkeeper, left wing, left driver, point, right driver, right wing, and a center forward in the middle. These position names refer to a player's initial position when lining up on offense. Every listed position except for the goalkeeper and center forward are known as perimeter players due to their initial offensive positioning in a ring around the center forward.