How will having only six players on the field affect play? Will the 50:50 gender split encourage new tactical innovation?

A thought experiment

The Australian Ultimate League (AUL) kicks off soon with its exciting new format, a truly equitable mixed league where the usual 7-on-7 format is replaced with a 6-on-6 one, to eliminate the need for an unbalanced 4:3 gender split.  For the first time at an elite level, teams will feature 3 women and 3 men playing together on every single point, doing away with complicated rules currently used to determine which team gets to choose which gender takes the majority of the 4:3 split.

How will having only six players on the field affect play?  Will the 50:50 gender split encourage new tactical innovation?  What follows is a thought experiment into what we might expect to see on the field when the first pull of the opening game (Melbourne Flames v Sydney Suns) goes up:

Fewer players = more pitch space per player

The most obvious observation is that fewer players on the field means more space per player.  In turn, this means that some traditional defences designed to smother space will no longer be effective; many cup zones in particular rely on putting three or even four players around the disc, hoping to smother an offence.  However, leaving just two or three players to cover the rest of the field is inviting an easy score to any team who can break through a cup. Given that we’re seeing the crème-de-la-crème of Australian Ultimate, I doubt that any of these players will struggle to work the disc against a cup zone.

Against person defence, more field space makes it easier to isolate cutters, and defences are going to find it difficult to contain athletic cutters one-on-one.  However, fewer players also means less chance of poaches or switches disrupting isolation plays, with defences finding it more difficult to organically poach without leaving their own player wide open.

Fewer players = fewer continuation cutters

Assuming that a traditional 7-on-7 offence is typically made up of three handlers and four cutters, reducing this to 6-on-6 might result in four cutters becoming three, and those three cutters will have to pick up the slack.  That’s approximately 32% increase in workload. Even reducing five cutters to four leads to an increase of 25% workload. Cutters are therefore going to have to work significantly harder to maintain flow.

Australian Ultimate League 2018
Photo by Mark Milne Photography

How will traditional offensive sets change?

Imagine a typical vertical stack in 7-on-7 ultimate, with two handlers and five cutters.  Do you choose to play with no dump, or reduce to four cutters? Most vertical offences are built on the principle of hard working cutters creating big gains.  With fewer cutters attacking both sides of the field and cutting deep, there’s added emphasis on those cutters to get open; if they fail, the offence needs to reset and attack again.  Likewise, there’s more emphasis on an offence maintaining flow; once the disc moves, the offence will want to ensure that there’s another target to hit immediately, something that will be harder with one fewer cutter, an equivalent of a 25% workload increase on each cutter leading to fatigue quicker.  Of course, every time the cutters fail to maintain flow, they will need to reset the disc, putting additional strain upon the handler set. Playing with no dump behind the disc is one solution that gives five active cutters and forces whichever player is on the disc to break the mark and throw yard-gaining passes, but it also requires a slightly different view of the field, particularly regarding which spaces to attack, and it can be vulnerable to poaching off clearing cutters.  Another, more simple solution is to run a more traditional vertical stack but as a handler-led offence; the three players nearest the disc – active thrower, dump, and front of stack (aka “3H”) – are the primary players responsible for generating power position or break side threats, and the three cutters in the stack have the responsibility of providing continuation. This is a more energy efficient way of playing, as you’re able to slow down the pace and reduce the load on the cutters.

Therefore: expect vertical stacks to be dominated by handler movement, not cutting motion

What about a traditional horizontal stack; do you opt to reduce to two handlers and keep four cutters, or keep three handlers and reduce the cutters to three?  Three handlers invites poaching, but also gives the possibility of a pure gender divide, with three female handlers and three male cutters or vice versa. This is a simple solution to having downfield men poaching off women cutting deep.  Plus, using three cutters means more horizontal space per cutter, which means deep throws have a wider margin of error. However, reducing to two handlers will make it far easier to swing the disc and open up new avenues of attack against poaches.  Of course, keeping the stack close to the disc makes throwing deep to women easier, another advantage to setting up with a horizontal stack where the cutters are closer to the disc than in a vertical stack. The lack of cutters downfield will impact flow offence just as badly as it will in vertical stack though; expect to see more resets & high stall situations if teams can’t score quickly.

Therefore: don’t be surprised if you see dynamic offences where handlers become cutters and vice versa in response to defensive schemes

Split stack is likely to be two players on either sideline, and with such a huge amount of space to attack, teams will likely find split stack the easiest method of initiating movement and setting up deep cuts.  With half the width of the field available to just two players, initiating movement will be easy. Continuation cuts from the far sideline in split stack have a disadvantage though, as those cuts will need to move further than they would in horizontal; remember the additional workload on cutters.  And female cutters, typically slower and shorter than their male counterparts, will need to time their movements earlier to take advantage of flow. Teams are likely to put one male, one female in each pair to prevent switches.

Therefore: split stack might be used to initiate movement but expect to see it melt into a more organic formation

Australian Ultimate League 2018
Photo by Pat Thorpe Ultimate Photography

Defensive reactions

Vertical offences can be opposed by clams or triangle poaching to deny huck plays, but any poach sets deployed in mixed ultimate risk leaving gender mismatches, else patient offences will seek to find the gaps with penetrating throws.  Still, having three cuts for each throw will be seen as a victory for the defence when cutters are under additional workload and teams are not able to use their entire bench in each game; athletes are likely to find AUL games to be more fatiguing than regular 7-on-7 ultimate, so wearing down the opposition is a good tactic.

Horizontal sets using three cutters are a nightmare to defend.  Expect to see teams do anything they can to deny immediate deep throws; trying to guard 1-on-1 is just going to be too difficult to stop as good throwers can hit any of the three cutters going away with relative ease.  Getting the disc to the sideline provides a lot of protection, and makes throwing to the far sideline far more difficult.

Split stacks are also difficult to stop, although getting the disc to a sideline is likely to be seen as positive for the defence compared to allowing lateral movement into the centre of the field.  I’ve rarely seen split stack employed by a mixed team so it might cause defensive headaches as teams struggle to work out the optimal way to combat the split stack.

Most Mixed ultimate teams playing 7-on-7 rely on a male player acting as deep cover when using a zone defence; if the zone is broken then he usually has three other male team mates with which to switch and therefore he can pick up an assignment fairly easily.  With just six players on each side, that drops to two male team mates whom he can switch with. Therefore, one of the best ways for an offence to attack a zone is to find gender mismatches around the disc, and to use two players on either side of the field to attack deep space.  This “splits the deep”, forcing them to either commit to denying one option, or risking leaving throws open to either of them. With little pressure exerted by the deep cover, most good offences will be able to work the disc through the gaps. If zones are going to be deployed, they will need to transition to person coverage early.

Therefore: expect to see creative poach schemes aimed at preventing set plays from static situations, more rolling pulls to pin teams to the sideline, and short, quick transitions into person defence.

Australian Ultimate League 2018
Photo by Mark Milne Photography

Conclusions

Offensive conclusions:
Horizontal stack is likely the most dangerous.  Pairing cutters and handlers of different genders makes it more difficult to switch or poach and recover, so teams will want to consider how they space themselves accordingly.  Teams should be ready to play against poach or zone schemes, something that horizontal stack is ideal for, but will need to be mindful of being trapped on the sideline. Teams should be ready to play in a dynamic fashion, with handlers willing to cut and cutters able to come back to handle.

Defensive conclusions:
Traditional schemes are likely to be unsuccessful due to the increased space available and high level of play.  Unusual, innovative defences are worth gambling on; any chance to create confusion or doubt in the minds of the offence is likely to get them to slow down and look off open cutters.  Denying downfield movement is vital when there are fewer cutters available with a greater workload.

Of course, all of this is pure speculation, and I have no doubt that the best players in Australia are adaptable enough to play a variety of offensive and defensive tactics to test each other not only physically, but tactically.  There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to tune in and watch!

Brummie

Like this analysis? See more from Brummie at Flik Ulti.