We’re now 4 weeks into our in-depth study of rotation tactics- the series we’ve dubbed, “Rotations 201.” In our first three articles, we studied rotations that coaches call, “3-hitter rotations,” or, “setter-back,” rotations, because the setter is in the back row and the offense has three front row attackers available. Rotation 4 marks the first “2-hitter,” or, “setter-front,” rotation, with the setter in the front row and only 2 front row attackers available. These rotations are interesting because they represent a significant difference between International and American volleyball, because of the rule differences between the two federations.
In fact, these rules changes represent such a difference in how these rotations are implemented, that we’ve separated this rotation analysis into 2 parts.
First, we’ll look at some of the top National Teams in the world, starting with the 2018 World Champion: Serbia.
International rules allow only 6 substitutions, and each player can only enter the match once. Thus, all players must play all the way around, except for an occasional sub. This means that Serbia cannot sub out their back row outside hitter (who is passing in Zone 6) or their back row opposite (pulled out of serve receive in the corner) for passing subs. Fortunately for them, and other top National Teams, their opposites are often such formidable hitters that they can still help their team out in the back row.
In serve receive, Serbia keeps their middle at the attack line, rather than pushed up to the net. We’ve seen this be an important detail in other rotations, and it’s no less important here.
In setter-front rotations, the most important offensive tactic is whether the middle should hit in front or behind the setter. This decision changes almost everything else about how the play will unfold. Let’s watch a few sideout plays from Serbia’s World Championship final match against Italy.
Serbia kept their middle in front of the setter. The first note how well the Serbian opposite can attack out of the back row! If we’re coaching club or high school volleyball, we probably don’t have that sort of weapon. Without an opposite to attack effectively out of the back row, your team may be much easier to defend if the middle stays in front of the setter, because the other team can stack all 3 blockers in one half of the court against 2 hitters. Since Serbia’s opposite attacks so effectively out of the back row in Zone 1 (often called a “D Ball”), she keeps the Italian defense from keying too hard on her outside and middle hitting teammates.
Also, notice that Serbia also keeps the middle away from the setter on a, “Gap,” or “31,” set. This is also an important tactic when keeping the middle in front. Opposites can sometimes struggle out of the back row, and the D ball tends to be a slower set, giving the opposing blockers time to react. Running the Gap puts pressure on the opposing right side blocker (especially if the set is fast to the outside as well) and takes the left side blocker out of the play, reducing the potential, “3 blockers vs 2 hitters,” to a more even, “2 blockers vs 2 hitters,” matchup. Running a Gap also increases the effectiveness of setter attacking. Since blockers (even good ones) get distracted by motion, running the middle attacker away from the setter (on either a Gap, or a Slide behind the setter) opens up more room for the setter to attack the ball, and it’s important to keep your setter as an attacking threat when she is front row.
A final small detail is how, when the Italian left side blocker gets pulled in too far to the middle of the court, the Serbian setter flips her attack behind her, toward Italy’s Zone 4, rather than in front of her, toward Zone 3. In a setter-front rotation, with the middle hitter in front of the setter, left side blockers (if they are any good), will tend to bunch into the middle of the court, to be ready to help on the middle hitter or to defend the setter. It’s not uncommon to see left side blockers go too far, and open up a lane for the setter to attack back behind her head. In contrast, when the middle goes behind the setter on a slide, the lane to attack is often down into the middle of the court, rather than behind her head.
Lots of valuable details from the Serbian team!
The Italian team they played in that World Championship was utilizing a similar rotation tactic, so let’s fast forward and watch the top 2 teams from 2019’s biggest competition, the FIVB World Cup, China and the USA.
First, we’ll study how the USA sides out in Rotation 4.
We see the USA start in the same alignment as Serbia, but they will run the middle behind on Slides most of the time:
We see how running the middle behind the setter changes everything about how this rotation plays. Instead of China’s blockers pushing over toward one side of the court, they are now spread out. The left side blocker leaves to block the slide hitter, and the middle is forced to stay home in the middle of the court, because of the threat with fast sets to either pin. In general, it’s easier for teams to set a Slide on a medium pass (ball passed around the attack line) than it is to set a quick hitter in front of the setter, so that’s an advantage for this alignment. On the other hand, you lose the overload pressure of the middle and outside, and you are generally reduced down to 2 hitters instead of 3.
USA does have back row attackers in this rotation, as their outside can hit a pipe set in the middle of the court, and their opposite is running a “C” attack, out of the back row, in the 1/6 seam. In reality though, this set to the opposite is difficult to execute on most passes and reduces the back row attacker to an occasional wrinkle. USA rarely set it more than once per match in any rotation, and this was the only time (in 11 matches) they set the opposite out of serve receive in Rotation 4:
This is the situation where this set tends to work, when the setter is pushed back a bit, the left side blocker needs to go with the Slide, and the ball can be set straight up and down.
The last International team we’ll look at is the winner of the 2019 FIVB World Cup, China.
In our post on Rotation 3, we saw how China uses a passing opposite to free up an attacker. In this case, they choose not to free up the front row outside hitter (which, in Part 2 of this article, we’ll see the majority of NCAA teams do), but instead free up their back row outside attacker to hit out of the Pipe.
China uses a spread tactic with the middle mostly going behind the setter to hit a Slide. But instead of the opposite attacking a D or C-ball, they have a back row outside hitting a Pipe set in the middle of the court. When paired with a Slide, the Pipe is generally easier to set, and more effective than a C-ball, especially as the setter moves forward to the middle of the court. However, like all tactics, this is dependent upon player execution. Some hitters, especially left-handed players, may be better at hitting on the right half of the court than the left or center, so they may not be effective on a Pipe.
This player dependency is a trend we’ve seen throughout this rotation series. We see three of the best teams in the world using different rotational tactics to match the strengths and weaknesses of their players. One is not better than the other, although broad trends exist. In Part 2 of this article, we’ll see how the different rule sets in American collegiate volleyball allow NCAA teams to have a different blend of strengths and weaknesses, and how that results in a different set of common choices those coaches make when setting up their rotations.