Like all of us our coaches are volleyball fanatics, when they are not coaching or playing or planning the next session and match they are most likely watching as much volleyball as they can to gain an even greater insight into the game.
So we have asked some of our coaches to dig into the huge back catalogue and nominate a favourite match, telling us what it was about the match that made is so memorable, also what people should look out for while watching in terms of tactics or individual players.
Carol Gordon – Italy v Turkey – Volleyball Nations League 2019
There is a saying, as old as the hills, that opposites attract. But in volleyball, sometimes it is true that opposites repel, or more accurately, do battle against each other. On rare occasions the confrontation between two opposite players is so spectacular it becomes the focal point of a match.
For Carol Gordon, that was the case in the Turkey vs Italy matches of the Volleyball Nations League in 2019. The series is the choice of the former head coach of the England cadets, who chose the games as rare examples of how two people who are similar in their physical presence and athleticism, who play the same position, and whose teams use them in a similar way to increase the depth of their offense, end up becoming the players around whom a game flows.
The two combatants were six-foot-five Ebrar Karakut of Turkey and six-foot Paola Egonu of Italy. The games between the two sides were three weeks apart in the tournament, the first was the more thrilling of the two, going to five sets with Italy taking the win. When the teams met again Turkey swept the Italians and moved on to the place in the semifinals that was at stake.
Gordon’s suggestion is to concentrate on the opposites and let the rest of the game more or less pass by. Her favourite of the two is, understandably, the first match.
“In the VNL the (June ) game wasn’t as important as the last one (the July rematch),” Gordon noted. However, in terms of how an opposite can influence a game, it is a classic. You’ll have to follow the highlights videos with a little creative viewing by amalgamating the opposites’ performances in both matches. But by watching both, you should get a good idea of what drew Gordon to the two athletes’ amazing skills, and the intensity of their confrontation.
One thing that caught Gordon ‘s eye was that despite differences in their playing styles, and despite a six-inch height difference, “They’re a very similar physical build,” she said. “They both have a longer body” and can use their arms “like a whip” when they follow through.
“That’s unusual in the womens’ game,” Gordon pointed out, and both the teams make maximum use of that to expand their repertoire of attacks. It is particularly evident in the way both teams use their opposites as back row attackers.
“Women don’t use the pipe as much, but both of those opposites are used as pipe hitters,” she pointed out. “It’s because of their athletic build and their determination.” She can recall only two female players in the UK in recent times who could compare to the style of Karakut and Egonu, and those are Lucy Bolton and Lizzie Reid.
Of course, the Turk and the Italian have significant differences despite their similar physical structure, Gordon noted, but she thinks there is one in particular: experience. “The difference is their age. Egonu is the older of the two. Her block timing and defensive timing is different. The Italian is more experienced, stronger and older.”
So, these two particular athletes are different, yet they’re also similar. And to understand what might be their greatest shared quality you need to look beyond the physical build and the experience, Gordon says. You need to get into the personality of the players.
Playing opposite is “almost a selfish role, like a striker in football,” she explained. “They have to be quite selfish in that responsibility because they want more of the ball, but they understand what the consequences are.”
Carol was actually the first ever coach at a Volleyball Developments Camp way back in August 2005. When we came up with the concept for the camps Carol was the obvious choice for us based on her work with the England juniors programmes and we were delighted for her to finally return to our Elite Camp in 2019 alongside Piotr Graban.
For her choice Carol has actually selected two matches from the 2019 Volleyball Nations League between Italy and Turkey.
The FIVB have announced that their Volleyball TV channel will be available for FREE between 8th May and 31st August 2020.
This means that Full Match replays of hundreds of matches from the VNL 2018 and 2019, the 2018 FIVB Volleyball World Championships, plus the FIVB Volleyball Club World Championships, can now be watched for free, which of course includes these two matches.
You still need to signup, but simply use the FREEPASS promotional code to subscribe.
Consequences, what consequences?
“Every ten balls you get you’re expected to put away eight, whereas the outside players may be expected to do six or seven,” she explained. That’s a heavy responsibility for a young volleyball athlete to carry, and it is why a coach isn’t going to rush into making a decision on who should play this critical position. Young athletes need to be aware that they cannot just step into the role; it has to evolve.
“It’s not age related, it’s talent and personality related,” Gordon explained. “If you are looking to take on board the role of an opposite player you’ll have to understand the level of responsibility and duty because you are known as the killer position. You’re expected to kill when you’re front court and you’re expected to kill when you’re back court but without the responsibility of passing.”
As a coach she’ll study a player for a good long while before assigning them as opposite, and anyone who aspires for that role under her instruction needs to have patience, and to be able to understand the other hitting positions well. Gordon’s advice is to:
“Try middle, try outside because you have to see and be able to hit many zones. If you’re an opposite player are you flexible enough to run the crossover? It’s a complex role, but the personality and responsibility you’re looking for (is that) people have to be held accountable. They know the stakes. If you look at all the big opposites at professional level they know the stakes, they know that if the ball comes to me ‘I have to kill, that’s my job’. Think of it like the kicker in American football. You’ve got one job, you have to come on and score.”
And contrary to the Holy Grail reputation given to left-handed opposites, for Gordon it doesn’t matter whether she has to choose from a southpaw or a right-handed athlete. What matters most is the “brain-typing” – whether “They’ve got a killer instinct, they don’t care about anything else.”
The one thing that Coach Gordon will cut some slack on in an opposite is their skills at playing defense.
“They might be a (physically) big athlete, they might be a demon hitter and a demon blocker but the thing that brings them down is their defense,” she admits. “Their defense is their weakest skill. If you can have an opposite who is not only a killer but is able to pick up those tips and be able to defend a hit then you’ve got a supreme player.”
So any young volleyball athlete who watches the videos, studies the two opposites doing battle, and decides they want a piece of that action is going to have to start by learning a couple of things: practicing patience, and working on playing all the hitting positions.
Gordon’s recommendation for a young athlete with aspirations to play opposite is: “Try it all. Don’t try to specialize too soon. Even opposites might be used as substitutes to come in a relieve a player who is getting pinned down.
“If you really want to become an opposite player understand what it takes to become one. And look at the character and the responsibility. Are you prepared to have that much heat on you?”
Clayton Lucas – Russia v Brazil – Mens Olympic Final – 12th August 2012 – London
The match Lucas considers the best he has ever seen is the gold medal game between Brazil and Russia at the 2012 London Olympics. One reason is because it was his first-ever occasion to work an Olympic gold medal event on site, but just as much the match was “a classic two-nothing up and then the other team comes back to win… but not in the classic sense.”
It was London where Russia won its first gold Olympic medal, although as the USSR the country had previously taken the gold in 1964, 1968 and 1980. Those occurred when the Soviet Union was considered by many to be the dominant global force in men’s volleyball, having won more than two dozen gold medals in World Championships, World Cups, European Championships and other tournaments up to London. But it had endured a period of lower place finishes before 2012, when it came up against the favoured Brazilians. The South Americans were ranked the top team in the world, and had been demonstrating their claim to that title for the whole of the Games. After the first two sets went their way by healthy margins, the Brazilians looked set to seal the seeding in cement.
But then things changed. Dramatically. The Russian coach moved his big middle blocker, Dmitriy Muserskiy, into the role of opposite hitter.
It was a completely unexpected move to the lineup, and one that went momentarily unnoticed. Lucas was busy preparing for the third, and probably final, set when he looked up from his paperwork and noticed the change. His surprise becomes clear in his commentary as the first serve takes place.
“Moving Muserskiy into opposite was amazing,” he recalled. “We were saying ‘Hey what’s going on? There’s three middles on court.” The coach had put his three tallest athletes on at the same time, each of them more than seven feet tall, not only to build an enormous blocking wall, but also to add a new dimension to the Russian attack. It was either, Lucas guessed “…a genius play from him, or he was rolling the dice.”
As it turned out, it was a bit of both. Only the Russian team and Coach Vladimir Alekno knew it, but Muserskiy had been training for just such an last ditch situation. It was a secret weapon the coach had decided to gamble with, and he needed his athletes’ full commitment to pull off the risky move.
“It was a classic surprise move. The only people who were aware Muserskiy could play opposite was the Russian coach, who was also his club coach. For the rest of the world this was a complete and utter shock. Brazil wasn’t ready for it,” recalled Lucas. “What they were suddenly seeing was an isolated player with a limited role now having free reign.”
Clayton Lucas’s voice is the one you are most likely to hear when you tune in to an English language broadcast of a major international volleyball match. He’s the man the FIVB and CEV turn to when they need a commentator for events like the Olympics or the VNL. Sometimes Lucas will be on site, commentating from a desk near the court or from a higher viewpoint, and other times he’ll do it remotely, watching a big television screen and giving viewers his observations of the play they’re watching with him, as well as providing tidbits from his huge store of data on international teams, players and events.
With the change, Muserskiy was free to attack from almost any position on the court, using his height to get over the shorter Brazilian defenders with spikes from positions they never expected him to occupy. He rose to the occasion, smashing ball after ball down the Brazilian left line, and periodically powering hits into the middle gaps.
“Brazil didn’t know what to do. Watch the momentum change after the third set into the fourth and fifth,” said Lucas, adding that Alekno made his move by putting complete faith in his players to perform according to the new tactic. And once the decision was made, “the coach stayed with the player who is hot.”
Even so, it wasn’t an instant success. The Russian athletes had to trust their coach’s decision and work to his plan to make it yield results. As Lucas notes “It took half a set to get in the flow” but they eventually did, and the team was rewarded with a win of the tightest possible margin: 29-27. Russia dominated the fourth set 25-22 as the Brazilians struggled to find a defensive solution, and by the time the fifth set began the athletes in yellow and blue were demoralized, confused and still without an answer to the powerful hitting that was coming at them from all over the court. The fifth set ended 15-9.
Your Game Takeaway
There are several lessons to take away from watching this match, Lucas says. First among them is that players need to trust their coach, and then trust each other to give 100 percent to the effort to carry out the coach’s plan. The Russian outside hitter, who won the player of the match, is an athlete to take special note of, added Lucas.
“Look at Mikhaylov’s work ethic. He gets in and does his work,” he said.
Watch, for instance, how the pace of the game varies, with a substantial number of soft touches and tips being played by the Brazilians. To get around the monster wall they had to play smart: “How many times does Muserskiy get tipped on?” noted Lucas. Even though it sometimes worked, having to organise a new tactic around the Russian defense took a huge toll on the South Americans.
“It was mentally draining,” explains Lucas, and an excellent example of the psychological battle that takes place in a volleyball match.
One more thing to look for regarding the Russian positional change is the Brazilian serving, he added. They had to figure a way to take the Russians out of the new system that had been sprung on them. Especially pay attention to the way Brazil’s serving changes from the pattern in the first two sets, to that in the final three sets, says Lucas.
Other things to watch, says Lucas, are the setters for both sides, and how they coped with the changing situations each team faced during the match. Take special notice of the way the setters changed their tactics after the first two sets, when the character of game completely changed.