Japan continues to lead the world in strategic innovation in ultimate.
January 6, 2016 by Benyamin Elias in Analysis with 19 comments
Thanks to Sion “Brummie” Scone for his valuable contributions to this article.
When Team E.R.I.C. (USA All Stars) faced down The Club Jr. All Stars (Japan) in an exhibition game at Manila Spirits in the Philippines, Club Jr. showcased a signature Japanese style that can seem alien to those not familiar with it. Utilizing their visionary throwing skills and notorious ability to operate in tight or unconventional spaces, the Japanese gave the Americans a serious challenge.
A six person vertical stack is not supremely common in North America, especially the way that Japan runs it. American teams such as Boston Ironside have used a no-dump style before, but Japan alters the traditional formation to suit their style of play.
Six-Person Vertical Stack Initiation
As it happens, the very first offensive possession of the game reveals a lot about how Japan’s stack functions.
We can see a lot from this first look at the 6 person stack:
- The first cutter is moving as the disc is being tapped in, breaking deep from the middle of the stack. Japanese cutters move early, before the disc is tapped in.
- Japan runs cuts from every position in their stack, not just the back.
- Sometimes, they’ll isolate a player for a few seconds, but other times Japan will make multiple cuts into the same “space” (open v. break), often at different depths and angles.
- Japan often throws to the front of the stack. In the above clip, the first cut is looked off, but star player Masahiro Matsuno initiates movement with a force-side move from the front of the stack. After returning to the front of the stack, Matsuno cuts for an around, losing yards and resetting the disc to the center of the field.
- Japan takes resets that lose yards so that they can stay in motion.
- There is an emphasis on what appears to be — at least to US audiences — “unpredictable” throws into unexpected space.
The Japan U23 Open team displayed a similar tendency to use the front of the stack and move anywhere on the field:
The first clip cleanly demonstrates a key aspect of front-of-the-stack initiation: upfield cutters move at the same time as the front of the stack. This early movement allows them time to set up easy continues, so that the player at the front doesn’t hold the disc for more than a couple of stalls.
The second clip again shows that Japanese players are not in a huge rush to get back into the stack. After a cutter gets looked off, he clears up the sideline rather than immediately into the stack. Players hang out in a loose formation when the location of the disc renders them inactive, collecting themselves and bursting as soon as they become viable.
These are core tenets of the Japanese offense that can be seen throughout their play.
The above clip hits on a lot of those same themes:
- Japan again initiates from the front of the stack
- Except for the first isolation cut, the Japanese cutters are empowered to cut to anywhere on the field from anywhere in the stack. The poached players make horizontal and deep cuts from the middle.
- There’s an instructive moment here as Kurono catches the second under just past half-field: he immediately stares at the break side. Moving the disc laterally is often easier after a successful pass, as the mark may not yet be set. And it’s almost as though he knows his teammates have been poached and some of them have started leaking into breakside space. Although Kurono does not find an opening immediately, he continues looking break side until he swings for a loss of yards. It is notable both that Kurono does not look to the force side and that none of his teammates are cutting there until after the swing.
At times, the American team seemed unprepared for Japan’s front-stack initiation. Below, Matsuno initiates from the front of the stack and bombs a flick for a goal; Jonathan Nethercutt looks caught out of position by the disc’s movement.
The Americans may have been caught by surprise because, outside of endzone offense, this style of initiation is uncommon in the United States. Some American teams like to initiate with the front of the stack, but these teams typically do so on the break side to put defenders out of position. Ironside, the other major team that has used a six-person stack, initiated with cutters.
A no-dump stack is of course a misnomer. The offense still has resets, but those resets are positioned in front of the thrower.
Japan resets in tight spaces by using post-up resets from break throws that attack upfield — a style that is less “conventional” than the US teams we’ve seen with no-dump vertical stacks.
In each instance, Japan uses a high release inside-out backhand to catch the defense off-guard. The second example is particularly interesting because the reset handler actually steps closer to the thrower.
The Japanese U23 teams also used inside breaks extensively. In fact, strong inside breaks were a key contributor to the U23 Japanese women’s victory over the women from USA. On occasion it was possible to see a similar pattern of movement close to the thrower.
RELATED: How Japan Took Down USA U23
Although the cut is not thrown to, the front of the stack slowly approaches the thrower before exploding to the break side.
Ironside’s six person vertical contrasts sharply with that of the Japanese. Ironside’s reset system is more about tough cuts into reset spaces and less a preference for thrower-initiated throws into tricky, tight space.
Rather than cheeky, Ironside’s resets was a more rigid inside-or-swing system, using both of the players at the front of the stack (and trying to time them at about the same time):
One of the obvious strengths of the Japanese players is the fluidity and improvisation in their play. While they run those post-up resets in a way that’s a bit unfamiliar to Western players, they also ran cuts that looked similar to traditional six vert resets. But what happens after completing these break around throws is often surprising:
A theme in the Japanese resets, and offense in general, is attacking space that is unexpected or undefended. Stepping close to the thrower causes the next throw to be unmarked and cross-field throws take advantage of out-of-position defenders. These are mainstays of the offense, but Japan is opportunistic, and will quickly attack in other ways when they are able.
Quirks Of The Offense
Having focused on what Japan does when the disc slows down, either because of a stopped disc or because they’ve looked reset, it’s interesting to turn to what Japan’s offense looks like in normal flow, and when Japan is unable to immediately score.
Here are a few quirks of Japan’s offense in flow:
- “Messy” stack; not incredibly concerned with keeping a perfect formation
- Unafraid to clear deep and “clog” deep, since their shots often go across the field
- Players that are poached do not seem to feel the need to instantly go after the disc, instead preferring to choose their moments to make a move
Messy Stack and Hanging Out Deep
Japan started this offensive possession in a vertical stack before sending cutters all over the field, creating a “messy” or “muddled” vertical stack (as Lou Burruss would say) rather than a strict one. Japan’s cutters make moves from the middle of the stack, parting away from a string line in the middle of the field, and come back to catch swings before a cross-field blade opens up the field.
A few double deep cuts go off, leading to interesting moments; instead of immediately clearing into the stack, Japanese cutters clear deep.
RELATED: No Mark Zones, Double Handler Coverage, And Other Unconventional Styles From The 2014 Japan Open Final
Because Japan rarely takes full-field shots, the “hanging out” in deep space has relatively little negative effect on their offense. Whereas most offenses would struggle to take shots while having cutters deep, Japan excels at it. Shots go across the field, so it doesn’t matter if there are multiple cutters in deep space, as long as they are spread out. This gives their handlers and cutters tons of space to work with underneath, which allows for quick give-and-gos. It also means that their offense can continue to function near the endzone, where some offenses struggle because of the lack of a deep option.
Poached Players in No Rush
Japan’s cutters are generally very active, but they also cycle readily into the backfield, content to take swings until large unders, upfield breaks, or cross-field blades become available to eat up yards. Facing a junky set from the US, the poached Japan players do not seem to feel the need to instantly go after the disc, instead preferring to choose their moments to make a move.
To start the clip, poached cutters keep cutting and open up space for teammates. Eventually Japan attacks with a blade-y swing after Beau switches to pick up a deep cut. Timmy Perston initially poaches a bit off into the break side, but the disc’s movement puts him out of position to guard the next under. By waiting until space is open, poached players are able to both clear poaches and get the disc.
A look back at the first clip can pull all of these concepts together.
Players cut from the middle of the stack and initiate from the front. Players clear poaches by making continue cuts rather than immediately running for the disc. By the end of the clip there is no discernible vert stack; cutters are waiting for the correct moment to attack open, unexpected, and unguarded space.
With 2016 Worlds on the horizon, it would be wise to keep an eye on Japan’s tight resets, slashing blades, and potential for innovation. In one of the most exciting plays of the game, Matsuno throws a swing and then books it up the line to receive a backhand mere inches from the sideline. Plays like this are a nightmare for defenders, and are emblematic of the Japanese style.