Clapham at Chesapeake: Is the Gap really closing?

Sion “Brummie” Scone, continues this seasons analysis of Clapham Ultimate and their run up to WUCC 2014 in Lecco, Italy. 

Previously, I wrote about how much potential I thought Clapham have in 2013, tempered with the fact that they still have work to do if they want to have an impact at WUCC, to avoid a repeat of their disappointing results in 2006 & 2010.  With this in mind, I watched footage of their games vs Ring & Ironside, to find some insights into the question posed by Pichler recently as to how big the gap is, and to work out whether that gap is being closed by the efforts of Clapham, and if not, what they need to do to achieve their aims of a semi final berth at WUCC.

Firstly, let’s look at the stats (note: “Scoring %” differs slightly between O and D lines; it is the number of goals scored / number of points played for O, and the number of goals scored / number of points where the D line forced a turnover for the D line.  The number of possessions required to score a goal are therefore irrelevant for this stat… a deeper look could get into this in more detail!  I wanted to ensure that this statistic reflected the scoring rate where each line had the disc):

The results are pretty interesting.  I posted the scores for Sub Zero’s final-winning game in order to provide some comparison.

The Ring game was very sloppy from both teams’ O lines, and the real star here was Clapham’s D line who rattled off 4 breaks in a row after half to pull into a 3 point lead; still, Ring had the disc to tie the game up at 13-12, but Clapham’s O held and the D line broke again for the 15-13 win.  Clapham’s D line scored 7 goals from 8 attempts, which is a phenomenal rate of 87.5% and proves they are a world-class unit.  The same cannot be said for the O line, who scored 8 goals from 16 possessions, meaning 1 turn per goal on average, and considering that just 5 of the 12 points played resulted in goals without a turnover, there is a lot of work to be done if they want to compete at WUCC.

The Ironside game stats show where Clapham’s reliance on their D line will cost them when playing elite opposition, as they simply do not turn over with anywhere near the same frequency.  Clapham’s D line were only able to get the disc in 5 points, and scored 3 of them.  This is probably in line with the scoring rates required of elite level defensive units – Ben Wiggins believed that 3 breaks should be sufficient to win any game, as the strength of his then team Sockeye meant they were confident in their offence’s capabilities, and were therefore not reliant upon their D line to win games – but Clapham’s O line again shows that they racked up 13 turns to score 9 goals (compared to 5 turns from Ironside’s O line who scored 10 goals).  In fact, in the first half, Clapham’s O line scored only 1 goal without turning over (from a total of 6 goals), and their D line scored 1 break from 3 points where they had possession.  The second half saw 100% offence from the Clapham D line (2 breaks from 2 possessions), and 3 goals without turning from their O line, yet the remaining two points saw multiple turns from Clapham’s O and both led to Ironside breaks, allowing them to to keep their lead and take the game 14-12.  Saving just one of these breaks would have been enough to take the game to sudden death.  

Comparison of Clapham’s scoring percentages to Sub Zero’s in the final gives an idea of where “the gap” lies; O line turnovers; Clapham need to be aiming to halve the number of turnovers per game if they want to be successful next year.  The positive is that Clapham’s D line show a similar, or even better, scoring ability than Sub Zero, and certainly better than Ironside (3 goals from 11 attempts vs Clapham), and were capable of getting enough blocks to keep them in games until late.  The quality is evident in Clapham’s O line, what is missing is consistency, and given how close the North American teams are to each other, Clapham need to try to emulate the consistent, high-level play of the Pro Flight teams.

The spread of turnovers indicates early game nerves, turning into second half confidence – and possibly over-confidence. I spoke to Markian Kuzmowycz, who plays for PONY – a team that beat Clapham twice at Chesapeake – for some thoughts.  “In my opinion, they played like an “American” team, like club teams I’m accustomed to facing. Physical D without calls to slow down the pace, mostly man-to-man, and an offence that works to set up a deep shot. Where they were a little weaker was in 1:1 defence on the downfield cutters. Also, Clapham missed a lot of hucks“. European readers may be surprised to find that Kuzmowycz believes that Clapham lack the fitness they need to win late in the day: Clapham imploded in our 3rd place matchup … last game of the weekend, they looked tired”.

And what about their chances at WUCC? It’s great to see the results Clapham had, especially beating Chain in a must-win game, and giving Ironside such a tough game, as I would like to see more clubs internationally playing at this level of ultimate. Do I think they could make semis? Not at this time, no. Quarters? Maybe.” “I would say the ceiling for them is probably somewhere in the 5-8″.

Jolian Dahl of Chain Lightning had this to say: “I was impressed with the poise of Clapham’s offense; they made it far more difficult for our defense to get turnovers than in years past. The times Chain was able to get turns came from situations where Clapham’s offense was prevented from swinging the disc. My take on the effectiveness of Clapham’s deep game: all of the uncontested hucks were mid-range and were thrown off movement after the offense had moved the disc 1/3 to 1/2 the way down the field.”

From watching the games (all available from UltiWorld), there are a number of things that stood out to me:
  • Clapham show that they are the athletic equals of the US teams that they are striving to beat, play some tight handler defence and get more than enough blocks to win games against even the best.  Clapham also pull off a number of highlight reel plays to rescue poor throws, more so than most of the other teams at Chesapeake; this is a positive, but reaching out for players to make plays is a dangerous strategy.  US teams seem to use athleticism as the safety margin, not an offensive tactic.
  • In the Ring game, and the start of the Ironside game, there are very few picks (unlike their opponents).  This means that Clapham are not stifling their own flow.  The number of picks increased dramatically as the Ironside game wore on, showing that as Clapham tire, they lose focus & structure.
  • Clapham struggle to create and maintain flow, resulting in lots of players sat on the disc aiming to create something downfield. There also seemed to be a reluctance to reset early; Sub Zero and Ironside tended to reset after 2-3 seconds of looking downfield. 
  • Clapham play their dumps noticably closer to the disc than any of the other teams there, which means they did not use the width as well as the other teams, and it also makes it more likely that the throwing lanes are clogged by an offensive player.  Even if the lanes are open, they are very narrow & therefore throws are more difficult to execute.  Clapham players need to trust in their team rather than crowding the disc.
  • Clapham’s D line offence is vastly improved from 2011, and is probably the reason that they have won games comfortably this year.  Now the O line need to catch up.
  • 1-2-1 cutter defence is poor; teams like Ironside that rely on repeated isolations downfield had little trouble getting open for big yards.  Clapham defenders have a tendency to turn their attention away from their mark, and smart cutters use this opportunity to get open.  It seemed like Clapham were not communicating very well on defence. I saw very few switches, and only occasional useful poaching, despite playing against Ironside who stick all of their players out to one side and play with one guy in isolation.  They need to be more adaptable than this if they want to challenge at WUCC.  Ironside, in contrast, were able to stall Clapham out on their own goal line with some intelligent switching and poaching. Clapham’s poaching more often looks like lazy defence than intelligence. Clapham need to be able to play better shutdown on the unders and rely on team mates peeling off the back to cover, especially when they play with a force-upfield mark that gives no protection downfield.
  • Compared to Ring, Ironside and Sub Zero; Clapham don’t move the disc aggressively enough off the pull, nor do they generate any big gains before the defence is set.  They could use a pull play that will allow them to utilise the free space that comes with pulls that come in low and hard.
  • Clapham’s successful deep throws mostly came directly from flow, thrown on stalls 1-2.  When they threw deep from static, they had a lower completion rate.
  • Ironside were without 3 of their starting 7 offensive players and fell to their worst defeat in 3 years at Chesapeake; Chain were missing a World Games player and offensive stalwart Dylan Tunnell. Likewise, Clapham sent only a small number of their players, with some missing out because of U23 Worlds.  But where were the others? Clapham will never succeed without total commitment from all of their team, so to see so many players missing in a non-GB year was a little surprising. Perhaps Clapham need to select players who can commit more if they want to make the breakthrough?
Clapham Ultimate at Chesapeake 2013. Photo courtesy of Kevin Leclaire Photography.

So the question is: are Clapham closing the gap?  It is hard to answer; after all, this is not the first time that Clapham have made semi finals at a US tournament.  The fact that everyone was treating semi finals as an amazing result – and not just an expected one – indicates that people believe the gap has increased since 2007.  If this is true, then perhaps Clapham are closing the gap.  The strength of their D line firmly suggests that they are.  But the disparity between Clapham’s O line performances and that of their opponents shows that any gap is real, and vast.  


Comments welcome! DP @ tSG.

2 thoughts on “Clapham at Chesapeake: Is the Gap really closing?”

  1. Brummie

    Some interesting analysis, a few things that we are already tackling.

    As a regular attendee of US torunament I would say that it was some of the toughest competition I have come up against State-side (so far I have played 6 times) and both their game and squad depth has come on.

    We can't take too much from the 3/4th game as by that point Clapham were playing with a 16 man squad verses a 26/7 man local team who didn't have to deal with the rigours of travel. Fitness and athelticism isn't the issue. Upping the consistancy on O at Clapham is always high on our agenda. We know the level we have to be at so now just watch this space.

    The main target we set for Cheaspeake was to learn how to close out games in the second half, this was achieved but still to be developed further (we never rest).

    It's intresting to see comments about missing players, it's never an excuse for performance at tournaments such as these when key players are missing. Consistancy throughout the team is key.

    On the whole Cheasapeake was a positive event in Claphams build-up to WUCC.

    Unfortunately we don't see nearly the levels of competition like this in Europe. Nor until recently (with Ragnarok) have we seen other teams try to emalute Claphams example of how both to train and prepare for tournaments in order to progress as rapidly as North American teams. Perhaps instead we should start to take the focus of where Clapham are going and instead look at why other teams are falling so far behind Clapham?(waiting to hear people say we take all the best players, this is simply not true – we offer all players with potential the best opportunity to develop)

    (still gutted to have been stalled out on our goal line)

  2. Voodoo; good to get some opinions from you (note, I will use “you” to refer primarily to Clapham, so don't take things too personally).

    I agree that the depth & quality in the US is probably increasing year on year, which of course means “the gap” will widen. The aim of the article was to do a bit of objective analysis following some articles proclaiming that “the gap” was being closed by Clapham. I think that the answer is “sort of”.

    Clapham are an easy team to study because there is plenty of footage of them, and also their player base is relatively stable compared to almost all other UK clubs (the 2009 team and 2013 team are largely the same, for example). Personally, I believe that this is the number 1 reason that other teams fall behind / are unable to catch up with a team like Clapham; it's hard to make huge strides in one year. Doing a comparison of Chevron, for example, would be very difficult because the players that they bring to any given tournament seem to vary too much. Clapham obviously have great recruitment power which helps massively; this is no bad thing (you need the best raw talent if you want to turn them into superstars).

    Your comments about emulation of Clapham's example leaves me to ask: what is it that you think Clapham does that is so different? Trips to the USA in the past by British teams have met with mixed success (2012 saw no US trip yet Clapham won EUCF and GB Open got silver; compare to 2009 when Clapham went to ECC and lost to a 14-man Skogs at XEUCF, for example). The chance to play better quality opposition (and just different opposition) is clearly a great thing, and the overall quality of European ultimate has arguably dropped since 10 years ago when Champions League provided Clapham with that level of competition. Aside from US trips, what are Clapham doing that other teams can emulate?

    I would say though that the feedback is positive overall; an opponent who beat you twice thinks that you are good enough to be potential quarter-finalists at WUCC as you are now, so if you are able to continue to improve over the next 12 months, you will be in a good position to take the coveted semi final spot. Jolian thinks that it was more difficult to get the disc off Clapham than it has been in the past, which is indicative of improvement also.

    I will say though that failing to perform in the 3/4 game due to fatigue / lack of numbers is a poor excuse for a team that is aiming to be getting into tournament finals; you will need to be at your best for that last game. I'm sure if Chevron/Fire or similar said the same after losing a final to Clapham, the response would be similar to my view: be fitter and/or get more committed players so you don't end up in that position. Imagine getting to a WUCC final and feeling that you lost due to lack of legs…

    Good luck on the road to WUCC

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