RIO DE JANEIRO — The days of fluent, attacking "total football" are long gone for the Netherlands. Now, results matter more than the way they are achieved.
It's a bitter pill to swallow for an older generation of fans brought up on the almost carefree attacking of Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens. But the 4-3-3 system that formed the backbone of the great Dutch teams of the 1970s and 1980s is very unlikely to be used in their Friday World Cup opener against Spain.
If Spain was monitoring the Netherlands' practice Sunday, it might fear the Group B game will resemble the 2010 World Cup final between the teams in South Africa. Spain's 1-0 win included 13 yellow cards and one red card.
Midfielder Wesley Sneijder was left wincing in pain Sunday after a tackle from behind by teammate Nigel de Jong, whose studs-up, chest-high challenge on Xabi Alonso in the 2010 final became emblematic of the uncompromising Dutch defense. Defender Bruno Martins Indi twice brought down Arjen Robben, one of the Dutch team's most potent attackers.
Then-coach Bert Van Marwijk's team was fiercely criticized by some for its physical style in the 2010 final, but he was unrepentant. "I would have loved to win it with football that is not so beautiful," he said then.
Current coach Louis van Gaal, a champion of attractive, flowing soccer since he led Ajax to the European Champions League title in 1995, has tacitly conceded the same is true for him.
"I work based on the quality of the players," he said recently. "I'm a coach who wants to win, and I think, to be honest, we have more chances with this system."
Not only does that mean hard tackles, but five defenders to stifle Spain's slick-passing front line. So far, his players — led by captain and all-time top scorer Robin van Persie — support him.
"There isn't only one way to win. There are many different ways," said Persie, a striker for Manchester United in the English Premier League.
"There is one best system, and that is when the (coach) chooses what best fits the players. We are in that process now. I have confidence it can work out. His reasons for choosing this are clear, and everybody feels that."
Van Persie said he has no regrets about the 2010 World Cup, which ended with a third second-place finish instead of a first title. "A lot happened four years ago," he said of the tournament, which included a quarterfinal win over Brazil and a semifinal victory over Uruguay. "I think we can look back with pride at that tournament."
The good news for Dutch purists? Van Gaal hinted he could revert to the 4-3-3 — in the Netherlands' second game.