Van Gaal betrays philosophy to stop Spain

The 2010 World Cup runners-up will abandon their famous 4-3-3 and field a defensive 5-3-2 formation in their opening game against the reigning champions
By Stefan Coerts

Say Netherlands and you say "total football".

Ever since making it to the final of the 1974 World Cup with players such as Johan Cruyff, Willem van Hanegem and Johan Neeskens, Holland are associated with attacking and entertaining football. Unfortunately for the Dutch, their style of play has gone hand in hand with not winning any major silverware, bar their victorious Euro 1988 campaign.

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Bert van Marwijk therefore opted for a pragmatic approach during his time in charge of Oranje from 2008 until 2012, and was rewarded with a run to the final at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

It all went wrong for Van Marwijk and his men in the showpiece in Johannesburg, however. Not only were the Dutch beaten in a World Cup final for the third time, but they did so in a way that cost them many fans and admirers.

Rather than being praised for reaching the final against all odds, Holland were scrutinised for their violent and negative approach throughout the tournament - and in the final in particular - by high-profile names across the world as well as Dutch icons Cruyff and Louis van Gaal, and deservedly so.

"I don't think Netherlands put in an attractive display. They lost in a very ugly way. They have some fantastic players. Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben. Spain don't have attackers like that. But this was not the way to play," Van Gaal said after 1-0 loss after extra time.

One would consequently think the former Bayern Munich boss would never even consider giving up on his  philosophy and stay true to the 4-3-3 formation that has made Netherlands a benchmark in the game ever since their successes in the 1970s.

Surprisingly, Van Gaal has done just that, after Roma midfielder Kevin Strootman was ruled out of the World Cup with a knee injury. The Oranje boss feels his men lack the quality to compete with the world's finest without the 24-year-old running the show in midfield and has thrown all of his principles over board.

Van Gaal has experimented with 4-4-2 and 5-3-2 formations in the build-up to Friday's match against Spain and is widely expected go with the five-man defence variant in Salvador in an attempt to stop the titleholders.

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There's no denying that Holland have been vulnerable in defence over the past few years, which was also the main reason why Van Marwijk opted to field two holding midfielders in front of a four-man backline in 2010, but you would still expect a coach like Van Gaal to stay true to himself, especially bearing in mind his criticism of Van Marwijk in the past.

Yet even a notoriously stubborn man such as Van Gaal has come to the realisation that you will have to adapt to the circumstances if you are to be successful at the highest level.

Youngsters such as Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi, Daryl Janmaat and Daley Blind all have potential, but none of them have any previous experience at a major tournament, while only the latter has been playing in the Champions League.

It's thus perfectly normal to build in some extra security at the back at the expense of a more creative player higher up the pitch. There's no guarantee that Van Gaal's gamble will pay off against Vicente del Bosque's men, but it would be naive to think Holland's young guns would have been able to halt Spain in their trademark 4-3-3 formation.

Is the future Manchester United man betraying his own philosophy? Undoubtedly. Is he wrong to do so? Definitely not.

As much as some people might hate it, football is about results, not about playing pretty. And Van Gaal knows that more than anyone else.

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