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The XI: In the Thick of It

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Welcome to The XI, where we take a look at the lineup from last week and try to piece together what our next starting XI will look like.

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Last Week:

Or...yesterday. Dortmund's in the middle of their busiest game schedule of the season, playing Porto on Thursday with games against Hoffenheim on Sunday, Darmstadt on Wednesday, and the big one against Bayern on Saturday to think about. With all that in mind, Tuchel's going to need to rotate fresh legs into the squad once again in order to field the best possible team against Bayern on as much rest as possible. First, a look at the lineup against Porto:

The return of Sven Bender notwithstanding, this is a pretty standard Dortmund lineup. The game put away by halftime, Ilkay Gundogan and Mats Hummels only put in 45 minutes of work and Dortmund cruised to a comfortable 0-1 win that put the Black and Yellows up 3-0 on aggregate, sending them into the Round of 16. Even though Dortmund strolled to victory in Portugal, two flights across the continent with two days in between game days still takes a toll on player energy levels.

Notes:

-Ilkay Gundogan's return from (another) illness was a welcome one, but just as welcome was the long-awaited return of Nuri Sahin the week before. When Gundogan was deemed surplus to requirements against Porto, Sahin came on and demonstrated once again the difference he can make in the Dortmund midfield. Comfortable with sitting back further than Gundogan, Sahin's presence effectively flips the midfield triangle from an attacking one to a defensive/possession midfield with a deep-lying playmaker who can slice thirty-yard through balls through defenses. Weigl has looked an odd fit in defensive midfield with everyone excluding Sahin, so the ability to be able to sit back more and cut through defenses on the ground is a welcome addition to the fairly-thin midfield.

-Similarly, Sven Bender's return gave the Dortmund defense a different look. While Mats Hummels has his occasional hero-ball moments upfield, Bender's on-ball presence is much quieter and cleaner, providing excellent distribution out of the back. Sokratis is wonderful because when you need someone to make a tackle, he will inevitably make it (or get enough of an attacker's leg to stop the play without getting sent off). Bender's feet are a little more cultured than that, and at times allow Dortmund to skip over their midfield altogether and jumpstart counterattacks. That is nice.

-Thinking about starting a Matthias Ginter/Erik Durm Bingo formation chart. There's gonna come a day when one of them plays target forward and I will buy you all drinks when it happens.

Prediction:

Uh...ok. So, just so we're clear on the degree to which Tuchel is comfortable rotating his lineups, here's the starting lineup once more from the Bayer Leverkusen game:

If you guessed a starting midfield including Bender, Ginter, Leitner, and Pulisic for that game, you should probably try the lottery. Simply put: it's gonna be nearly impossible to predict Tuchel's choices here. On the one hand, Hoffenheim are second to last in the league, and Darmstadt have built up a reputation of being plucky underdogs, nicking a point off of us back in September and most recently going toe to toe with Bayern before dropping that result 3-1. On the other, you still definitely need results from both of those games while keeping your best players fresh for the Bayern matchup in just about a week. So, here's how they might come out against Hoffenheim:

I think Tuchel goes ahead with a more "A-" lineup for Hoffenheim, before mixing the squad players in against Darmstadt and keeping some top guns in reserve, much like the Bayer game. This is very similar to the "Bunker Breaker" lineup BVB rolled out against Stuttgart in the Pokal, with Ginter's physical presence in the midfield and Durm's deep winger role giving free reign of the midfield over to Gundogan, Mkhitaryan, and Shinji Kagawa. Bender keeps his spot in central defense, because duh, and it will take an army of Portuguese boots to keep Mats Hummels off the field if he's even close to being good to go, so I don't think his knock keeps him out here. Reus gets a breather, but may sub in for Durm if the attacking prospects look weak.

If I'm Wrong:

Then Tuchel decides to start the rotation early and we get to see some interesting formations. Possibly another Sahin start, and look for Christian Pulisic and Moritz Leitner to play roles as well.

Do you have predictions for this week's XI? Let us know in the comments section below!