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The XI: Crazy Eights

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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:

What a difference a week makes. Where BVB's counter attack looked unstoppable against Gladbach, punishing them despite their tough man-marking, Ingolstadt proved to be made of much sterner stuff defensively at Signal Iduna. Ilkay Gundogan and Marco Reus's absences certainly did not help matters either, as the two succumbed to an illness a day prior to the match (possibly the same illness that sidelined Shinji Kagawa last week). As an already thin midfield grew thinner, Thomas Tuchel needed to get creative going home against Ingolstadt. He trotted out the same 4-3-3 shape that had worked against Gladbach nominally, but in actual game form, it looked much more like this:

The stars represent incorrect selections I made from last week's lineup. Yeah, things got weird, but in my defense, I had no idea as to Erik Durm's fitness, nor could I have known that Reus and Gundogan would both start running fevers on Thursday (considering this series is written on Wednesdays). Wanting to keep Aubameyang at forward but possessing slim options on the wing, Tuchel handed Adrian Ramos a rare start on the right side. Matthias Ginter replaced Ilkay Gundogan, Erik Durm came in for Joo-Ho Park at left back, and Shinji Kagawa was favored over Gonzalo Castro. However, the different players and flow of game warped the shape of this 4-3-3 considerably. Kagawa pushed much farther forward than Castro did last week, and Ginter stayed home as more of a second defensive midfielder rather than a true number eight, like Gundogan. However, this left Kagawa often stranded. Miki began tucking in more towards the middle as a result, and Durm pushed far, far forward on the left hand side to provide width early and often. Still, Dortmund's offense just wouldn't click. Ramos couldn't generate anything on the right hand side, Kagawa got crowded out in the midfield without closer support underneath him, Miki's dangerous dribbling was nullified by pinching inside to more crowded lanes, and Durm's pressing left the defense exposed on more than one occasion, as Hummels and Sokratis often got stranded one on one vs. Ingolstadt's three-man press. This lineup just didn't work. However, Tuchel's substitutions changed the shape and solved a lot of these problems on offense and defense. After Castro, Leitner, and Pulisic were introduced, Dortmund's shape looked more like this:

In a word: balance. Leitner and Castro's presence in the midfield finally provided strong links in transition offense and more dangerous possession in the final third. Pulisic's introduction for Ramos saw Miki flipped to the right wing, and the newly balanced central midfield allowed the wingers to push wider and take on defenders. Castro and Leitner combined well, releasing players in the final third and opened up the field for Aubameyang to do his thing. Pulisic, even at just seventeen, looked dangerous as well, putting in low crosses on the wet grass and making an incredibly smart run on Aubameyang's second goal that could've seen the American score if PEA had chosen to square the ball. An awful gaffe by Mats Hummels and a possible offside on Aubameyang's first goal were helped out by the official, and Dortmund ran out 2-0 winners at home.

Notes:

-The difference between the first half lineup and the lineup shape after Tuchel's substitutions is a lesson in the importance of Ilkay Gundogan to Dortmund and the gravitational force of the number 8. When someone talks about a "traditional number 8," they are typically referring to a box-to-box central midfielder that provides valuable contributions in offense, defense, and linking the two together. This stems from the traditional numbering of players of 1-11 in a starting XI which used to be the norm in football. Hence, we get a number 2 at right back, a number 6 at defensive midfield, a number 9 at forward and a number 10 as the luxury attacking midfielder. Obviously, these numbers haven't remained the same on players' shirts, but the roles are still the same. Ilkay Gundogan is one of the best (if not the best, and I think there's a debate to be had there) number 8s currently playing in world football. That was on display two weeks ago against Gladbach, and it was possibly even more on display in his absence last week. Ginter is not a number 8. He's a defender converted into a defensive midfielder, more of a number 6 than anything else. He hung back more on offensive side of the ball, not getting as far forward or as involved as Gundogan does, which is to be expected. That drew everyone towards Kagawa. Defenders covered him easily, Miki drifted towards him to give him an outlet, and that dangerous area in the center of the field, just outside the box (the space analytic nerds call "Zone 14") became crowded. When Leitner came into the game, he showed more of a willingness to push forward with Gonzalo Castro. The wingers spread closer to the touchlines, and space opened up for passing lanes. Chances were created, fouls were committed, and Dortmund scored two goals.

-Leitner looked good, but he is certainly not a replacement for Gundogan, at least not yet. Gundogan still provides more in defense than Leitner does, and Hummels's near-own goal came after Tuchel made his substitutions. Many of the problems that Dortmund had with their starting lineup were solved, but not all of them. And yes, the chance came about because Hummels took far too long on a ball he probably should have passed away at the first touch, or clear up field with his second, but Weigl and Gundogan in tandem are very good at providing outlet passes and lanes for our defenders to safely pass out of the back that the combination of Leitner and Ginter didn't provide at the same rate, either. It's not a stretch to say that Ilkay Gundogan just might be the most important player on this team. With that said: please don't sell.

-Durm looked serviceable at left back, but I still would prefer Schmelzer back.

-My prediction of Pizszcek getting up the flank to take advantage of vacated space came true, even if the way in which it happened wasn't exactly what I expected. He served in some good crosses from the right side.

-Christian Pulisic. Keep playing him.

Prediction:

Here's what I think the lineup could look like against third-place Hertha Berlin:

Is this the same lineup as the Gladbach one? Why, yes, it almost exactly is. Gundogan and Reus are no-brainers to slot back into the lineup. As far as which side Miki and Reus play on and whether or not they'll stay there, your guess is as good as mine. The rationale behind Reus on the right and Miki on the left is the danger they pose when they cut in and look for diagonal passes, as well as running at and behind defenders to get a shot in. Hertha's CB pairing of Sebastian Langkamp and American Hero John Anthony Brooks are physically imposing at 6'3" and 6'4", respectively, so I think Tuchel will value clever runs and trying to beat them on the ground rather than having his wingers get to the byline and whip crosses in. Castro comes back in with Gundogan, and hopefully the two look to combine in the middle again, rather than get flattened out and separated like the first forty minutes against Gladbach. Tuchel has shown a tendency to go with the hot hand in his lineups, so I'm slotting Castro in ahead of Kagawa here. The rest of the lineup is pretty self-explanatory. I have no idea if Marcel Schmelzer will be ready or not, and if he is not, whether we'll see Durm or Park, so I've slapped him into the starting XI as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Echte Liebe.

If I'm Wrong:

Flip the wingers, Durm for Schmelzer, and/or Kagawa for Castro.

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