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The Playmaker Pool: Who is Dortmund's best number ten?

Taking a look at the attacking midfielders with two cups left to play for.

Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

After a 2-2 draw with Schalke (in which Tuchel rested the starters, clearly favoring fresh legs for the second leg of the Liverpool tilt in the Europa League to chasing after Bayern), the Bundesliga title might as well be Bayern's to claim. Dortmund still have very good chances at trophies in the Europa League and the Pokal, however, and if they're going to progress to the final stages of those competitions, they're going to need to sort out their best possible midfield combination, and just who will be pulling the strings as a central attacking midfielder.

Coming into the season, the depth chart at attacking mid seemed to be pretty clear. Shinji Kagawa would start behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, with supporting roles played by a newly-signed Gonzalo Castro and Henrik Mkhitaryan used as a utility attacking midfielder after a somewhat lackluster 2014-2015 season. Ilkay Gundogan would keep his linking spot behind in the center of the midfield, and everything would be hunky-dory. And for a while, that's the way the midfield played out, too.

But with five games left to play in the Bundesliga season and two cup competitions still there for the taking, the picture is a bit murkier. It's been Mkhitaryan who has been the primary catalyst for Dortmund in the midfield this season. He's been directly involved with 22 goals, meaning he's contributed an assist or scored a goal for nearly a third of Dortmund's tallies on the year. He's been positionally flexible as well, frequently swapping wings with Marco Reus and sometimes taking up residence in the middle of the park. Gonzalo Castro has emerged as a primary threat in the middle of the field, usurping Kagawa's starting spot for the time being and contributing seven assists on the season, good enough for a share of fourth place on the Bundesliga charts. Kagawa has six assists and seven goals to his name, and while he's spent plenty of time on the injury shelf this season, Gundogan has shown a propensity to carve defenses open in his brief cameos at the position as well. So the question remains: just who is Dortmund's best number ten?

Dennis Grombkowski, Getty

The question means more than just statistics. Each player brings his own twist to the position, and almost all of them (with Kagawa being the exception) has at least semi-regularly been called upon to take up other positions in the midfield as well. When Gundogan is fit and happens to find himself in a number ten role, it usually means Dortmund is in a more defensive look in general. He sits deeper and waits longer to spring forward into the attack. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Kagawa usually prefers playing as high up the pitch as he can get, slotting in just behind Aubameyang and trying to find the gaps between the defensive midfield and opposing center backs. Castro and Mkhitaryan both play the position somewhere in between those two, but their M.O.s are different there as well. Where Castro most often looks to combine in neat triangles and spring forwards with decisive through balls, Miki loves to dribble out of tight spaces and find room to run into before delivering a shot or final pass. There are no like-for-like options that Dortmund has in the role at the moment.

Which brings us to the other obvious point: the best possible XI doesn't necessarily mean the best number ten will actually be playing in the central attacking midfield role. At the moment, I would pick Mkhitaryan as our most dangerous attacking midfielder in the middle at the moment, but his skills are also so valuable on the wing (where our attacking depth is much thinner) that his presence is usually a necessity out wide. Similarly, Gundogan is a fantastic player capable of the number ten spot at times, but his best and most useful role for Dortmund is as a box-to-box number eight player, transitioning play from defense to offense and working the ball out of tight situations in the middle of the park.

Options are great, but with options come decisions that need to be made, and time is growing short. While next season will see the addition of Mikel Merino, a possible continuation of growth from Christian Pulisic (who has featured extensively in the middle for United States teams, despite his almost exclusive presence as a winger for Dortmund), and any other number of players, two cups will be decided in the next two months, and if they have a hope at either, Dortmund's attack will need to be firing on all cylinders. So, time to put the coaching hats (or vests?) on. If you're Thomas Tuchel looking at a second leg against Liverpool and a cup semi-final at Hertha, who do you put down as Dortmund's number ten?