As our battle-hardened Iron Man, Sven Bender, lumbered forward to take his turn as second in the spot-kick rotation in the latest of final losses to our bitter rivals, Bayern München, a palpable sense of foreboding descended. My first reaction was to blurt out inquiries as to why Tuchel would send our stalwart center back to take a penalty. Perhaps it was this tactical disagreement, or my almost English sense of realistic pessimism, but Bender’s fatigued, clumsy effort that was easily parried by Super Manu came as no surprise. Penalties are a cruel mistress, and the session Saturday at the Olympiastadion in Berlin was especially cruel to our two defenders, Bender, and consensus man of the match Sokratis. Their unforgiving and unshakable performance in the middle had epitomized the match up to that point.
Bender’s performance in particular was emblematic of the whole season. As the match progressed, his positioning varied throughout the night, starting in central defense of a three back system, moving to a dual destroyer role with Julian Weigl, and finishing back where he started. At the close of the disappointing season last year, Kloppo left, having managed to restore a bit of stability, but the Guardiola-like tinkerer Thomas Tuchel’s arrival no doubt prompted many questions of how Bender would fit into the squad. Too valuable an asset to merely ride the bench in support of miracle-boy Weigl, Bender’s future in the Schwartzgelb looked tenuous at best.
Ginter’s disastrous performance at center back in the Europa League Qualifying match against Odds BK, combined with Tuchel’s distrust of Subotic and a Hummels injury forced the manager’s hand into trying a new approach. Tuchel deployed Bender as a converted center back after his having been previously confined to bit appearances in a rare double pivot with Weigl or spelling him in even rarer rests for the youngster. Sokratis picking up a knock or two in the later stage of the Hinrunde and his poor form at the outset of the Rückrunde, gave Bender the starting spot. Bender’s abilities as a defensive midfielder and his relative skill with the ball greatly enhanced the Tuchel possession system to play from the back. As Iron Mani grew more comfortable in the role, we were even pleasantly surprised with his ability to launch vertical attacks with almost Hummels-esque long balls to streaking runs from Reus and Mkhitaryan.
As things stand, Sven Bender will go into next season as Dortmund's #1 centre-back. Imagine saying that 12 months ago.— Lewis (@LGAmbrose) May 10, 2016
Although many, probably including Bender himself, will still consider him a defensive midfielder, it is doubtful Tuchel will use him there. With Weigl firmly established as the defensive screen to a back four, Mikel Merino coming on board, and Nuri Şahin still searching for his once-scintillating form, the previous year’s questions about Bender are still appropriate. Except, now we know his utility as a center back. With Hummels and likely Gündoğan leaving, there are far more important stylistic questions and replacements Tuchel must answer before getting to Bender’s use. Sven did renew his contract, tying him to Dortmund through 2021, and it can be assumed this was done with Tuchel’s involvement, but ultimately, his future as a consistent starter in the big matches is still a question mark. Certainly, he can be a reliable, veteran leader on a squad that looks to get younger by the day.
Josh Hall is a brand new writer on Fear the Wall and can be followed on Twitter @BVBKansas.