In a critical game early in the season, playing against one of the top teams in Mexico, Matt Hedges stood strong and played lights out. The man could barely put a foot wrong throughout the entire game. Whether it was tackling, intercepting, passing or simply closing down, Hedges was phenomenal and a big contributor to the win. Dallas now has the advantage heading to Pachuca in early April and it is in no small way thanks to Matt Hedges.
As a big, tall, strong central defender Hedges is asked to do the typical things like win balls in the air, get forward for set pieces, and use his physical prowess to control the back line for Dallas. Knowing that and also knowing how Oscar Pareja asks FC Dallas to play, it is even more critical that Hedges’ touches have quality, especially when distributing out of the back.
Attached is a spray chart of all of the passes from Hedges against Pachuca. Not one pass went astray, not one pass off target and not one giveaway. In a game of that magnitude it is ever so important for your central defenders to not give the ball away. In contrast, Walker Zimmerman was much less consistent, as you can see in his passing graphic, and it is no small surprise that Pachuca seemed to favor the side of the field with Hernan Grana and Zimmerman.
Possibly the most impressive thing about Hedges ability to play the ball so reliably is the range of passes that he made. You can see long diagonal balls played to the opposite wing; short passes to the middle and wide defenders, as well as the occasional venture into the midfield, carrying the ball forward to put more pressure on the opposition.
Hedges essentially shut down the Pachuca right side attack for most of the night. He and Maynor Figueroa combined to make life very difficult for the Mexican side. The only foul committed by Hedges the entire night was a tactical one that got him a yellow card in the 33rd minute. Even that was merely him protecting the team: isolated with a speedy attacker but knowing that he had support coming his way (so he could avoid a sending off) he took down the Pachuca player and stopped the attack before it could really get going.
If we take a look at Hedges’ defensive involvement we can take a few insights from it. All of his tackles were outside of the 30-yard range from his own net. To me this shows that he was playing on a high line and made the tackles when the ball bypassed the midfield quickly. As he moved closer and closer to his own net, his involvement shifted to primarily blocking and clearing. If we take the two charts in tandem you can see Hedges’ location for the majority of the game was just behind the center circle on the left central side of the field. Not surprising since he was our left center defender. What stands out to me is the lack of red – both in his distribution and his defensive contributions. This means he wasn’t making mistakes, which has an enormous impact on the rest of the team. With Dallas pressing for much of the night the defense was asked to win the ball back quickly and not give it away when trying to find an outlet.
Walker Zimmerman seemed to be the focus of the Pachuca pressing of the Dallas defense and it worked to an extent, as Zimmerman gave the ball away 10 times throughout the night. There are certainly other extenuating circumstances but the contrast in passing percentage between the center backs can bring us some insights:
Hedges – 24 passes completed/24 total passes – 100%
Zimmerman – 28 passes completed/38 total passes – 73.6%
Giving the ball away over 25 percent of the time is not a huge cause for concern but it does speak to the strategy that Pachuca enlisted. They tended to press Zimmerman harder and close him down faster, and he did look flustered. I bring this up to show how big an impact Hedges has as a calming influence at the back. His touches were great, his distribution was excellent and he didn’t get anything wrong when the opposition had the ball. Though Pachuca had the ball for nearly 60% of the game, the flow of the game seemed to go the way of Dallas and Hedges played a big role in that.
Now for the negative – the goal. When Grana was beaten to the end line, Hedges had the opportunity to step to the ball or to stay with the attacker in the box. Instead, he tried to go halfway and wound up having the ball played around him to a semi-open Pachuca player in the box. Indecision kills and I think that’s the case with this situation. Had he stepped to the ball, it could have been played to Jara early and the result may have been the same. Had he stayed with Jara instead of pseudo-closing down the ball the attack likely would have been snuffed out. Now this is not all Matt’s fault – Grana was beaten on a poor attempt to win the ball and Zimmerman was caught completely unaware, which is why we seem him sprinting back into the picture. This goal could play a huge part in who advances to the final, but I think overall it was a team flub that caused it – the FCD players just simply were not awake 2 minutes in and it cost them.
In saying all of that, I think that Hedges deserves man of the match honors for his outstanding play at the back. Maxi Urruti ran tirelessly for the whole game and scored a goal but he also drifted in and out of play quite often. Kellyn Acosta had a good game but his injury limited his ability to go box-to-box in the second half and has me a bit worried. Goals are necessary and goals are great, but limiting them is just as fantastic and that is what Matt Hedges did for FC Dallas on Wednesday night.
Defensive Graphic Legend
Recoveries – Orange
Successful Tackles – Green
Missed Tackles – Red
Blocks – Yellow
Clearances - Purple
Passing Graphic Legend
Completed Passes - Green
Missed Passes - Red