Four hours after confirmation that they had both been left out of another England squad, Ezri Konsa and Ollie Watkins stepped off Aston Villa’s team coach.
Preparations for the match that night against Hibernian were hardly affected. By now, an omission surely does not come as a great shock, but still a blow nonetheless.
The make-up of England squads has become progressively more insular under Gareth Southgate, where form and fitness appear to have reduced in importance.
Southgate’s growing insistence on picking players based on the past rather than the present has given credence to the long-standing sceptics who say international recognition is big club-centric. The counterpoint to those who dispute the notion would be that consistency selection is key in trying to replicate a club-like spirit.
But sticking with players who have reached their talent ceiling and will only deteriorate as opposed to rewarding younger players who have been performing consistently over a sustained period, indicates a distinct level of closed-thinking.
An already contentious subject is heightened by Southgate picking those not playing well, some not playing altogether or players moving to clubs far inferior than any side Villa would face in the Premier League.
Take Jordan Henderson, for example. Irrespective of not being in direct competition for a place with Konsa or Watkins, the sentiment is the same. Southgate has picked the 33-year-old, who moved to Saudi Arabian club Al Ettifaq over the summer. By the same token, Manchester City’s Kalvin Phillips is also in that pool of midfielders, despite not playing a minute yet this season.
Konsa misses out on an England debut once again. In October 2021, Villa manager Dean Smith acknowledged the defender might look to play for Portugal, given he is eligible for citizenship and Southgate’s continual overlooking of him. “Ezri is desperate to play international football,” said Smith at the time. “He’s a very talented player and not getting called up will only act as motivation to prove people wrong and to try and get into that squad. Who knows? He may have a couple of choices in the next (international) window.”
Portugal’s Football Association made overtures while Southgate even namechecked him later in the week at a press conference. England had looked at him earlier in the year and it seemed, on the face of things, a matter of time before he was selected.
It was not always a case of Konsa looking in from the outside. He was a fixture in England youth camps, playing for the under-20 and under-21s. With his partner in central defence Tyrone Mings out injured, it was fair Chelsea’s Levi Colwill took his place in the senior setup this time. Besides, Colwill is of a similar left-footed profile to Mings and has been playing regularly.
Harry Maguire’s inclusion, though, is harder to understand.
Maguire has played no minutes this season. Stripped of the Manchester United captaincy and ostensibly fifth-choice centre-back, Southgate insisted Maguire had a “decision to make” over his future this summer. United accepted an offer from West Ham United, but Maguire was not prepared to make the move.
The broader under-appreciation towards Konsa is nothing new, but his importance to Villa cannot be underestimated. His malleability to be sculpted by Unai Emery has taken his aptitude as a defender to another level, capable of fulfilling the remit the head coach demands from his backline, in and out of possession.
Konsa’s excellent recovery pace aids his comfort in defending wide areas. He also distributes the ball well and pertinently to Southgate, can play at right-back but tucks in to form a back three in Villa’s build-up. Konsa is the type of defender Southgate usually likes in facilitating England’s switch between a back three and four-man defence. In the 3-0 win over Hibernian on Thursday night, he even started in the middle of the back three.
The fact Emery’s decision to rest Watkins against Hibernian came as a slight surprise was symptomatic of how fundamental the forward is to Villa. Watkins can be a profligate finisher at times, but his link-up and ability to dovetail with players around him is critical. Watkins is yet to score in the Premier League but has two assists, scored a hat-trick in the first leg at Easter Road and was influential in Matty Cash’s 19-pass goal against Burnley.
He is Villa’s pressing trigger and is a prolific provider of chances, as well as scorer. Among English players, only Harry Kane (96) has more Premier League goal involvements than Watkins (55, level with James Maddison) since his Villa debut in September 2020.
Watkins has been stuck on seven caps and out of the England picture since March 2022. Competition in the attacking positions is at its most intense but the spot behind Kane as England’s second striker has been fluid, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Danny Ings, Ivan Toney and Callum Wilson all seemingly in a permanent state of auditioning.
Painfully for Watkins, the third striker alongside Wilson in this squad is Eddie Nketiah, on the bench for Arsenal’s most recent game. It has pushed him further down the order.
“He has to be demanding of himself but confident,” said Emery of Watkins after the Hibernian game. “He needs to keep going his way with us. He’s going to score goals. He’s playing really well. He will be in the national team. I think he’s going to be there. Not now, but he’s progressing and he’s really playing well.”
Not being validated for good form is disappointing for Konsa and Watkins. From a Villa perspective, a fortnight of rest before a frenzied European schedule should only empower them.
(Photo: Barrington Coombs/Getty Images)