Why Ezri Konsa could be the solution to England's defensive problems

From Ezri Konsa’s five England caps, the 15 minutes against Slovakia felt the most telling.

At left wing-back, no less, and as Gareth Southgate inevitably retreated to protect a 2-1 lead in extra time, Konsa was picked ahead of Lewis Dunk and Joe Gomez for additional defensive cover. It could be a revealing decision, given Marc Guehi is suspended for the quarter-final against Switzerland and a new centre-back partner will be needed alongside John Stones.

He has not played as a left centre-back since the 2020-21 campaign but Konsa appears to be the next defender in line.

Such consideration marks an acute shift in the broader perception of Konsa. It surprised some observers that, four weeks ago, he survived the seven-player cull from England’s provisional 33-man squad. Perhaps it was due to the understated nature of his qualities or the spotlight not shining as intently on Aston Villa players.

Now, though, his presence in the England camp has mirrored the influence he has steadily exerted at Villa. Last week, national broadcasters visited his old school, Cumberland College, to interview teachers and pupils, underlining his emerging reputation. And perhaps working with Konsa closely, as Southgate has done in the past month, has revealed the defender’s finer nuances, athleticism and reading of the game.

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Konsa bonding with Kyle Walker at the England camp (Richard Pelham/Getty Images)

Konsa winning a foul by the right corner flag has become a regular feature on the Villa matchday bingo card. In almost every game, there will be a point where he leans his body intelligently into the opposing forward, initially shielding the ball under pressure before waiting for contact to nudge him over. It infuriates opposition players and their supporters, but speaks of Konsa’s clarity of thought under intense fire.

Konsa is an elegant, modern-day defender. He is clean in his duels and a precise tackler. Former manager Dean Smith described him as “a Rolls-Royce” and Emery is equally effusive in his praise. He was Villa’s second-most fouled player in the 2022-23 campaign, explained by his inclination to step in front of forwards and intercept.



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Southgate trialling Konsa at left-back in training — as cover for Kieran Trippier, who was nursing a calf injury earlier in the tournament — demonstrates a belief in the 26-year-old’s malleability.

Emery believed in Konsa’s ability to deputise at right-back, often ahead of Matty Cash. The decision, dictated by certain stylistic match-ups and physical front lines, was swayed by Konsa’s aptitude when defending in one-against-one situations. Last season, Konsa ranked in the top two per cent among centre-backs in Europe’s top five leagues for the fewest challenges lost against dribblers (0.12 per 90 minutes).

Recovery pace is arguably his greatest and most aesthetically pleasing asset. It is a key component of Emery’s abrasively high offside trap, which condenses space in midfield and enables effective counter-pressing to guard against dangerous transitions from opponents.

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The contrast with England’s first four games is stark — Southgate’s defence has sat deep, leading to large gaps between the lines, more running and a malfunctioning press.

Emery’s training sessions are meticulously detailed and the Spaniard regularly takes players and positional units away from the main session to perform individual work. Konsa has profited from this precise coaching, working on body shape, triggers to step up and playing out from the back, where build-up is choreographed and provides the defender with multiple passing options.

Konsa is not the most progressive with the ball, though he is adept in stepping into midfield and coaxing opposition forwards onto him before offloading simply. This, though, is from the view of a right centre-back and in a team that has better layered passing patterns.

In theory, Konsa’s recovery pace would allow England to squeeze higher and be comfortable managing large spaces, unlike Dunk, who is more natural on the left but lacks speed.

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Konsa has not played at left-back in a Villa shirt yet seemed, ostensibly, ahead of Gomez in Southgate’s thinking, despite Gomez making 15 appearances for Liverpool in the position last season. It should be noted that Konsa — who, like Gomez, came through Charlton Athletic’s academy — racked up more minutes than any England player, with 30 games in central defence and 20 at right-back.

Within a Villa back line that suffered injuries and consequently personnel changes, Konsa grew in stature, particularly in the absence of Tyrone Mings, who similarly served as defensive cover and was parachuted into the England side during the previous European Championship.

Konsa is a jovial character but has evolved into one of Villa’s chief leaders. He is popular in the dressing room with club and country but Emery has made big efforts for him to be a louder communicator on the pitch.



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Some of Konsa’s coaches at Charlton felt a big reason for his development was the presence of captain Jason Pearce alongside him, who offered a good balance of leadership and being left-footed, played on that side of defence. Comparable to the problems Trippier has endured, Konsa can look awkward on his left foot and tends to move inside with the ball and onto his favoured right.

England’s general stodginess in possession has been apportioned to an inability to play through a first phase of pressure, an issue Switzerland’s system will aim to exploit. Southgate has attempted to counteract this by moving Declan Rice deeper and into full-back spaces to receive the ball, breaking out of Slovakia’s pressing block and offering a better passing angle.

While Villa and Brighton carried distinctive similarities last season — both defences were tasked with putting the soles of their feet on the ball and baiting opposing forwards into pressing — Dunk is the more progressive.

Still, Steve Avory, academy director at Charlton, insisted Konsa had the profile to play across the defence in his formative years. While playing on the left is an alien experience to him at senior level, in youth football, there was a reluctance for Konsa to be pigeonholed as a right-sided central defender.

“The first thing that struck me about Ezri was that he always had this athletic profile,” says Avory. “We could comfortably play him in midfield as a schoolboy, as well as playing at the back. Though the way he has progressed means he often plays right-back now, he could play anywhere across the back four.”

Regardless of which defender replaces Guehi, the decision carries risk. Konsa may well head into the biggest game of his career in an unfamiliar position. Yet it is a theme of his career, on and off the pitch, to take everything in his stride and a quarter-final of a major tournament would test the mettle.



‘I asked Ezri if he had a Plan B. He said, ‘Trust me sir, I’ll be a footballer’. I knew he would’

(Top photo: Justin Setterfield via Getty Images)

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