Ezri Konsa: ‘I haven’t got any secret – it’s about learning my trade’ | Paul Doyle

A weird thing happened on Wednesday during the match between Manchester City and Aston Villa, and it had nothing to do with an obscure loophole in the offside law. In the 52nd minute of City’s 2-0 win, Bernardo Silva dribbled past Ezri Konsa. No other player has managed to do that this season.

“I don’t even remember it happening,” says the Villa centre-back of Silva’s feat, but Konsa was well aware of his pristine record up to that point, which had made him unique. “It was a good thing to carry, the only defender [to have played at least 10 matches] in any of Europe’s top five leagues not to have been dribbled past. Bernardo Silva has broken it, but I’ll try to keep it to one.”

Asked why opponents find it so hard to get past him, the 23-year-old laughs modestly. “I haven’t got any secret – it’s just about learning my trade.”

The dribbling statistic is more than a piece of trivia; it is indicative of Konsa’s contribution, in only his second campaign in the top flight, to one of the stories of the season: Villa’s transformation from relegation candidates to challengers for the European places.

From having the second-leakiest defence in the Premier League last season, they have one of the most secure, having kept clean sheets in half their matches. Konsa’s undemonstrative excellence at the heart of their rearguard has led Dean Smith to compare him to Paul McGrath, the Villa and Republic of Ireland luminary voted PFA Players’ Player of the Year in 1993.

Konsa is not the sort to hype himself up, and is quick to explain his progression over the past three years from League One tyro to Premier League stalwart owes much to the positive influences around him, from Smith, John Terry and Tyrone Mings to footage he has studied of past greats, including McGrath and Rio Ferdinand. And also to his older brother, Antonio Konsa, who steered Ezri away from harm during a difficult childhood in a crime-ridden part of east London. There is a good reason Konsa has the word “blessed” tattooed on his left hand.

“I got it in my second season at Charlton,” he says. “It’s always there and it reminds me how far I’ve come and how blessed I am. It was difficult growing up where I grew up. There was a lot of crime and violence, but I am lucky to have an older brother who kept me out of trouble and kept me grounded. It’s always important to have support. It was tough, but me and my family and friends dealt with it and we got out of it. Hopefully what I’m doing now can inspire the next generation.”

Konsa joined Charlton in his teens from Senrab, the junior club whose alumni includes Sol Campbell, Ledley King and Terry. From Charlton he joined Brentford, where he first came under the wing of Smith. Before the start of last season Smith signed him for a second time, bringing him to Villa for £12m. The manager says Konsa is one of the young English talents around whom Villa can build a team that could compete regularly for honours.

“I’m very grateful to have a manager who believes in me so much,” says Konsa. “He has always said to me that he believes I can go to the very top. When he signed me at Brentford he threw me into the team straight away … and now I’m playing in the Premier League week in, week out. It’s important for a player to know your manager backs you all the way.”

At first Konsa, like most of his teammates, found the going tough in the Premier League. “For me the biggest thing to get used to was about getting punished for mistakes. Because that’s what happens when you make mistakes in the Premier League, whereas in the Championship you can sometimes get away with it. It’s not just mistakes on the ball, but off the ball as well.

“There was a game against Watford last season where Troy Deeney scored and my positioning wasn’t great. In the Premier League as a centre-half you always have to be looking over your shoulder and that’s something that I’ve really learned and has really helped. My mentality and reading of the game have really improved and that is also with a lot of help from the gaffer and John Terry.

“To have Terry working here with the defenders is a privilege. With the trophies he has won and the experience he has, it’s a no-brainer to go to him and ask for advice.”

While lessons learned on the pitch will always be the best, Villa are where they are now partly because they made the shrewdest use of last season’s lockdown, with Smith becoming an online tutor. “The gaffer used to make us defenders watch clips of teams that defend well, like Liverpool, Lazio and Atlético Madrid. And then I used to go away and watch my own clips as well, of [Nemanja] Vidic, [Rio] Ferdinand and Terry. The gaffer also showed me clips of McGrath. He could do it all.

“My mentality just changed. Just defending for my life, putting my body on the line, blocking shots, blocking everything. Becoming a real centre-half.”

That development was mirrored across the team. “We really tightened up as a unit, everyone defends for everyone.”

Konsa’s central-defensive partnership with Mings has become a formidable unit. Mings has been dribbled past twice this season, the next best in the Premier League (with Chelsea’s Kurt Zouma). Konsa is grateful to have the England international alongside him. “Throughout my whole career I’ve been guided by senior players who’ve guided me the way Tyrone does now,” he says, namechecking Jason Pearce, Naby Sarr and Roger Johnson at Charlton and Julian Jeanvier at Brentford. “Tyrone is always talking to me, which I appreciate a lot. We get on well off the pitch, too, and it’s important to have that chemistry.”

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Villa’s evolution has been about more than gaining solidity. This season they have also attacked with pizzazz. Konsa has two goals thanks to his power from set pieces. “I got one goal last season and I wanted to do better. I’m aiming for five. Hopefully if I keep showing the dedication to attack the ball, I’ll get another three this season and possibly more.”

There is no limit to Villa’s ambitions. “It’s really enjoyable here – we’re in a really good place right now. We always believed that if we stayed up last season, then we would be much better. We are proving that. How high can we go? As high as we want. If we keep doing what we’re doing and keep trusting each other, I think we’ll go far.”