World Cup omissions highlight how Aston Villa’s progress has stalled

The bad news came thick and fast.

Tyrone Mings and Ollie Watkins missed the England squad. Lucas Digne and Boubacar Kamara failed to qualify for France. Emiliano Buendia did not sneak into an Argentine preliminary selection which will go from 28 players to 26 in the final by the weekend and the injured Philippe Coutinho, as well as Douglas Luiz, have been forgotten by Brazil.

In a flash, World Cup dreams were shattered left, right and center in the Aston Villa dressing room.

The ideal way to channel some of that frustration would therefore have been for Villa to face Manchester United for the second time in four days. But, like so many of their trips to Old Trafford, it ended badly too.

Six of the seven players mentioned above featured in last night’s 4-2 Carabao Cup loss. Mings and Watkins had revealed in the build-up how desperate they were to lift a trophy with Villa, and Watkins, to his credit, opened the scoring with his first chance of the game.

Villa led twice, their second goal coming through an own goal from Diogo Dalot, and in Unai Emery’s second game in charge there were, again, plenty of positives to take from the attacking play .

The approach was similar to his debut with patient play from the back which was encouraging. Emery wanted to see as many of his fringe players as possible, so he shuffled his squad. This Villa simply didn’t have the players to execute the game plan that worked so well in beating the same opponents 3-1 in the Midlands at the weekend.

Goaltender Robin Olsen has had a tough time. His distribution was poor and he finished with 78.3% passing accuracy on his 46 attempted passes. For the third and fourth goals in particular, he made a failed and unfortunate figure. The 62-cap Swedish international has played three times for Villa since joining Roma in January and has conceded 11 goals.

Calum Chambers struggled with the pace of the game and Ezri Konsa had a few hairy moments.

When Mings replaced Konsa in the second half, his stumble gave Marcus Rashford easier access to the second equaliser. Then, after Olsen’s loose pass, opened it for midfielder Bruno Fernandes – who is going to the World Cup with Portugal – fired and he launched the England centre-half into the net to make it 3-2 with 12 minutes left.

If Mings’ failure to return to Gareth Southgate’s Qatar squad hurt, then so would the course of this game.

Brief moments of ecstasy in the away camp, where 7,500 supporters were housed, were quickly dashed by Villa’s struggles at the back. Emery said his biggest concern was the final 15 minutes and how his team “lost a bit of our mentality”.

There have been signs that Villa are moving in the right direction after just a week under Emery, although there is still a lot to work out.


The World Cup break will give Unai Emery a chance to drill almost the entire Villa squad (Photo: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

The club will still have three, almost certainly four, World Cup representatives – provided they get through Sunday’s game at Brighton & Hove Albion unscathed.

Leander Dendoncker features in Belgium’s squad, Matty Cash and Southampton centre-back Jan Bednarek made the 26 for Poland and Emiliano Martinez is expected to survive Argentina’s cup final and be in goal when they do. will start against Saudi Arabia in a week from next Tuesday.

Still, it’s not the large contingent of travelers that Villa hoped for – and anticipated – earlier in the year.

Take Mings, who started the first two games as England made the final of last summer’s European Championship.

In March, after winning their most recent cap by playing the full 90 minutes of a friendly against the Ivory Coast, England had kept 14 clean sheets in the 17 games they played. He was ahead of Ben White and Eric Dier. They are on the plane. He is not.

Watkins had also made significant progress and scored in that match against Ivory Coast. But for both players, that night remains the last time they carried the Three Lions into a rage.

Villa’s dismal form under now-sacked Steven Gerrard clearly played a part in their omission.

Mings, although he has played largely well in recent months, has made a few mistakes in games involving Southgate. Watkins, who has an impressive 27-goal tally in his 86 Premier League appearances, went two months between goals this season when others, including Newcastle’s Callum Wilson, who made the final cut, found the better form.

Buendia’s fall down the pecking order in Argentina was to be expected, as he didn’t play often enough for Villa to have an impact, and when given opportunities he underperformed.

It is the setbacks of Digne and Kamara that cut a little more. They had found their way into the France squad in September following injuries elsewhere, but it was their own injuries that would then rule them out of the defending champions’ final encounter.

Kamara recovered faster than expected and, with N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba both ruled out, the 22-year-old had a good chance of returning. Coach Didier Deschamps decided, however, that Real Madrid duo Eduardo Camavinga and Aurelien Tchouameni, alongside Matteo Guendouzi, Youssouf Fofana, Adrien Rabiot and former Villa man Jordan Veretout were better options.

Digne, who has 46 caps, made a strong comeback over the weekend but was left out in favor of Theo Hernandez and Lucas Hernandez. Such is the French strength at left-back that Ferland Mendy, a regular starter this season for European champions Real Madrid, also failed to make the 26th.

The saddest story of the lot is that of Coutinho. Getting to this World Cup was his dream, but even before the hamstring injury that will sideline him for the next two months, his declining form – no goals or assists in his 13 appearances this season – had derailed all the progress he had made with Brazil coach Tite.

Emery will instead be able to drill his methods into much of his squad in the next break and will have extended quality time with the majority of the group during a hot weather training camp in Dubai ahead of the return to home action against Liverpool on Boxing Day.

The negative is that Villa want many of their players on international duty to show that they are a club capable of improving individuals and taking them to the next level.

This progress has stalled.

(Main image: Mings, second from right, and Digne, second from left, were both hoping to make it to this World Cup. Photo: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

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