Aston Villa’s star striker is scoring goals, providing assists, and running himself into the ground for his team. Is there anything he can’t do?
There were a few elements to Ollie Watkins’ winner at Brentford and the events that followed it that weren’t exactly typical.
The first was purely footballing; it had come at a set-piece. Watkins isn’t exactly small, and he isn’t exactly weak in the air, but it’s not like him to score goals at dead-ball situations. It was the first goal that the Premier League’s fifth-highest scorer this season had netted at a set-piece.
The next part of the goal that was in some sense atypical was its most talked-about aspect: the celebration. It has become the norm for players to, as visibly as possible, not celebrate after scoring against a former team, apparently out of respect. Not doing that can, as we found out when Watkins celebrated his goal, prompt your former manager – in this case Brentford’s Thomas Frank – to “ask me why I celebrated like that.”
Watkins hadn’t exactly over-celebrated his goal – one that he might well have enjoyed, given it won Villa the game and meant they overtook Liverpool and kept pace with Arsenal at the top of the table – but by celebrating it at all, he sparked an intense and angry end to the game. Following Watkins’ 85th-minute winner, nine yellow cards and a red were dished out by referee David Coote. With 12 cards in total, two of which were reds, it was the most ill-disciplined game of 2023-24 so far, and most of those cards came after the game’s flashpoint five minutes from the end of the 90.
He explained afterwards that there was one fan in particular who had caused the whole furore.
“I love the club, the players and staff,” Watkins said “I’ve not got a bad word to say against them. But there was one person who was abusing me all game, the celebration wasn’t to anyone else, but it was directed directly at him.
“I feel like I’ve done so much for the club and they’ve done so much for me, football’s football and you can have a bit of banter but not when it’s personal.”
Among everything that was going on – and despite having caused the whole thing – Watkins was the calm at the eye of the storm. He had allegedly been suffering abuse from that fan throughout the game – a claim that the police are reportedly looking into – and yet he was the cool head who handed Villa a vital win.
It was very much like Watkins to pop up with an important contribution. In just the last few weeks he has scored second-half winners in comeback victories at Tottenham and Brentford, as well as setting up a goal and scoring the equaliser as Villa twice came from behind to draw at Bournemouth. Only Liverpool (18) and Brighton (12) have won more points from losing positions in the Premier League this season, and no player has scored more winning goals – the goal that separates the teams e.g. the goal that made it 1-0 to Villa in their 6-1 win over Brighton – than Watkins’ eight (level with Mohamed Salah).
He is having the best season of his career so far. With nine goals and six assists, he is one of only four players to have already reached five in both columns in the Premier League in 2023-24. Discount set-pieces and penalties and only Erling Haaland (14) has more goals and assists than Watkins (13). Only Haaland (11) and Jarrod Bowen (10) have more non-penalty goals than him (9), while only Salah (7) and Julián Álvarez (6) have more assists in open play (5).
Without Watkins’ contributions in front of goal, there wouldn’t even be a conversation to be had about whether or not Villa are in the title race.
But even when he isn’t scoring, he still does a great deal of important work for the team, and manager Unai Emery values him immensely. Watkins has played 1,489 of a possible 1,530 minutes (97.3%) in the Premier League this season; only 19 players have been on the pitch for more time than him, and when you discount goalkeepers and defenders, Watkins jumps up to third, behind Dominic Solanke (1,493) and Dejan Kulusevski (1,492). Emery rarely feels he can be without his first-choice centre-forward.
The reasons for that centre around the fact that Watkins is such a complete player. He is strong in the air, holds the ball up well, and shows real intelligence in finding teammates when under pressure, while he is also quick, tireless and smart with his running. Emery has Villa playing out from the back almost religiously and Watkins, despite rarely being involved in this build-up play, still does an important job in moving opponents around the pitch, and forcing the opposition’s defence to retreat with his runs, in turn giving his own teammates as much space to play out as possible. It all adds up to a player who is integral to his team both if they are trying to hold on to a lead and see out the game or if they are chasing a goal.
His movement is one of his biggest strengths. It is a big part of the reason he gets into so many good shooting positions, with only three players having generated more non-penalty expected goals this season than him (8.7). Take his winner at Brentford, for example, when he drifted towards the ball as it came in, dragging his marker with him, before stepping back to lose the defender and meet the ball six yards out for a simple headed finish.
In open play, meanwhile, he is almost constantly on the move. Watkins has made more runs – defined for these purposes as an off-the-ball movement made while his team is in possession, with intensity and to receive the ball or create space – than any other player in the Premier League this season (562, or 34.0 per 90).
He is making those runs with purpose into positive areas and affecting games with his movement, too. He ranks second to Chelsea’s Nicolas Jackson (212) for runs made sprinting (192), and first in the Premier League for runs that are targeted by a pass from a teammate (199). Crucially, he has also made more runs into the penalty area (187) than any other player in the top flight this season.
With so much football to play – without even considering the fact that Villa are playing in the Europa Conference League this season – someone with the stamina, natural fitness and ability to steer clear of injury like Watkins is invaluable to Emery and Villa, and makes the 27-year-old indispensable.
Villa aren’t a committed pressing team relative to some of the top flight’s other sides – they rank bottom for pressures made in the final third, with their total of 801 almost 600 fewer than league leaders Tottenham.
But they do play with an incredibly high line – the highest in the Premier League, no less. Villa have caught their opponents offside 82 times this season – 26 more than any other team and more than twice as many times as every other team aside from Tottenham (56) and Fulham (44).
They squeeze up the pitch, but not to press with intensity, a tactic employed in part to save the energy of their star striker for when they do have the ball; when they regain it, they attack quickly, with Watkins key. Only Liverpool (44) and Spurs (42) have made more direct attacks – defined as a move that starts just inside the team’s own half, has at least 50% movement towards goal and ends in a touch in the opposition’s box or a shot – in the Premier League this season than Villa (41), while only Bournemouth’s Dominic Solanke (26) has had more shots in transition than Watkins (23).
Another string to his bow is his ball-carrying ability. He does good work in taking his team up the pitch while on the ball, and there is also, as with so much of what he does, end product to boot. He ranks fifth in the Premier League in 2023-24 for carries ending with a chance created (11) behind four players in Kulusevski (17), Bernardo Silva, Salah (both 13) and Kaoru Mitoma (12) who would all be considered far more creative than him. Meanwhile, only Jérémy Doku (4) has more assist-ending carries than Watkins (3).
These many facets to his game combine to make him arguably the Premier League’s most complete centre-forward, particularly since Harry Kane’s departure to Bayern Munich.
Speaking of Kane, Watkins may now be a genuinely viable alternative for Gareth Southgate to consider using up front for England. There is no suggestion that Watkins has any chance of starting ahead of Kane at next summer’s European Championships, but the Villa striker couldn’t be doing much more to prove he could lead the line for his country. He would bring something different to England’s frontline should Southgate feel the need for a more transitional player.
As long as Watkins keeps playing like this, he will be in Southgate’s thoughts ahead of next summer, and Villa will remain in the title race. His improvement has been one of the biggest success stories of 2023-24 so far. For the sake of Villa and England, long may it continue.