Unai Emery has overseen a huge improvement in Ollie Watkins’ output since arriving at Aston Villa. So, what’s changed?

Unai Emery’s impact at Aston Villa has been significant in many ways since his appointment in November 2022, but it’s difficult to look beyond Ollie Watkins as the player who’s pushed on the most in that time.

Watkins was a perfectly sound player already, certainly Premier League quality even if he wasn’t necessarily convincing enough in front of goal to picture him at a club with Champions League qualification aspirations.

With 25 goals across his first two campaigns in the top flight, Watkins proved he was capable of being a threat in the Premier League having made it there the hard way. After coming through at Exeter City in League Two, he spent a loan spell at Weston-super-Mare in the National League South before eventually earning a move to Brentford in the Championship.

But, considering his raw strengths, there was often a perception Watkins could be more than he was, and he felt it, too.

“I know I can get up to around 20 goals in this league and hopefully I can do that next year,” Watkins told the Guardian in May 2022. “Scoring that amount puts you into a different category. You start to be seen as one of the ‘killers’ in front of goal. There are a lot of players over the years that have been like that and that’s what I want to be known for.”

Better late than never, but it seems Watkins is now on the cusp of making that a reality, if it’s not already. With 16 league goals in 2023-24, this is already his most fruitful top-flight campaign and he’ll surely now have his sights set on becoming the first Villa player to score 20 times in a single Premier League season. The last to do so in a single top-flight campaign was Peter Withe in 1980-81 (20).

Ollie Watkins xG map Premier League 2023-24

Before, it could be argued Watkins’ well-rounded abilities and attacking versatility worked against him to a degree. As such a diligent and energetic worker, his responsibilities required him to operate more from the left flank and less as a focal point in the attack.

That’s not been the case under Emery, though. His heatmaps below show that under Dean Smith and Steven Gerrard, Watkins wasn’t really a central striker, at least not in a conventional sense. However, playing under the former Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal and Sevilla coach, Watkins has far more touches in central areas, and higher up the pitch.

Ollie Watkins heat map before Unai Emery arrival at Aston Villa
Ollie Watkins heat map since Unai Emery arrival at Aston Villa

“Before, maybe I was running into the channels and into the corners and doing a lot of work for the team. Now, I’m staying within the width of the box and timing my runs,” Watkins said on BT Sport 11 months ago, and nearly a year on, he’s still thriving.

Back then, Emery still had to rather bluntly remind Watkins not to stray from that area, but there’s little doubt his persistence with the player has paid dividends.

He’s enjoying the kind of productivity he never achieved under Smith nor Gerrard, and over a longer period in terms of time on the pitch as well, having played 4,427 minutes in the Premier League for Emery (4,060 for Smith and 3,148 for Gerrard).

His 0.57 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes is a massive improvement on what he managed before, with that figure just 0.26 under Gerrard and 0.33 for Smith. And it’s not like this can simply be put down to luck or poor goalkeeping because his non-penalty expected goals (np xG) is greater than ever as well. That is one of the biggest changes with Watkins.

His np xG output reflects him getting into better positions for his shots. With 2.9 attempts per 90 for Emery, 2.6 for Smith and 2.2 for Gerrard, he’s getting shots away more often and we can get a better idea of the quality of those opportunities by finding his xG average for them.

During Smith’s reign, Watkins’ non-penalty shots were worth 0.136 xG on average; that increased to 0.149 under Gerrard and then again to 0.175 for Emery. Among players to have attempted at least 40 shots in the Premier League since 1 November 2022 (when Emery was appointed), Watkins ranks sixth for xG average per non-penalty shot, though three of those (Nicolas Jackson, Callum Wilson and Erling Haaland) above him are underperforming compared to their np xG. The Villa star, meanwhile, is overperforming by 3.2. So, not only is he getting into threatening positions, he’s been impressively clinical as well.

Analysis of his off-the-ball movement also emphasises the change in how Watkins is being used by his manager. Throughout his time in the Premier League, Watkins has always been a forward who ranks highly for runs – defined as sustained off-ball movement made with intensity in order to receive a pass or create space – because he’s so active in the final third; the difference now is, he’s making more of them into the penalty area. Of his 934 runs this season, 29% have been into the penalty area; in 2022-23, that figure was at 27.2% after Emery’s appointment and 24.3% while Gerrard was in charge. The season before that, only 25.3% of his off-ball runs were into the box.

Those percentage differences may not seem a great deal at face value, but in the wider context they are significant. For instance, Watkins’ total off-ball runs into the box of 271 is already more than he managed over entirety of the 2021-22 campaign (254).

Furthermore, his teammates have responded well to the increased focus of Watkins’ movement; 43.2% of his off-ball runs into the box are being targeted – meaning a colleague attempts to find him with a pass – this season. That figure was 36.2% during 2022-23 after Emery’s arrival, 31.2% before he took over, and 32.3% in 2021-22.

Undoubtedly, though, the setup and mentality of the wider team has had a positive impact as well. Gerrard wanted Villa to be patient, considered in their build-up; with Emery, there’s a far greater emphasis on causing problems in transition, springing forward quickly and trying to catch defences out.

Villa’s 121 shots in transition – when an attacking team manages to get a shot away against a transitioning defence – is bettered by only six teams in the Premier League this season, while they rank joint-fourth for shots from fast breaks (23). Across Gerrard’s entire reign, Villa’s 129 shots in transition was more than just two ever-present Premier League teams, and their 13 attempts from fast breaks was only better than three clubs.

Encouraging a little more chaos is benefitting Watkins because it gives him more spaces to exploit and he possesses the speed and technical ability to punish defences that aren’t set – and that doesn’t just mean getting goals.

Ollie Watkins Premier League assists x goals per 90
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

His 14 Premier League assists under Emery – 10 of which have come this season – is bettered by only Mohamed Salah (18), Pascal Groß (16) and Kieran Trippier (15) over the same period, and it’s fair to say Watkins’ increased concentration around the box has impacted this as seven of his 10 league assists this term have come from passes his played from inside the area.

Ollie Watkins goal involvements 2023-24

And while Emery has clearly had a major role to play, Watkins previously lauded the influence of individual performance coach Antonio Rodríguez Saravia, or ‘Rodri’, who followed his boss from Villarreal.

“I work with him every day, extras out on the training field,” Watkins revealed to reporters earlier this season. “Sometimes we don’t even do finishing practice. We may just watch videos and analysis. He is the key for me. He has helped me so much. Credit to him.”

Part of that analysis, Watkins outlined, has consisted of studying other strikers. Many have been those Emery’s worked with, but one exception in that regard is Haaland.

“I think I’ve learned a lot in a short space of time. My movement, my mentality, being patient. As a striker, the best example is Haaland. He doesn’t touch the ball for 20 minutes and then scores. It is learning little things like that.”

While Haaland is an extreme example, you don’t have to look at Watkins’ game much to see how he’s taken elements of the Norwegian’s game on board. He’s having fewer touches of the ball than ever before in the Premier League, with his 28.6 touches per 90 under Emery a considerable reduction from 35.5 with Gerrard and 37.5 for Smith.

His percentage of touches in the penalty area has increased to 21.1%; that was 15.3% during Gerrard’s time at the helm and 16.8% under Smith.

Of course, you do also have to look at the players Watkins is featuring alongside; it’s not all him. Moussa Diaby’s form may have fizzled somewhat after a thrilling start to the season, but he’s shown great understanding with Watkins, as has Leon Bailey.

Ollie Watkins and Moussa Diaby combinations
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

The Jamaican is one of the Premier League’s most in-form players in his own right, and he and Watkins have been a deadly combo in attack for Villa. They’ve set each other up for seven goals in the league this term, which is more than any other pairing, with six coming in open play; that’s also a top-flight high.

Ollie Watkins and Leon Bailey combinations
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

Watkins has, of course, been instrumental in Villa’s push for Champions League football. They sit fourth in the Premier League and are on course for their best final position since 1995-96 (also fourth); if they succeed, next season will also see them make their Champions League bow.

There’s a considerable chance fifth will be good enough for Champions League qualification anyway, though Sunday’s visitors Tottenham are Villa’s greatest threat to a top-four finish.  

It’s a game that provides a timely reminder of what’s at stake for Villa over the next couple of months, and how much they need Watkins to continue leading the way so effectively.

He’s been excellent now for well over a year; the chances of Watkins letting Emery down are remote and a return to European football’s top table surely beckons for Villa.

Enjoy this? Subscribe to our football newsletter to receive exclusive weekly content. You should also follow our social accounts over on XInstagramTikTok and Facebook.