Ollie Watkins has had a superb campaign so far in his first season for Aston Villa. Little wonder then that Gareth Southgate’s latest England squad announcement sees a first international call-up for him.
It’s a huge opportunity for Watkins to make his debut for his country in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers and Southgate’s attention to Watkins may have come due to the huge influence his signing has had on the whole Villa team. Ollie Watkins’ is perhaps the most influential transfer for the club in recent times.
After a run of six Premier League games without a goal and possibly his most frustrating performance in a Villa shirt against Newcastle, a few fans began to question him.
Many people outside the club scoffed at the high initial transfer fee of £28 million for a player who was unproven at this level.
For him to be joining a team who managed a miraculous escape from a near impossible situation after 34 games last season only added fuel to the fire. But Watkins’ presence on the pitch, not just his goals, has had a remarkable influence on Villa’s season by transforming not only Villa’s attack but also their defensive work by leading from the front.
So far this season, Watkins has 10 league goals in 27 games and an additional 3 assists.
For a young forward playing for the first time at this level, these numbers are pretty solid and provide a good foundation for Watkins to build on in the future.
So much can be made of strikers breaking their duck for a new team, and while Watkins did score on his competitive debut against Burton in the Carabao Cup, he was left frustrated in the league against Sheffield United and Fulham. But then it all clicked during that famous victory at Villa Park over champions Liverpool against their full-strength back four. Watkins’ perfect hat-trick announced him to the Premier League.
Possibly more impressive than his scoring was the mentality shown during his post-match interview, where his overriding emotion was frustration as he didn’t have four or five to himself.
That emotion has been replicated at times this season, including during his current barren run and a similar one during November.
Watkins has actually missed more big chances than he has scored in the Premier League. If he were to become more clinical, he would be up there among the top scorers in the league this season.
It’s not just his goals that have helped the overall transformation in attack.
Before the Newcastle match, Watkins had created 31 chances for his teammates throughout the season—more than players like Raphina (28), James Maddison (25) and James Rodriguez (23) [excluding set-pieces].
By chipping in with an average of just over one chance per game, this should relieve a bit of the pressure on Jack Grealish’s shoulders when he returns from injury and faces defenders doubling up on him.
Defending from the Front
Watkins offers another dimension to Villa’s defensive duties through his remarkable work rate. This is arguably the biggest influence he has had and is a large reason why Villa have been a more defensively astute team, combined with a vastly improved back four and goalkeeper.
Personally, I often find myself shouting some kind of praise or encouragement at the TV for Ollie to ‘keep going/chasing/working’ . . . and he always delivers.
In the Leeds game alone, Watkins applied pressure 24 times. When this is put alongside Anwar El Ghazi (28) and Jacob Ramsey (26), you can see how Dean Smith’s side have changed their approach to defending this season. This worked particularly well against a side renowned for their attacking force by limiting their time on the ball.
Watkins also shows his importance in transition, both when Villa recover and when they lose possession. Whilst defending and clearing the lines, fans are confident he can win the ball in most aerial duels, but also control and shield the ball well enough to keep possession whilst waiting for support to arrive to spring a counter-attack.
This may not have been the case against Newcastle, as his touch let him down numerous times (possibly due to him playing every single minute of the campaign). But throughout the course of the season, his runs to wide areas, collecting clearances or long balls from Tyrone Mings and John McGinn, have helped the team link from defence to attack.
Likewise, when losing the ball in the final third and defending counter-attacks, Watkins is usually on hand to help track back and apply pressure if needed to cover the spaces left behind from by the wingers.
This allows Villa to get men back behind the ball and regain their solid shape. Often this has resulted in permitting the opposition little time and space on the ball and forcing them into long distance shots, which Emiliano Martínez can gladly smother and look to restart an attack.
The Inevitable Striker Comparison
With the exception of Tammy Abraham, who was so crucial during his loan spell in the Championship, Villa haven’t had a Premier League ‘star striker’ since Christian Benteke.
Benteke’s first season for Aston Villa and in the Premier League itself was nothing short of fantastic. Scoring 19 goals in 34 appearances, with 4 assists, the Belgian finished 4th in the race for the Golden Boot.
Roughly two thirds of the way through this season, Watkins’ numbers remain good when compared to those that Benteke posted, with minutes per goal coming in at 243 (Watkins) to 149 (Benteke) and goals per match at 0.4 to 0.6. Watkins’ current trajectory would put him around 15 or 16 goals for the season if he were to play all 38 games.
But his bad luck during his frustrating spells in front of goal this season—hitting the woodwork seven times (more than 65 of the 98 teams across Europe’s top five leagues) and having a few VAR run-ins have slowed his goal progression.
If his luck were better, the stats could have massively turned in his favour against Benteke’s 2012/13 numbers.
Since Aston Villa’s embarrassing relegation in 2016, the club has signed a few truly excellent players.
John McGinn is probably the first name that comes to mind, but many of those during the promotion season could be viewed as successes.
But other than Emi, who looks set to break the club’s record for clean sheets in the Premier League, few have had such an immediate influence on the team as a whole through tactics and style of play as Ollie Watkins has.
Dean Smith knows him extremely well and can and will continue to get the best out of Watkins as he builds upon his debut campaign.
A senior call-up to the England squad is certainly well-deserved for a player who has had to work hard on his journey from non-league with Weston-super-Mare to the international stage.