When Ollie Watkins joined Aston Villa in 2020, hopes were high that the club had signed someone with the magic ’20 goal a season’ potential, having come off the back of a fantastic 25 goal campaign with Brentford in the Championship — all from open play. In his first season, he largely lived up to that lofty expectation, particularly during Villa’s blockbuster opening months. As the season wore on and Villa regressed without the presence of Jack Grealish, it was Watkins’ off-ball work that made him stand out, tirelessly pressing and making runs to create space for others. He ended that campaign with 14 goals and 5 assists, though with some long dry spells in front of goal and some question marks pertaining to whether or not his finishing was ‘clinical’ enough.
Villa’s largely mediocre 2021/2022 and disastrous early 2022/2023 campaign only amplified those question marks on social media. His overall goal contributions dropped to 11 goals and 2 assists, his hold up play was exposed more, and Villa’s reduced pressing under Steven Gerrard limited his off-ball work. Frustrations in the fan base have grown with Villa’s failure to break into the top half. Despite renewed hope and Watkins’ improved form under new manager, Unai Emery, it is still common to find voices on social media claiming the striker isn’t good enough in front of goal and that he needs upgrading in the transfer market.
The use of data can cut through that noise to analyse Watkins’ role, form and ‘clinical finishing’. As such, 7500 to Holte’s Boot Room investigates Ollie Watkins.
The first aspect of Watkins’ game we must consider is what type of centre-forward Ollie is. At 180 centimetres, he is far from an aerially dominant John Carew target man, though he has aspects of a target man’s heading ability and hold up play. While possessing pace, he also isn’t a Michael Owen-style nippy poacher. Similarly, Watkins can drop off and bring others into play, though not to the extent of a false nine like Roberto Firmino. Villa’s front man doesn’t possess the creative ability of a complete forward like Harry Kane, who is just as likely to top assist charts as goal scoring ones.
Watkins has the abilities of all of these different types of strikers without necessarily specialising in them; the striker he perhaps best resembles is Arsenal legend, Thierry Henry. Similar to the former French international, Watkins started his career as a winger, a role his pace and direct running were suited to, and like Henry, this background has been incorporated into his role as a centre-forward, often looking to run the channels between centre-back and full-back. Like the channel running Henry, Watkins has displayed a range of finishes from side footed curlers from just inside the box to one-on-one scenarios with the goalkeeper.
The game of football and, in particular, the Premier League has evolved tactically since Henry’s time, with sides asking much more of their centre-forwards defensively and creatively. As a pressing forward, Watkins excels; though not always clear on broadcasts, he’s constantly moving and his tireless running includes pressing opposition centre-backs. While he’s often not winning the ball from these actions, he forces them to pass the ball into potentially dangerous situations where Villa can win the ball back. These aspects of the forward’s game can be seen by plotting several important statistics onto a radar chart. By separating his season by season statistics, we can begin to understand what exactly Watkins offers to Villa on the pitch.
The similar shape of the stats throughout his time in claret and blue confirm Watkins’ all-round style has remained the same. Despite appearances to the contrary, Watkins’ stats have been remarkably consistent in a number of areas, with his overall numbers per season differing largely due to minutes played, with his per 90 figures barely changing. Differences in the radar chart are mostly due to the performance level of those he is compared to in FBRef’s top five leagues dataset. As Villa’s centre-forward, he has produced 2.3 shots per match, 1.1 of which are on target, 0.34 of which xG models expect him to score regardless of the inconsistency and, at times, chaos behind him. Simply put, Villa’s main man is a consistent 1 goal in 3 matches striker across his three seasons at Villa, proven by his 35 goals in 101 appearances, with xG models measuring that his average shot has a 15% chance of hitting the back of the net. Watkins has also consistently gotten 1 assist in 10 appearances as predicted, and has largely kept up his hard defensive work and even increased slightly this season.
One area of Watkins’ game that has changed, particularly under Emery, is his link up play. Watkins’ volume of touches, passes and carries are down on previous season’s and particularly under Emery. Since coming in, the new manager has implemented a modern variation of a 4-4-2, with Watkins tasked with being the focal point of the two-man partnership and central striker in Villa’s structured 3-box-3 build up. While in previous coach, Steven Gerrard’s, two-man front line, his partner was Danny Ings, another number nine, which when coupled with Villa’s unstructured attacking play, led to a lot of confusion about roles, with Watkins often being tasked to simply hold the ball. Watkins’ role then has become less about linking up and more about finishing moves, similarly to how Arnaut Danjuma was used under the Basque coach.
Consequently, Watkins touches the ball less overall, but more often in the box, while providing more penetrations into the penalty area box via passing and carrying as well as passes leading to shots. This has paid dividends as the striker has become the first Villa player since 1985 to score five goals in five consecutive matches, an impressive feat for a forward that some have dubbed a poor finisher. It is important to understand why the slight alteration in Watkins’ role has had this effect though — where has this form come from? To see this, our next foray into the data should look at where Watkins has been able to shoot and score from during his time in claret and blue.
These per season shotmaps provide clear evidence as to why Ollie Watkins has been able to make more of his chances under Unai Emery. The immediate difference that can be seen in Ollie Watkins’ shotmaps is the concentration of highly valuable chances leading to goals around the penalty spot this season. Where previously under Dean Smith, a higher volume of shots were more spread out, Villa were still able to provide Watkins with great chances in the six-yard box. While under Gerrard, a slightly lower volume of shots were even more scattered in the box, perhaps resulting in Watkins under par 10 goals in 41 appearances for the coach.
Since Unai Emery has taken the head coach position, Watkins’ role has been to be the focal point striker sitting on the shoulder of the last opposition defender, as a former left-winger, he is most comfortable breaking into space in the channel between the centre-back and right-back. The map shows that due to this, Watkins has been able to find space in central areas around the penalty spot to generate shots, though with a few scattered in the left half space. From this, the Villa forward has already been able to raise his xG per shot from an average of 0.15xG to 0.19xG according to Understat.com’s model, meaning Watkins’ average shot is now 4% more likely to hit the back of the net. While this seems like a small increase in his chances of scoring, over the course of a season, where a striker might take around 100 shots, the difference could be a handful of goals and a few more precious points for the team.
There is more than one explanation of how he has been able to do this. One explanation is the one we have already mentioned; his role as well Emery’s wider system is generating better chances for the forward, resulting in more goals. However, even the most generous expected goals model wouldn’t predict Ollie’s current run of five goals in five matches, nor were his chances so bad under Gerrard that he should have dropped well below his usual one in three strike rate. Form, the natural rises and falls in a players performance level over time, is the likely explanation for this variation; the poor finishing criticisms were loudest at the beginning of this season, but have disappeared in the last few weeks. Online football discourse being what it is means that that criticism will almost certainly surface again soon when his performances level out. We can take a deeper look at Watkins’ finishing form by reviewing a game-by-game timeline of his actual goals against his xG per season to see if he is performing as expected.
Looking at the chances produced across all of Ollie Watkins’ time at Villa largely maintains the view that Watkins has been a relatively consistent one goal in three chances striker; there are periods where the forward received few chances of any note, but after the 2020/2021 season, these are fewer and generally short. 2021/2022 was a far more consistent season in front of goal for Watkins comparatively, the 11 goals, down from 14, looked to simply be a result of reduced minutes and a dip in form in January and February when the squad struggled to settle into Gerrard’s Christmas tree formation. But there are fewer long goal droughts and far fewer fixtures in which the forward ‘should’ have scored but failed to. By the end of the season, when there were calls for adding a more clinical striker in the transfer market, his 25 goals from 25.6 expected was well within the random variation that comes with such a small number of shots a season compared to the thousands upon thousands used to train these models. In fact Watkins’ total tally of one in four goals under Gerrard is largely as a result of poor form at the beginning of this season in which the forward registered 1 goal from 3.4 expected (in line with his usual rate) until the manager left.
Using xG data to assess goalscorers breaks down the largely mythical status of the ‘clinical finisher’; football is a low scoring sport, it is hard to score goals. Many data providers describe a ‘big chance’ as one with an xG of 0.2 or higher, indicating a big chance is one a forward might score in five attempts. Watkins’ 5 goals in 5 matches from 2.8 expected is an excellent run of form, but is unfortunately unlikely to last. Few forwards at the very top of the game regularly out-perform these models season upon season, with most forwards ‘regressing to the mean’ over the longer term. Erling Haaland, Son Heung-Min, and Harry Kane are part of a small group who manage this; with even these forwards having season’s in which their numbers regress to the average. Meanwhile, most prolific forwards like Mohamed Salah and Kylian Mbappé are performing close to what their xG model suggests. The Villa main man’s performances represent something like ‘progressing to the mean’ with confidence in his refined role under Emery no doubt playing a big part in it.
Expectations vs. Reality
The reality of the 20 goal a season striker that most fans hope for often requires a team behind them that will create chances for them to score closer to 50 goals. The skill for most prolific strikers is to use their movement and decision making to create better opportunities rather than outstanding individual finishing abilities to put away every half-chance. Ollie Watkins is clearly not a ‘poor finisher’, and it is equally unlikely that his current run of form continues. So, are there areas where Watkins can improve to carve out better chances from himself, and where does this perception of poor finishing come from? To gain that insight we need to look beyond the numbers to assess where Watkins does well in these aspects and where he can improve.
First, let’s take a look at the chance against Manchester City on the final day of the 2021/2022 season that kicked off so much debate about Watkins’ finishing ability on social media. The chance started as a simple route one kick from second-choice keeper, Robin Olson. It is Watkins’ excellent movement and pace that creates a goalscoring opportunity here.
Watkins first moves into Villa’s own half, which causes City’s high line to push up even further to compress the space. Sitting on the shoulder of the last defender, he cannot be called offside due to the movement into his own half. After racing towards goal, the chance is ultimately put wide as Aymeric Laporte manages to catch up to the forward and put him off balance while he is closed down expertly by sweeper-keeper, Ederson. The defensive work put in by the opposition to make this chance difficult is something City recruit for and work on heavily, as many opposing teams look to expose their high line. Rather than an example of Watkins ‘wasteful’ finishing—this chance did not register as a shot—it is a great example of how Watkins’ intelligent movement and physicality can create shooting opportunities for his side. This perception may be a result of City’s high line tactics, which can often create ‘nearly’ moments like this for their opposition, this, however, is something the league champions are well equipped to suppress.
Another potential explanation for the perception of poor finishing may be that certain technical and mental aspects of Watkins’ game are lacking, which is mistaken for poor finishing. A good example of which can be seen in this season’s first home match against Everton.
Here, Watkins is played through on goal by Leon Bailey after Villa win the ball high up the pitch. While not quite a one-on-one, it is a great opportunity that was given a 43% chance of scoring by Understat. Watkins takes a heavy first touch in order to break away from any defender, however, this takes the ball away from the goal and allows goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford, some extra time to close the distance to the forward. The touch makes the opportunity harder by not cutting across the defender, putting Watkins on his weaker left foot, shortening the angle towards goal and requiring him to stretch to get the shot off. This showcases the forward’s sometimes wayward decision making and first touch, something that reduces the quality of chances he gets, his holdup play, and hampers his ability to dribble past players. This chance, for example, was worth 0.43 xG, but a better touch may have resulted in a chance that Watkins is several percent more likely to score from.
This technical first touch issue is reflected in his statistical profile: The 0.68 players he dribbled past per 90 ranks below average, in the 41st percentile, and his 2.92 miscontrols lands in the 43rd percentile. This limits the forward’s potential roles; it is unlikely Watkins would be playing at this level if he were still an out and out winger, and Gerrard’s football asked too much of him in terms of holdup play. Emery is getting the best out of Watkins by taking his technical level into account, often playing with a second striker or right winger in rest-attack gives him a clear passing option after winning first contact with the ball. This also helps with Watkins’ decision making too as it presents a clear passing option to hold up the ball.
Decision making is an aspect of the game a good coach can best influence; giving players clear and easy options on the pitch will help them to make the correct decision. This is the part of Watkins’ game that needs work if he is to improve his record in front of goal in the long-term, and it is not surprising that his current run of good form comes in part because he is making the correct decisions off the pitch. Typically, Watkins finishing is not actually the issue; as we have used data to show he mostly meets those projections. However, the disadvantageous positions he frequently has to shoot from as a result of his first touch often make the chance more difficult than it would be for a more clinically perceived player and is reflected in his lower xG. As his shot map reflects, Watkins can certainly put away chances from difficult positions if given space and time. Unfortunately, his touch often means he does not get that space and time. To see an example of how this can be advantageous, let’s look at former Villa striker Danny Ings’ goal during that same Everton match early in the season.
Here, Ings receives the ball from Watkins on the edge of the box. His first touch stops the ball dead in its tracks, using the run of Coutinho to pull away the nearest defender. After quickly changing direction, Ings then knocks the ball into space, transforming what was receiving the ball on the edge of the box into a shooting opportunity scored 17% of the time. The final shot is a good finish, but one made simpler by the previous touches to gain space and an advantageous position. One of Villa’s issues after the January transfer window was replacing Ings’ goals and renowned finishing ability, a task Watkins has stepped up to.
Trust Unai Emery!
Of the issues facing Unai Emery’s Aston Villa side going forward, playing out from the back, defensive frailties out wide, and creating quality chances; the performances of Ollie Watkins are not an obstacle. Watkins remains Villa’s undisputed main man and in Emery’s preferred system, he should remain so. Beyond the market cost of an upgrade. he has many of the qualities that make him ideal for Emery’s forward role, which includes pace, high physicality, defensive work rate, and—yes—good finishing. Villa’s best side benefits from the hard working forward, and his presence as the focal point is heavily missed when he does not start.
Where Watkins can improve though is a sometimes heavy first touch, not the often cited finishing, which makes him easier to dispossess, and his decision making to get into advantageous scoring positions. The coaching work already done with the forward has had a clear benefit to his game, having already resulted in nine goal contributions, two of which have been assists for a Villa side that need to create more good chances if they are to hit the level required for European football. Under Emery, Villa will hope Watkins further develops to benefit the team as a clinical forward.