Why Watkins is now one of Europe's most complete forwards

By Alex Keble 23 Apr 2024
Ollie Watkins, Aston Villa

Alex Keble analyses stats that show how Aston Villa striker has flourished under Unai Emery

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Alex Keble looks at in-form Aston Villa striker Ollie Watkins, who is enjoying his best-ever Premier League season.

Ollie Watkins (Aston Villa)

Watkins has taken the long route to becoming an elite Premier League footballer.

Starting out at Exeter City in League Two and cutting his teeth on loan at sixth-tier club Weston–super-Mare, the 28-year-old’s rise is almost unheard of in the modern game.

It’s certainly unlikely Watkins ever thought he would be in the running for the 2023/24 Castrol Golden Boot or indeed for Player of the Season, but after the campaign he and Villa are having, Watkins is a strong contender for both.

Watkins has scored 19 goals, one short of joint-leaders Erling Haaland and Cole Palmer, and has racked up 12 assists, at least two more than anyone else.

His combined tally of 31 goals and assists is the best in the Premier League.

And when you take away penalties, of which Watkins has taken and scored none, he is well out in front: seven clear of second-placed Son Heung-min, who has 24 goal contributions (15 goals, 9 assists).

It’s easy to see why team-mate Emiliano Martinez thinks Watkins should be player of the season.

“When you play for a 'big six' side, you get more credit but Ollie has scored 19 goals with the chances he's got,” Martinez told Sky Sports after the 2-0 victory over Arsenal.

He’s right. Watkins is perhaps the Premier League’s most under-rated player, deserving far more credit than he gets for improvements made to his game under Unai Emery’s tutelage.

Here’s how Watkins became one of the country’s most lethal players.

Emery has got the best out of Watkins

Before we go into the tactical reasons why, it’s worth taking a closer look at Watkins’ numbers.

Scoring 19 goals from an Expected Goals (xG) of 15.7, his non-penalty goals minus xG score of +3.3 is the 10th-best in the Premier League and better than all but three of the top 10 goalscorers.

Son (+5.5), Jarrod Bowen (+5.3), and Phil Foden (+5.0) are the exceptions, which tells us Watkins is the most efficient finisher among No 9s.

He also ranks second for total "big chances" and has a better "big chance conversion" rate than Haaland, as well as a competitive shot conversion percentage.

Premier League attackers 2023/24 shooting stats
Player Conversion rate %* Big chance total Big chance conversion %
Erling Haaland 24.10 46 34.78
Ollie Watkins 23.75 31 35.48
Darwin Nunez 13.25 31 19.35
Alexander Isak 34.69 30 50.00
Mohamed Salah 22.67 28 53.57
Dominic Solanke 25.71 26 53.85
Nicolas Jackson 20.00 25 28.00
Cole Palmer 33.33 19 78.95
Jarrod Bowen 28.85 18 50.00
Bukayo Saka 25.00 18 50.00

*excluding blocks

Emery’s coaching explains those numbers

In pretty much every shot and goalscoring metric, things have got better under Emery.

Watkins is scoring more, shooting more, and converting his chances at a better rate because of the individual coaching he has received under Emery and his team.

Watkins shooting stats under Villa managers
Manager Smith Gerrard Emery
Shots/90 2.6 2.2 2.9
Shooting acc. % 63.95 60 59.84
Shot conversion % 13.45 12.99 20.13
Big chances/90 0.64 0.51 0.97
Big chances conversion % 44.83 33.33 39.62
xG/90 0.39 0.35 0.51
Goals/90 0.26 0.33 0.57

The biggest factor of all is a substantial shift in the position Watkins plays and the runs he makes.

A converted winger, it was always Watkins’ instinct to run the channels, but Emery put a stop to that.

“Before, maybe I was running into the channels and into the corners and doing a lot of work for the team,” Watkins told TNT Sports a year ago. “Now, I’m staying within the width of the box and timing my runs.”

The evidence is stark, as these heat maps, comparing his matches under Steven Gerrard in 2022/23 to his performances in 2023/24 show.

Watkins heat map under Gerrard 22/23
Ollie Watkins-22/23
Watkins heat map 23/24
Ollie Watkins 23/24_

By staying within the width of the box at all times, Watkins is less involved in the build-up (his touches per game have dropped from 35.5 under Gerrard to 28.9 under Emery), but gets more chances.

In other words, he has become a traditional No 9.

Watkins puts his form down to performance coach Antonio Rodríguez Saravia, who arrived with Emery from Villarreal.

“I work with him every day [doing] extras out on the training field,” Watkins said 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.

“I think I’ve learned a lot in a short space of time: my movement, my mentality, being patient.”

That description definitely passes the eye test. Watkins looks like a composed, lethal, high-end penalty box player these days.

It is little wonder he ranks third in the Premier League this season for total shots (100).

Emery’s tactics create more goalscoring scenarios

But why, exactly, does having a Haaland-style No 9 work so well for Villa?

Emery’s attacking tactics focus on moving quickly into the final third after the ball is turned over: Villa want to create scenarios that look like counter-attacks, ending with one or two players getting behind the opposition defensive line.

Invariably one of those players is Watkins, in space – and with the support – to go alone and score or grab a simple assist.

Their most recent match, a 3-1 win against AFC Bournemouth, was a perfect example.

All three goals were fast breaks or - following a sudden gear change after baiting the opposition into pressing - had the appearance of a fast break.

For the second, two quick forward passes starting from the edge of Villa’s box created the illusion of a fast break, from which Watkins got his first assist to Moussa Diaby.

Watkins' assist to Diaby

Later in the second half, Watkins turned and drove forward on the halfway line and within seconds Villa had the numbers to play the ball in behind for Watkins, whose cross-shot was put in by Leon Bailey for assist number two.

Watkins' assist for Bailey

It was typical of their season: Villa are joint-top of the Premier League charts for ‘direct attacks’ (83) and second for ‘fast breaks’ (37).

Watkins now among Europe’s best

No wonder Watkins is getting so many goals - and assists.

He has 12 assists so far this season from an Expected Assisted Goals of 7.1, a league-leading over-performance of +4.9 that suggests he has had a little bit of luck in reaching that number.

But going through each one in turn, only four of his Premier League assists can be classified as hopeful flick-ons, shots that went wrong, simple passes that ended in screamers, or anything other than a deliberate chance creation.

Villa’s brilliant performances, their desire to spring forward following a transition, and Emery’s detailed coaching to fine-tune Watkins’ game have all contributed to his rise to the summit.

In the hunt for the Golden Boot and finally on the radar for Player of the Season, there is only one conclusion to draw; Watkins is currently one of the best strikers in Europe.

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