By Philippe Stengel and Max Taylor
Before we start, we just want to say a big thank you to Victor Renaud (@victorrenaud5) for creating a graphic for the piece and Twenty3 (@twenty3sport) for allowing us to use two of theirs. Both create really insightful data visuals, and we highly encourage you to check out more of their work.
For as long as we can remember, the Premier League has attracted stars from all over world football. But these days, the English Football League is producing top-level players at a rate that hasn’t been seen before.
The likes of Harry Maguire, James Maddison, and Dele Alli are all examples of individuals who made the jump from the lower leagues to the Premier League, while even lesser-renowned names like James Justin, Lewis Dunk, and Michail Antonio have made the step-up seamlessly, and are now established Premier League players.
Ollie Watkins has fought his way to the top, climbing the ladder of English football tiers. Signed from Brentford last summer for £28 million, he made his professional debut at just 18 in League Two for Exeter City. He then moved to Brentford for £1.6 million, in 2017, having been scouted and subsequently signed by current Villa manager Dean Smith. He went on to have back-to-back 10 goal seasons from left-wing, leading to a transition to center-forward once Neal Maupay left Brentford for Brighton. In the 19/20 Championship season, Watkins proved to be up to the task by scoring 25 goals.
Despite question marks over a hefty transfer fee, Ollie Watkins has taken his opportunity once again. With 10 goals and 3 assists through 26 games, his influence in this Villa side has been massive. But what makes him so effective?
Watkins has found his feet quickly in the Premier League — something Dean Smith claims he knew would happen all along, stating his game was “Premier League ready, so I knew he was ready to come in.”
While there is no one blueprint for how a modern striker should play, Ollie Watkins boasts many of the attributes associated with a complete center-forward. He drops deep and links play, combines tireless running and smart movement to get in-behind and into the channels, and uses his strength and aerial ability in hold up play.
His intelligent movement and understanding of space is arguably his biggest strength, and has been key to Villa’s success this season. Last year, both Wesley and Samatta struggled in front of goal and were also extremely static in their movement, unable to provide a reliable platform to build around at the center of Villa’s attack.
Watkins, on the other hand, has helped elevate Villa. His ability to anticipate and exploit space, run channels, and drag defenders out of position to open gaps for teammates is outstanding. This has been most apparent in his relationship with Jack Grealish – who was desperate for players around him capable of taking advantage of his elite ball-carrying ability. Watkins both combines with Grealish (by moving towards him), provides him with a passing option in behind (by making movements off the last man), and opens up space for him to exploit (by making sharp movements away from him). Watkins receives an average of 9.54 progressive passes per game (73rd percentile), and also ranks in the 89th percentile or above in carries into the penalty area and shot creating actions (for all forwards in Europe’s top five leagues). Watkins not only makes himself available with intelligent runs, but has the ability to impact the game considerably once in possession, too.
His movement is clever, but unselfish – he’s happy to make himself the decoy in order to drag defenders out of position – but he’s equally comfortable receiving the ball by forming combinations or exploiting gaps beyond the backline.
Watkins’ ball reception map (created by @victorrenaud5) highlights just how thorough his movement is. Beyond drifting into wide-areas and making movements in behind, the map also illustrates his comfort dropping deep and linking play with his back to goal. Watkins constantly makes himself available during Villa’s build-up, finding space between the lines before receiving a punched pass from the midfielders and shifting the ball to wide areas. He also possesses deceptively good strength and aerial ability: despite standing at 5’11, he uses his body exceptionally well to hold off defenders, and often gets to the ball ahead of bigger defenders to knock it down to a teammate. This season, he ranks in the 80th percentile for aerials won p/90 (3.96) and the 63rd for percentage of aerials won (43.3%) across all forwards in Europe’s top five leagues.
Another big reason he’s made such an impression is his selflessness and hard-yards out of possession. 14 clean sheets in 26 Premier League games proves just how good Villa have been defensively, but it’s important to note that Watkins is the initiator for the press from the front. He leads the club in “successful pressures” (a metric that quantifies how many times a team wins the ball back within 5 seconds of losing it after player X applies pressure) by 29, reinforcing how active he is off the ball. Rather than constantly making tackles, Watkins’ tireless energy often forces mistakes and sideways/backwards passes from the opposition defenders.
In the final third, this translates directly to his aggressiveness when attacking the ball and open space. This, combined with incredibly intelligent movement, means Watkins consistently gets himself into favorable attacking positions. Dangerous runs beyond the back-line, smart movements out-to-in to latch onto through balls, or anticipative runs between defenders in the box — Watkins’ wide array of movements matches the versatility of his finishing. Out of his 10 goals this season, he’s scored five with his right, two with his left, and three with his head. Watkins’ shot map (by @twenty3sport) illustrates the areas he exploits in front of goal: fairly ineffectual from distance, but a constant threat in all positions in the 18-yard-box, and consistently placing himself in areas where he can get high quality shots off.
But despite this impressive aspect of his game, he is still underperforming his non-penalty expected goals by 1.4. This may not be a huge underperformance, but it does tell us he isn’t yet as clinical as he should be. This is also highlighted by the fact that he has hit the woodwork 7 times this season, twice more than anyone in the Premier League (Heung-Min Son, 5). 10 goals is an impressive return in his first season in the PL – his movement and understanding of how to exploit attacking areas means he will always have opportunities – but his output could markedly improve if his finishing does too.
The keys to Watkins’ success have been his reliability and consistency, as he has started every league match for the last season and a half (46 last year, 26 games so far this year).
With several key additions to the squad, Aston Villa have completely revamped this year. Achieving consistency has been key, and Ollie Watkins exemplifies this perfectly. Having played every league minute this season, Watkins has not only proven to be Premier League quality — but has shown that humility and hard work go a long way.
Despite moving from the Championship to the Premier League, his overall play and output have carried over smoothly (@twenty3sport graphic below). By putting creative players behind Watkins, Dean Smith has attempted (and succeeded) to replicate the fluidity Brentford played with last season. Due to his intelligent movement and hard work, Watkins has been able to adapt seamlessly to Premier League football.
But this is nothing new. The EFL has long been a valuable resource for Premier League clubs, seeking homegrown talent or loan moves for youngsters. Ollie Watkins’ path to the Premier League may feel like an anomaly, but the truth is that he’s just the tip of the iceberg.