Erling Haaland’s stratospheric numbers aside, the Premier League goalscoring charts belong to England this season. Harry Kane and Ivan Toney have picked up from where they left off last campaign to make up the top three. But one man who’s steadily climbing the rankings is Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins.
Since Unai Emery took over at Villa Park in October 2022, no Premier League player has had more goal contributions (16). But despite that, Watkins really didn’t get going until the new year. In 2023, no player in Europe’s top-five leagues has contributed to more goals (14), and after netting in his fourth consecutive game for the second time in three months, a new contract is reportedly on the horizon.
They say stats don’t tell the whole story, but with a record like Watkins’, there’s no denying the impact he’s had since Emery’s arrival. Villa have dragged themselves out of a relegation scrap and into European contention in a matter of months, thrashing Newcastle 3-0 via a brace from Watkins and a goal from Jacob Ramsey before drawing 1-1 to Brentford at the weekend with Ivan Toney opening the scoring and Douglas Luiz equalizing in the 87th minute for Villa, who have not lost since February 18 when they suffered a 4-2 defeat to Arsenal.
Watkins has credited Emery for his improvement, citing a focus on being more ruthless in his pursuit of goals. Whilst his cushioned assist to Ramsey helped open the scoring against Newcastle, Watkins has moved away from trying to create chances for others. By playing more narrowly, he is using his pace in behind to act as the focal point of the attack rather than chasing balls into the channels.
“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,” he told BT Sport prior to the game against Newcastle.
“I work on specific movements during the week and try to replicate it in the game. When the players get [the ball] I know what to do. I stay patient even if I’m not getting the ball because it only takes one moment to drop and you’ve got to take it. It’s about having a clear mindset and being ready when the opportunity comes.”
A high-volume shooter, Watkins is not wasteful with his efforts, hitting the target with 56.9% of his shots. There’s now a selfishness to his play that’s been missing ever since he made the step up to the Premier League. Emery has refocused Watkins’s energy. He’s taking fewer touches, attempting fewer carries and pressing the ball less, as can be seen from a downturn in his blocks, tackles and interceptions.
The 27-year-old is thriving through a combination of strong movement, pace in behind and a lethal touch inside the area. Constantly adjusting to make space for himself and with less to worry about in possession, Watkins can now focus on the attributes that make him so dangerous.
Arsenal have reportedly sounded out their interest in Watkins. But with Villa on the cusp of securing European football for the first time in 13 years, the forward has his sights set firmly on cementing his legacy at the club that gave him his break in the top flight.
By: Sam Tabuteau / @TabuteauS
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Marc Atkins / Getty Images