The Ollie Watkins Debate
Last season was ultimately a frustrating season for Ollie Watkins, Aston Villa’s top scorer for the past two seasons. Big things were expected from the England international striker, after he had bagged 14 goals the season before and was considered to be unlucky not to be well north of that tally (he hit the woodwork seven times).
Watkins though found it hard to get into any run of form. There was a rare injury for him at the start of the season. The then Head Coach Dean Smith also struggled to bed his new signings in after a compromised preseason, and then there was a change in management for Villa.
In a disjointed season for the club, Watkins didn’t seem completely himself, his finishing at times was below par and he seemed to be devoid of a little confidence in front of goal.
Still, if last season was an off season for Watkins, it was good sign he can still get into double figures and keep his hand in on the international stage. Unless you’re in a top six team, scoring double figures is no mean feat in the Premier League.
While Watkins may not have had the most glittering season in 2021/22, in a team that struggled to get any momentum going, as MOMS discussed in the latest Media Muppets column, it hasn’t stopped transfer rumours being spread about him.
Watkins is still regarded as one of England’s better strikers, he brings a lot to Villa’s overall game as a lone striker, and at 26, time is very much on his side.
Steven Gerrard also has publicly backed Watkins.
“To take this club where we need to take it we need goalscorers, we need top players and Ollie Watkins is a top player,” said Gerrard, towards the end of last season. “We want to build this around the likes of Ollie Watkins.”
Ollie Watkins Fan Criticism
It has been disappointing to see the striker being criticised and actually written off in certain quarters of the Aston Villa fanbase. It’s not exactly surprising, as some football fans have zero patience and love a good scapegoat, instead of taking in the bigger picture and seeing what happens once Gerrard sorts out the midfield to provide better service for Watkins.
So what is the solution that these Watkins distractors are offering up?
Well, the only one seems to be replacing Watkins with a ‘proven Premier League scorer’.
Sounds like a plan.
Ollie Watkins Context
Before we try and unearth such a proven Premier League scorer that Villa could sign in the summer, lets just have some context when it comes to the Villa striker.
Watkins managing to score double figures in both his Premier League seasons, playing for a team that’s finished in the bottom half is a decent enough achievement. It’s a feat that Sadio Mané also achieved in his two seasons with Southampton, before his move to Liverpool, but in a similar amount of appearances, Watkins actually beat Mané total league tally (21) in those two seasons by four goals.
It’s also worth noting that Manchester City striker Gabriel Jesus has only managed double figures in two of his six seasons at City, and hasn’t beaten Watkin’s top season haul of 14.
Watkins is only two seasons deep into his Premier League career and has actually only been plying his trade as a centre-forward for only three full seasons now, after beginning as a winger at Brentford.
You’d think there’s plenty of upside to come from him, but his distractors will tell you, why wait, when we can get a proven Premier League scorer in?
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Proven Premier League Scorers…
So what proven Premier League scorer could Villa actually get in?
Well, Watkins’ critics haven’t actually named any names, so let’s do some investigation on their behalf.
You could class Luis Suarez as a proven scorer at Premier League level, but he’s 35-years-old and hasn’t scored in the Premier League for over eight years. We are looking for a solution for the mid-term, so let’s stick with recent Premier League season records, particularly the two that Watkins has actually played in, for comparison.
Back in the 2019/20 season, only Harry Kane, Mohamed Salah, Son Heung-Min, Bruno Fernandes, Jamie Vardy, Patrick Bamford and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, topped Watkin’s tally of 14 for the season.
The first four of those players will never sign for Villa this summer, neither would the 35-year-old Vardy, while the last two, couldn’t be classed as ‘proven Premier League scorers’.
Last season, Bamford only scored 2 in 9, while Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored 5 in 17 appearances.
One of the well-documented reasons Villa signed Watkins in the first place, on top of scoring 25 Championship goals in his first season playing as a centre-forward for Brentford, was his lack of injuries. If you’re not playing, you can’t score.
So, what about the Premier League scorers who beat Watkin’s tally of 11, last season?
Let’s set the bar low for a striker to be classed as a ‘proven Premier League scorer’ to someone who has at least got into double-figures in two seasons and was once reached a season’s tally higher than Watkin’s best of 14.
In terms of actual strikers were there any additions to Kane, Son and Vardy?
Well, there was Ronaldo and Mané. Both are guaranteed not to be coming to Villa this summer.
And…well, in terms of strikers, that’s it.
Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne, who scored more than Watkins last season, aren’t out-and-out strikers nor realistic signings.
Another off-limits signing, Diogo Jota, did manage to score 15 goals for Liverpool last season, but that’s the first ever season he got into double figures in the Premier League. It was something he failed to achieve during three Premier League seasons with Wolves.
Wilfred Zaha, even though he’s not technically a centre forward, while he’s managed to get into double figures in three Premier League seasons, he’s best effort last season of 14 goals, only matched Watkins’ best. So, if Watkins isn’t classed as prolific, then neither is he.
Villa’s Forgotten Proven Striker
A season ago, there was such a proven striker, and Villa snapped him up. Remember Danny Ings? Ings is a player, these Watkins detractors seem to have forgotten about already and those that haven’t, are talking about offloading him.
Nobody was complaining when Villa signed Ings last summer for £25m on a three-year deal. After all, you can’t get much more proven in the Premier League, than being the second highest scorer of the 2019/20 season with 22 goals.
Interestingly, Danny Ings has only hit double figures in three Premier League seasons – once for Burnley (11 in 2014/15) and twice with Southampton (22 in 2019/20 and 12 in 2020/21). Which again reinforces the positives of Watkins 100% record when it comes to bagging double digits.
Some supporters need to take a step back, see the bigger picture and realise that Villa are close to having all the pieces in position to really kick-on. Last season was part of the transition, not a book end. Steven Gerrard and his coaching staff just need to get their system and tactics on point and maybe strengthen with a couple more players with the right mentality and profile.
There are no mythical proven Premier League scorers that Villa can sign to fire them into the top half and Europe. This mindset is vintage Tony Xia/Keith Wyness, when Villa were in the Championship, where they basically threw money at Ross McCormack because they thought such a proven Championship scorer was going to guarantee Villa 20+ goals and promotion. Not much thought actually went into how to play him.
Just based on goals scored in the last few seasons, in Watkins and Ings, Villa have two of the best English Premier League strikers currently in the league. You’d like to think with Philippe Coutinho and Emi Buendia more settled, and once Boubacar Kamara is bedded into the midfield, both strikers should eclipse their tallies of last season.
Villa’s Striker Squad
If Cameron Archer impresses Gerrard in preseason, then Villa will also have a very instinctive finisher to supplement their main duo from the bench. If Gerrard intends to play with a single striker, then the three of them in terms of squad depth, maybe enough.
A fourth option that offers something a bit different would be a wise addition, considering the increased substitute allocation next season.
Maybe a more physical presence to allow Villa to switch it up? Some one to throw on to help go more direct to chase a game?
Villa actually currently have two big men within their ranks in the shape of Wesley and Keinan Davis. Both are expected out of Villa this summer, but will Gerrard at least cast his eye over them one last time in preseason before considering anyone else?
Whatever happens, in terms of Watkins, expect him to remain very much Villa’s main man up front and to continue his development into one of the top proven Premier League scorers.