Why Villa hitman Watkins deserves to win player of the season


There’s no such thing as a drab interview with Emi Martinez, but even for his standards, the sermon he delivered after Aston Villa’s epic 2-0 victory over Arsenal on Sunday was pretty spicy. 


"I think Ollie [Watkins] should win Player of the Season," said Martinez, despite not actually being asked about that award. "When you play for a 'big six' side, you get more credit but Ollie has scored 19 goals with the chances he's got. He should be a really, really good contender." 


To his right, Watkins smirked; he took the compliment with grace, played it down a little, but then admitted he is gunning for the Premier League Golden Boot. With 19 goals, he’s just one off Erling Haaland at the top of the tree, but should always be wary of the chasing pack: Alexander Isak and Dominic Solanke (17) are in fine form and Mohamed Salah (also 17) is Mohamed Salah. 


From a purely goalscoring perspective, there’s little to set them all apart. One exceptional game from any of them could launch them into first place. Look a little deeper, though, and there’s two things that set Watkins apart. 


Why Villa hitman Watkins deserves to win player of the season


Firstly, unlike any of those other players mentioned, he’s hit double figures for assists too. He has 10 of those, meaning he’s racked up a total of 29 goal contributions - the highest figure in the Premier League. Salah, Son Heung-Min and Cole Palmer are close on nine each, but Haaland (5), Isak (1) and Solanke (3) are miles off. 


Secondly, Watkins has not taken a single penalty this season. In the age of Expected Goals we have gained a greater appreciation for how penalty duty can warp players’ goal tallies - it’s a free strike at goal that goes in, according to the numbers, 77% of the time - and Watkins has climbed to 19 goals without taking a single one. 


Meanwhile, Haaland (4), Isak (4), Salah (5) and especially Palmer (8!) have benefitted greatly from spot-kick duty. For the first three, those figures represent around a quarter or a third of their goal tallies; for Palmer, it’s literally half of his goals. None of this is to discredit these players - a goal is a goal and penalty taking is a defined skill - but it does highlight just how remarkable it is for Watkins to be verging on 20 goals despite not getting these opportunities. 


That Watkins has hit double figures for goals and assists is a neat symbol of how he’s grown as a player, and how generally effective he is no matter the situation. He’s always had the speed to run in behind, but now he has greater physical strength too. He was always a good finisher, but now he’s a great one. He always worked hard for the team, but now he does so in a cleverer way, that conserves energy for the big moments, and the results speak for themselves. 


His one-touch lay-off game has developed, meaning he’s now irreplaceable at the top of Villa’s possession structure, and his shooting is not only more powerful, but he hits the corners far more frequently too. He’s overperforming his xG by a shade - 19 goals from 18.29 xG - which is a very healthy place for a striker to be. 


Whether any of this - as phenomenal as it all is - is enough to truly lift Watkins into the Player of the Season remains to be seen. As Martinez intimates, this discussion is typically reserved for the title-challenging elite, which Villa do not find themselves among. The voting process for this award drips with outcome bias, as so often people work backwards from the title winner to make their choice. 


Perhaps, though, in a year where there really is no consensus, or no clear top two to pick between, like the Kevin De Bruyne vs. Mohamed Salah years, there’s room for a dark horse candidate like Watkins, who, by this time next month, might well end up a Golden Boot winner with double digit assists in the bank, having led his team to UEFA Champions League qualification.

Why Villa hitman Watkins deserves to win player of the season