Football Features

Aston Villa striker Ollie Watkins is part of a dying breed, says Emile Heskey

By Harry Edwards

Published: 10:30, 25 October 2023 | Updated: 12:51, 28 November 2023

Ollie Watkins is among Europe’s most productive forwards right now, and former Aston Villa striker Emile Heskey has a theory on what makes him so unique.

Aston Villa have been fantastic in the Premier League this season, currently just one point outside the top four after nine games played. The Villans have won six of their nine matches and are unbeaten in five games.

Four of those five games have been victories, including a 4-1 defeat of West Ham at the weekend, and Unai Emery’s reputation is much enhanced by the team’s results. Only Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool have earned more points than Villa in the Premier League since the Spaniard took over a year ago.

At the heart of it all, though, has been Watkins. Since Emery’s first game as Villa manager, a 3-1 home win over Manchester United, Watkins has been directly involved in 27 goals in the Premier League.

Only Erling Haaland (27), Mohamed Salah (22) and Harry Kane (20) have scored more goals than Watkins’ 18. And Salah (13) is among just six players to have recorded more assists than Watkins (9).

Combined, only Salah (35) and Haaland (33) have been directly involved in more Premier League goals than Watkins since Emery’s first game in charge.

What makes Watkins so key to Aston Villa are his runs in behind defenders. According to former England and Aston Villa striker Heskey, this ability makes him a unique “throwback”.

“I like him, I’ve liked Ollie for a while,” Heskey told Squawka.

“I always think, especially with the national team, he gives you something different. Because his runs in behind is what a lot of strikers don’t do now.

“We’ve got a generation of strikers who just want the ball to feet all the time. And when you see all that space, and you’ve got that much pace, he knows he just wants to run into that space and utilise that space to try and create an opportunity either for himself or for someone else. And that’s one of his key things.

“So I think he’s fantastic at that. I was watching him [against West Ham] and he speaks so well on what he’s learned and how he’s learnt it and how he applies it. So yeah, I really do like Ollie.”

Heskey named Newcastle striker Callum Wilson as another player with skills he feels are being phased out of the game.

“Callum Wilson is good,” the 2001 cup treble-winner added.

“He scored a fantastic goal the other day, but what a ball into him. But I think we’re breeding a type of player now as a number nine that really doesn’t run in behind, really doesn’t work the defenders in that way.

“When we look at these ones, we call them throwbacks. And I can’t really seem to think of ones that actually run in behind.

“[Edinson] Cavani was probably the last one before that. [Robert] Lewandowski, but he makes more of his runs in and around the box, the last third, whereas the others, they can do it from the halfway line and really break with pace.

“We’re breeding a lot of strikers that don’t tend to do that anymore.”

Emile Heskey was speaking to Squawka on behalf of

Is Watkins one of Europe’s most complete strikers?

This season alone, Watkins has scored five and recorded five assists in the Premier League, recording one of each in the 4-1 win over West Ham at the weekend. Only Salah has been directly involved in more goals than Watkins in 2023/24, but the Englishman is the first player in Europe’s top five leagues to score 5+ goals and provide 5+ assists this season.

Talking after the game, Jamie Carragher stated that Watkins is England’s best centre forward if Harry Kane is injured, and he’s looking pretty close to mimicking the Three Lions captain.

In 2020/21, Kane became the second player to finish a Premier League season as the outright top scorer AND outright top assist provider, after Andy Cole in 1993/94. Since the start of last season, Watkins has more league assists than any other striker – as categorised by our data feeds – in the Premier League. Only Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann and Randal Kolo Muani have recorded more across Europe’s top five leagues. And even then, only Kolo Muani is really a striker.

Meanwhile in 2023, Griezmann is the only striker that has more, with 11 assists to Watkins’ eight.