Making a Case for Ollie Watkins as Premier League Player of the Season

The 2023/2024 Premier League campaign was a keenly contested affair as defending champions Manchester City and Arsenal took fans on a rollercoaster journey that lasted right up until the final day of the season. 

However, it ended with the Cityzens beating West Ham United to seal their fourth consecutive League title, while Arsenal, despite a 2-1 win over Everton at the Emirates Stadium, had to settle for second place.

The Premier League title race was just one of the many interesting stories of the season. Another big story was Aston Villa’s phenomenal fight for a top-four finish and qualifying for the Champions League for the first time since the 1982/1983 season.

Unai Emery’s Villains maintained an impressive form for most parts of the season especially when they played at Villa Park. They recorded twelve wins at Villa Park and lost only three. They even nicked important victories over Manchester City and Arsenal, who they beat both at home and away.

English striker Ollie Watkins was arguably Villa’s most important player this season with his contributions in the final third proving to be crucial as Unai Emery’s side pushed for a top-four finish this season.

Since joining Aston Villa from Brentford in 2020, Watkins has shown remarkable improvement and development, transitioning from the Championship to the Premier League in a seamless fashion, he has continued to evolve his game. 

In his first two seasons at Villa, he clearly showed promise, but there was doubt that he would eventually raise his game, considering the plethora of English players who failed to reach expectations in the past. However, he continued to improve his game, sharpness and fitness level. It all paid off last season and his performances surely helped Aston Villa tickets sell out even more.

The England international had his best-ever campaign for Aston Villa and perhaps should have been considered for the Player of the Season because of his impact. Manchester City star Phil Foden won the award, but to some pundits and fans, Watkins deserved a shot. Let’s explore some of the reasons why the 28-year-old deserved a look-in.

Examining Watkins’ Importance to Aston Villa’s Attack

Watkins showed remarkable consistency in front of goal throughout the season, scoring several crucial goals for the Villains as they battled to hold onto their place in the top four. The English forward racked up an impressive tally of goals, bagging 19 in 37 league games. He had a knack for finding the back of the net, whether through clinical finishes or opportunistic strikes. Recall his cool finish in Villa’s 2-0 win over Arsenal at the Emirates or his second goal in Aston Villa’s 6-1 demolition of Brighton at Villa Park.

Aside from his goals, the 28-year-old striker was also Aston Villa’s main creator as he had 13 assists to his name. His ability to make good runs, link up with teammates, and provide sublime passes was another dimension to his game on full display. In fact, with his gameplay, he almost measured up to England’s first-choice striker Harry Kane, who has made a name for himself for not just his ability to score, but also his eye for the killer pass.

Watkins’ vision and passing accuracy led to numerous goal-scoring opportunities for his teammates, ensuring that he was indispensable in the final third. At the end of the season, he was awarded the Castrol Playmaker of the Season award.

Another standout attribute of the England international that has often been overlooked is his versatility. Nowadays, a lot of players have to alternate positions, and it is often difficult for them to adapt, but Watkins was all in one last season. He had always been doing it, but it was quite evident in the just-concluded season because it yielded fruits for Villa.

Although Watkins is naturally a striker, he had to drift out wide to accommodate Emery’s tactical tweaks. His flexibility on the pitch allowed Villa to adapt their tactical approach depending on the opposition, with the knowledge that the 28-year-old could adjust and still produce consistent performances.

Watkins’ combination of pace, strength, and great technical skill, made him a tough customer for opposition defenders. Whether running in behind, holding up the play, or pressing from the front, Watkins’ versatility was crucial for Villa up front. 

Watkins’ Overall Contributions In The Attack And The Defense

In modern football, a high value is placed on forwards who contribute defensively. Players like Napoli’s Victor Osimhen, Juventus’ Dusan Vlahovic, Bayern Munich’s Kane, and Manchester United’s Rasmus Hojlund, are rated highly, not just because they score goals, but because they have a high work rate. This is one area in which Watkins has excelled. His work rate was quite impressive; he relentlessly hunted down defenders and tracked back to help his team regain possession. 

This level of defensive contribution from a forward is invaluable, particularly in a demanding, high-intensity league like the Premier League. Watkins’ ability to disrupt the opposition’s build-up play and his willingness to engage in defensive duties made him a vital part of Emery’s setup.

How well did Watkins turn up in the big games?

Many big players are often judged by their performances in the big games, and Watkins proved his mettle in that area on numerous occasions. He was very involved for Villa in all the important matches, be it against the traditional top-six teams, or in crucial moments that determined the outcome of the game

The Aston Villa forward recorded goal involvements in big games against Arsenal, Chelsea, and Tottenham. Against the Gunners at the Emirates, Watkins scored the winner; in Aston Villa’s game against Tottenham at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium he also scored the winner; Watkins also netted the clincher against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

Although he did not score against Liverpool, he was a nuisance for their defense. But clearly, Watkins’ record comfortably puts him among the top players in the just-concluded Premier League campaign.

Comparing Watkins With Other POTS Contenders

When compared to other potential Player of the Season contenders, Watkins holds his own remarkably well. While the likes of Erling Haaland, Declan Rice, Phil Foden, and Cole Palmer all equally had wonderful seasons for their respective clubs, Watkins’ all-around contribution and consistency make a strong case. 

Unlike some of his counterparts, who play in teams brimming with immense quality such as Manchester City’s Haaland and Foden or Arsenal’s Rice, Watkins has often shouldered the responsibility of leading Aston Villa’s attack, making his achievements even more commendable.

The England forward was the only player among the top three Premier League scorers for this season without any penalty goals, notching an impressive 19 goals from open play and set-piece opportunities. It is important to note that Watkins achieved his impressive record in the Villa team that was still growing under Emery, who was in his first full season.

Villa’s top four aspirations were closely tied to Watkins’ performances as he proved to be Unai Emery’s most reliable weapon in attack. His goals and assists were crucial for the Villains as they went on to qualify for next season’s UEFA Champions League, a competition they last appeared in 41 years ago.

Watkins’ ability to turn games around and secure vital points was also very important for the Villains. Judging by his performances for Villa and his achievements in the just-concluded season, it is fair to say that the Aston Villa striker has as loud a shout as any of the other nominees for the Premier League Player of the Season award. If other Aston Villa players performed at Watkins’ level, they would likely have won the Premier League title with ease.