That was as good a performance from a Premier League player as we’ve seen this season. The Big Six will come calling for Ollie Watkins, and Aston Villa must resist with European football perhaps just the beginning…
Aston Villa are a very good fooball team. That seems like analysis at its most rudimentary given they’re sixth in The Best League In The World, but an emphasis on ‘team’ makes the point slightly more salient. There are some very good individuals (and one in particular, whom we’ll come to), but the XI is far greater than the sum of its parts, and they’re drilled in such a way that alterations – like Leander Dendoncker for Leon Bailey – make little difference to the quality of the performances. They all know what they’re supposed to be doing, and do it.
Dendoncker slotted in seamlessly to a Villa midfield that Newcastle struggled to get a hold of. In a sign of things to come, Ollie Watkins hit the post after just 30 seconds as he raced on to a Jacob Ramsey through-ball, and those two combined expertly to give Unai Emery’s side the lead. You would have been able to tell it was a Premier League goal without actually knowing it.
One-touch passing through midfield opened up space on the right for John McGinn to cut in on his left foot and cross for Watkins, who rose under pressure to nod the ball back for Ramsey to run on to. The academy graduate smashed the ball home with a level of confident ferocity that perhaps cost him moments later, as he cannoned another very good chance off the bar. Villa were purring in front of their home fans with belief they’ve seldom seen at Villa Park since Martin O’Neil left the club 13 years ago.
And the football is far more entertaining than that Villa team of the late noughties. These guys aren’t reliant on counter-attacks and set pieces. There’s considered build-up from talented midfielders who can quicken the pace of play on a whim and spot spaces that are opened up by the key to everything – Ollie Watkins.
It’s now laughable to think there were questions over whether it should be him or Danny Ings playing down the middle under Steven Gerrard. Watkins now looks every inch the ideal Premier League centre-forward he has always threatened to become.
He dropped deep to link the play, dashed in behind for balls over the top and drifted into the channels. And Sven Botman, one of the signings of the season and part of the most miserly defence in the Premier League, will be on his way back to Newcastle with his head still in a spin.
Watkins would have had a hat-trick before his goals were it not for the spidery legs of Nick Pope, which denied two of his fierece efforts, and his own knobbly knee, which protruded the wrong side of the VAR line.
Watkins’ tenth goal in his last 12 games illustrated perfectly his complete dominance of the Newcastle defenders. He came off Fabian Schar and the backline to play Emi Buendia’s pass into John McGinn, then moved away from the centre-backs in the penalty area, and with his back to goal, controlled, swivelled and shot past Pope with Dan Burn at his back.
He scored his eleventh soon after, and those two goals, along with his sublime assist for Ramsey, now means the 27-year-old has a goal contribution every 89 minutes under Emery. It’s the sort of form (sorry, Villa fans) that will be catching the eye of Big Six clubs in need of a striker.
Both Chelsea and Manchester United are desperate for a goalscoring No.9 to lead the line as well as Watkins does, and they’re few and far between. Chelsea will likely go for someone shinier, and in all likelihood less effective, and Manchester United are linked with options of a similar level, deemed – rightly or wrongly – to be above Watkins.
Villa may well be relying on famously tough negotiator Daniel Levy to retain their prized asset. Because if Harry Kane goes to Manchester United, Watkins to Tottenham makes a lot of sense.
But actually, looking at this display from Villa, in which they tore Champions League-chasing Newcastle apart to move just three points behind Spurs, Watkins would be wise to question where he would rather be: At a club playing brilliant football perfectly suited to him where he’s adored by the fans, or at a ‘bigger’ one where he would have none of those assurances?
With Gareth Southgate in attendance, Watkins put in one of the most complete performances of any player in the Premier League this season. There’s now no doubt he should be backup to Kane for England.
He is the driving force behind a team that now looks destined for European football, and Villa must resist inevitable calls for his transfer in the summer, because the ceiling for this team under Emery isn’t yet in view while Watkins leads the line.