Brentford attacker Ollie Watkins is a player who has caught the eye of many through his impressive displays at Griffin Park. Having moved to the club from Exeter City in the summer of 2017 for a fee of £1.8 million after breaking through the ranks at St James’ Park, Watkins has gone on to become a key part of Thomas Frank’s side. He has notched 20 goals and 13 assists during his two seasons in west London, with ten and eight respectively during the latest campaign.
In this scout report, we produce an in-depth tactical analysis of Watkins and look at just what has propelled him to become one of the highest-rated young stars in the EFL. We analyse how he fits into the tactics employed by Brentford.
The most striking piece of data regarding Watkins upon analysis is the figure of 5.02 dribbles per game with a whopping 75.2% success rate. The reason for such a statistic is that he is often situated wide left or right of their offensive front three within a 3-4-3 or formation, and so frequently finds himself in one-on-one situations with defenders.
Watkins has a propensity for squaring up his opposing full-back before driving either inside or out in order to produce a shot or cross. This success percentage indicates his great ability at doing so, and lead to him manufacturing 1.56 progressive runs per game – that is, 1.56 times per game on average that he either carries the ball ten yards or more in possession or enters the penalty area whilst dribbling. This will drive him at defenders as they see him fall victim to 1.63 fouls per game, whilst carrying the ball.
In addition to his threat when directly running at opponents, his ball retention is also high, engineering 31.55 accurate passes per game, which is 78.7% of all attempted passes played. This indicates that he is also dangerous when dropping deeper in order to link play with teammates – a conclusion that will be examined in greater detail later on.
As revealed above, Watkins’ greatest strength is his ability to run at – and beyond – defenders. He is enabled to do so due to his great pace, possessing great acceleration that allows him to burst past opponents when on the ball. As Brentford’s offensive success in utilising the whole width of the pitch is very much decided by the competency of their wide forwards, Watkins’ pace is key in empowering him to advance with the ball. The below image is just one example where, upon running at a full-back, he beats him with ease before delivering a cross or, in this occasion, a shot.
The 23-year-old does not just rely on beating his men down the one side, however – he is accomplished enough with both feet to be able to pose a threat both on the inside and out. The below graphic shows an occasion where he once again squared up the right-back before darting down the outside, past the defender and firing high into the top corner with his left foot.
Conversely, he is also masterful at bringing the ball inside, linking up with Maupay through neat one-twos, finding half a yard of space and smashing home, as he did with his right foot against England goalkeeper Jack Butland of Stoke City in the below image.
His expertise on both feet present a huge problem for defenders: do they show him inside and risk allowing him onto his favoured right foot? Or show him down the line where he can employ his flying speed to then either shoot or cross?
Furthermore, the Bees’ striking star Neal Maupay is an archetypal ‘fox in the box’ striker, relying on superb anticipation to react to – and put away – loose balls in-and-around the penalty area. The Frenchman bagged 28 goals last year, and the service from his teammates was a major reason as to why he scored so frequently, Consequently, Watkins’ capability at delivering precise low passes or crosses into Maupay was a key variable in Maupay’s proficiency at putting the ball in the net.
As is seen in the below example, Watkins is able to reach the touchline thanks to his speed and acceleration, his raw pace allowing him to burst away from his defender and arrive in a position where he is able to feed the Frenchman. Upon doing so, he instinctively knows where to pull the ball back to in order for it to reach Maupay and give him the best chance of scoring. Another crucial aspect of the success of the pair is not just Watkins’ delivery, but Maupay’s forecasting of where the ball will be played – without his premonition, Watkins’ service would be obsolete.
As is seen in the image, Maupay is on the move before the ball has been played by Watkins. This highlights the expert knowledge between the pair, likely due to hours of work put in on the training pitch with regards to their movements.
It is not just when supplying from deep within opposing territory that the duo provides a threat, however.
Watkins has also worked to develop his crossing ability, making him able to provide for Maupay from a bigger range of positions on the pitch. Watkins averages 2.1 crosses per match, however, is successful in just 17.4% of those – suggesting there is still work to be done in this area.
As was the case in the previous image, Maupay innately knows when and where to make his run in order to find himself on the end of Watkins’ delivery, in this instance cleverly pulling off the back of the central defender in order to make a blindside run, untracked, onto Watkins’ ball. If Watkins is able to continually develop and improve his crossing skills, this will allow him to evolve into a more complete winger, capable of assisting from a wider area of the pitch.
Watkins stands at 6’0” tall – not an overly imposing size, but certainly big enough to make himself a threat in the air. As such, when combined with his blistering pace, this, in theory, enables him to be a great threat not just when wide of a three, but centrally also. He has a physique that permits him to cause defenders problems, and so could also be utilised centrally within a three where the demands are different to when situated wider – i.e. more physically demanding.
He competed in 5.1 aerials duels per match on average, winning 28% of those – which, like his crossing success rate, is not an outstanding number. He does, though, possess a good leap, which enables him to spring above nearby opponents. The below instance is just one such example, where he out jumps both the challenging central defender and the goalkeeper in order to get his head on the ball.
Furthermore, his presence is also useful when in position as the ball-far winger. If play is developing down the opposite side to where he is situated, he is able to provide a deeper crossing option to the back post, get above his full-back and either go for goal himself for lay up a teammate – as he does in the below example.
He cleverly manoeuvred himself into half a yard of space having pulled away from his full back and was thus able to knock the ball down for Maupay to smash home – just another example of the connection between the pair.
When combining his strength, skill and, speed, he has all the resources to become a top-class number nine. He is able to bully defenders, run defenders or turn defenders – which presents a nightmare scenario for opposing backlines. The three raw traits are seen in evidence below.
In this instance, he initially positions himself in the half-space when waiting to receive the ball. This, therefore, allows him to, should he receive the ball, beat his man on either side and thereby make it harder for the defender to know which way he is going to go. If he started right on the touchline then he only has a 180-degree view – whereas, from the half space, he has the potential to move 360-degree.
Having gained the ball, he gets side on to the defender to keep the ball as far away from his marker whilst also giving him a firm base to spin upon. Having gained this base, he can then use his strength and speed to burst beyond the defender and away into the vacant space.
Watkins possesses all the desired qualities of a top-class striker. His raw capabilities allow him to be a threat in all areas of the pitch and are what enables him to be so versatile in the final third – thus making him a vital part of manager Frank’s squad.
Aside from physical traits, Watkins is also an extremely clever forward who knows how to create, manipulate and utilise space in the final third. He is very aware of processing what is going on around him and how he can use that to his advantage. He is not one-dimensional in that he constantly looks to use his pace to run in behind defenders, instead sometimes dropping deeper into pockets of space to receive and then looking to create from there. The below image is one such example.
When teammate Romaine Sawyers is in possession, Watkins notes the position of Henrik Dalsgaard and how he could possibly be played in. Therefore, Watkins pulls away from his central defensive marker and into space. This movement is key, as it now poses the Queens Park Rangers defender with a dilemma: if he stays where he is and does not track Watkins then he can be fed and allowed to turn; if he goes with him, it creates an opening for a slide pass to play through the on-rushing Dalsgaard.
As it is, the QPR defender decides to track Watkins. The attacker’s first touch is excellent, taking him side on so that he can see both the defender and Dalsgaard and, sure enough, when the defender is dragged out and space opens up, he plays a lovely ball through to the full-back to run onto.
There is a further argument to illustrate Watkins’ mental aptitude, and it again comes in the form of him dropping off a defender to open up space and play in a teammate.
In this instance, the ball is being worked horizontally from left to right, and Watkins initially occupies a defender on the edge of the penalty area. As the ball nears him, he takes two steps off his man and away from goal – and yet again, it is this fine margin that is the key to this move. This step attracts the defender towards him in order to close him down and consequently creates a space highlighted by the yellow box for Maupay to run into.
As the ball is being played to Watkins he displays a side-on approach, relaying to the defender that if he is to play the ball behind him then he will have to take a touch first before then playing the ball through – in the meantime, giving the defender time to close him down and cut off the angle. However, here is where Watkins’ sublime ability creates the opening.
Even as the ball is within a couple of yards of him he still shows the defender that he is side on, however, at the very last second he expertly opens his body out. This instant body shape alteration upon receiving of the ball allows him to play the ball through first time, not after taking a touch – and thus preventing the defender from intercepting the ball as he is too far away from Watkins.
Watkins’ capabilities at dropping off the defence present an argument that he would be successful as a central attacking midfielder as well, where he can use his rapid speed of thought, incisive passing ability, and clever movement to create opportunities. He could adapt this to operate as a false nine with Brentford’s system, feeding the offensive movements of the two wide attackers running beyond him.
Here, he again demonstrates his penchant for dropping deeper as he first chooses to neglect the current position of the ball and instead situate himself slightly further back in the hope of receiving the ball should it fall his way. Indeed he did, and here he illustrates his passing vision as he plays a delightful clipped pass into the path of the right winger as he runs behind the Swansea defence.
It has already been seen that he holds a great ability to pose a goal threat through either scoring or assisting in-and-around the 18-yard box, but here he shows a capability of playing in teammates from a genuinely deeper position – as creative attacking midfielders are tasked with doing. This is just another string to his already exceptional box.
Watkins is not just a star of the future, he is a star of today. As our analysis has shown he has excelled at Brentford, and his ability to occupy seemingly anywhere in the offensive third makes him such a huge danger to opposing teams anywhere on the pitch. He holds all the physical characteristics required to be a top-class striker, and when combined with such an intelligent mind makes it only a matter of time before he is plying his trade at the highest level.
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