Brentford have been on magnificent form this season as they’re currently sitting fourth in the Championship. However, what has been even more impressive is seeing Ollie Watkins make the switch into the striking role after Neal Maupay’s summer departure to Brighton and Hove Albion last summer. Watkins was mainly used as a winger in the 2018/19 season, as he featured on the left flank 21 times and he made 20 appearances on the opposite wing as well. Nevertheless, the switch has drastically increased his goal contributions as he only played a part in 16 goals last season but Watkins has already tallied 25 goal involvements this campaign before the league suspension.
In this scout report, we will produce an in-depth tactical analysis of Watkins and look at how he has transitioned into one of the best strikers in the EFL this season. We will analyse what tactics Watkins uses under Thomas Frank through analysis and match footage.
Overview and play style
Watkins transition from being a winger to striker has been smooth so far, he has kept the fundamental skills that he has acquired as a winger but he has notably increased his goal threat as he has already passed his goals tallied from the past two seasons (20) in this campaign alone (22). Brentford’s game style involves progressive build passes by playing through the thirds. Watkins is vital in this as he will pin back opponent’s defences by playing on the shoulder of the last defender and this results in space to open up for Brentford to play into. More so he can pick the ball up from deep and he can use his immense ball-carrying ability to drive at the teams, this season Watkins has carried the ball 47 times over ten yards whilst in possession or entered the penalty area which is also known as progressive runs.
In the image above, Watkins average heatmap this season gives us an understanding of his movement as he has the licence to float in a large area of space. His movement in this area makes it hard for the opponents to keep their shape if they want to mark him as they will have to step out of position to press him and this will create holes for his teammates to open up. On the other hand, if teams keep their shape then allows Watkins to get inside the pockets and utilise his strengths, I will now go onto analyse this into greater detail.
Off the ball movement
Starting with his off the ball movement. Watkins’ athleticism combined with his clever movement has been key behind his success this season. He has mastered finding/creating space inside the box with the use of double movements to lose his marker and to get on the blind side of the defenders. However, it is his late runs into the box which has benefitted him the most as he can observe the area then make a sharp move exploiting the space. In the image below, this is demonstrated as Watkins starts the move with the ball on the outside of the box, he noticed his marker pressing him up close and the opponent was flat-footed which allowed him to get the run on him. Watkins calmly slotted the ball into the far left corner with a clinical one-touch finish.
By starting in a deep position, it allows Watkins to stay unmarked if the midfielders fail to track him or they cannot keep up with him due to his pace if they attempt to stay with him. This allows him to find the space in behind and be in a dangerous area unmarked. In the image below, Watkins has started his run from near halfway line and no one has tracked his run. This allows him to dart to the back post freely and tap in the ball into the open net due to his late run on the blindside of the midfielders and the defenders being preoccupied by marking other players.
Furthermore, Watkins runs in behind during the transitional phase and exploits high lines as teams try to press Brentford as they know they like to retain the ball. This season they’re averaging the third-highest possession in the league with 56.8% with a high average duration of 15.1 seconds per possession (third highest). Teams try to suffocate Brentford high into their defensive third to try to stop their build-up play but this allows space in behind the backline as they have to squeeze high to put this plan into action and Watkins takes advantage of this frequently by staying on the edge of the defensive line if they are situated pressing Brentford and stepping too high.
In the image below, Watkins notices the high line and he stays on the shoulder of the centre-backs. He is quick to recognise when the opposition have stepped out of position when they’ve been drawn towards the ball which allows him to peel off them and get in behind with his quick pace.
Additionally, if the opponents sit back and try to follow Watkins’ deep movement he stretches the backline and opens up space for his teammates to operate in. In the image below, Watkins is keeping a high line and his teammates can play in the pocket of space which he has helped create with his movement. In this passage of play, Saïd Benrahma picks up the ball in the space and he loops a ball to Watkins at the far post.
It clear to see his movement is also benefiting players around him but it has helped him get into great goal scoring chances. Even though Watkins only ranks 9th highest for shots in the league, he is joint highest in the top 10 for xG/shot (0.19). This tells us Watkins is taking quality shots in dangerous positions by getting into ideal scoring positions and not wasting possessions via poor shots. Ultimately his off the ball movement is why he is the second top goal scorer in the Championship this season.
Watkins has been able to transfer his winger traits into this new position change as he still has the ability to carry the ball and drive at the opponents. As we noticed before with his movement he will often drop deep for late runs but this also allows him to pick up the ball in between the lines on the opposition and drive with the ball. This season he is averaging 4.57 dribbles per 90 minutes with a high 50.8% success rate, this shows us his intent to still carry the ball and drive at his opponents. In the image below, Watkins receives the ball directly to his feet, he keeps his body half-open to take the ball into stride and this allows him to attack space in front of him.
For Brentford they allow their attackers to fill in for Watkins when he has taken up the wide position. It is mainly Benrahma dropping into the left-hand half-space and Bryan Mbeumo will keep the width on the other wing. By staying out wide this allows Watkins to exploit the full-backs in the channels. In the image below, Watkins stays wide and causes problems for the full-back as he is out of position, David Raya Martin is able to pick him out with a long ball over the top where he can utilise his pace to run into the channel and Brentford score from this play from Watkins getting in behind the defence.
Another example of this is shown in the image below, Watkins notices the vast amount of space in behind the full-back due to his slight step in positioning, however, this is enough for Watkins to punish them and go through on goal and knocks it past the goalkeeper coolly.
By Watkins floating wide it also attracts players from central positions towards him and this opens up chances for his teammates in the middle where the opposition players have vacated. In the image below, Watkins is pressed by three opponents but he slides a pass into his open teammate who is unmarked as they have been drawn in by Watkins moving out of his central starting position.
Watkins is accustomed to being in tight areas in the wide part of the pitch due to his previous position. He still has the ability to drift wide but as he is deployed as the striker now, the opponents are like magnets and they also drift with him and Brentford capitalise by using effective third man runs off him. In the image below, Watkins has dragged across the opponents out of position and Benrahma receives the ball off him which allows him to attack the space left by the opponents who followed Watkins out wide.
Eight of Watkins goals this season have been headers, however, this has been due to him finding space and scoring unchallenged headers, in fact, six of them were unopposed by an opposition player. We have identified his great movement in this scout report and this has allowed him to get into unchallenged positions from it. In the image below, Watkins has found the space for a free header from his clever movement. Nevertheless, he does struggle when he is contesting in the air for the ball, even with him being at the height of six-foot-tall. His movement helps combat the weakness of his aerial threat against opponents.
However, when Watkins is marked tightly he finds it hard to win his duels as he has only won 36.38% of his offensive duels this season (139/382). We have highlighted Watkins getting on the blindside of the defenders earlier in the scout report but in this situation when he goes up against an opponent, the defender is able to take control of the ball in the air and either move closer to the ball if the cross is dropping shorter or they’re able to use their body and shield it off Watkins. Even if Watkins does win the ball the defender is able to weaken his header by applying contact and he is not a threat.
In the image above, the defender easily controls the situation but using his arm to stop Watkins from getting close into him and he is able to shield him off and put the ball away from danger. This weakness is something which Watkins avoids as much as possible as he gets into positions where he can use his strengths, not his weaknesses. Additionally, Brentford don’t play direct football as their main style so it isn’t an issue for him but it is always good to have a variety of styles as a player to provide different options in case they need to switch the game plan and not be as predictable.
This analysis has shown why Watkins is excelling at Brentford this season and why he has the capability to be a danger anywhere in the offensive third. Moving to a whole new position requires great adaptation and Watkins has done this tremendously. He possesses great physical attributes to be an elite striker and when combining this with his bright movement he will be playing at the highest level in the near future.