Can Ollie Watkins really fire Aston Villa to a Champions League place?

Can Ollie Watkins really fire Aston Villa to a Champions League place?

‘Twas the night before Christmas and Aston Villa were top of the Premier League. As far as make-believe tales go, this one might have been up there as one of winter’s more improbable scenarios back in August, but victory on Friday night at home to Sheffield United and top of the tree will be Unai Emery’s side – and there they would stay for the festivities if Liverpool and Arsenal were to draw the following day.

Even if Villa don’t top the table on 25 December, their campaign has thus far been nothing short of magical all the same. On home soil, they are the best. Only Newcastle can match the 24 points earned in home league games this season, but the Magpies have played a game more and lost one of them. The Villans have a 100 per cent record at Villa Park; nobody else in the Premier League can boast the same any longer after Liverpool were held last week.

Indeed, scratch that about just the Premier League: nobody else in England’s top four flights can boast a perfect home record, and nor can they in the Bundesliga, LaLiga, Serie A, Ligue 1 or even the Scottish Premiership.

Talk has quickly turned to the team being involved in a title fight this term, having finished no higher than fourth in three decades and even that position only twice: once in 1995/96 and the other, in 2017/18, being somewhat less impressive – fourth in the Championship.

It’s a natural inclination to get giddy at this time of year, particularly when things are going well, and few are faring better than Villa striker Ollie Watkins of late, who has four goals and an assist in his last six, nine for the league campaign overall and has barged his way to the front of the queue when it comes to Gareth Southgate’s second-in-command for the England centre-forward role.

Between his channel-running, propensity to get shots away whenever possible and the dramatically improved service and support he’s getting this term, Watkins is firing on all cylinders and is a big part of the reason for Villa’s positive outlook.

His next league goal will take him to double figures for the campaign, while only Erling Haaland has managed more shots than him this season. The potential for improvement, even now, comes in seeing that Watkins is fourth in the league for expected goals (8.6), despite Villa as a team being only sixth for average number of shots per 90 minutes and smack in the middle of the table, 10th, for average shot distance.

Watkins has reached another level this year

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Perhaps there’s an eventual ceiling on what this team can do, this year, but keeping Watkins fit and firing will go a long way to giving them the best chance of success, while others including John McGinn, Moussa Diaby and Leon Bailey have shown they can contribute significantly along the way.

Villa face other challenges in maintaining their push, be it for the top four or indeed beyond.

Their squad – the number, rather than the individuals – will be further pushed after the new year amid the resumption of their Europa Conference League campaign. The deeper they go, the more they’ll want to field first-choice lineups; up until now in the Premier League, just 12 players have been on the pitch for more than 585 minutes – the equivalent of just 6.5 games, as we approach the midway point of 19 on Boxing Day. Squad rotation has not been something Emery has had to countenance too much domestically. When that changes, keeping the same level of performance will be a big, and perhaps telling, challenge.

There’s also an Emery-specific obstacle to overcome. While Villa’s home form has thus far been immaculate, they haven’t hit the same heights on the road.

While that has been fine to keep the likes of inconsistent squads full of absentees, such as Tottenham and Newcastle, at bay, it won’t be enough to genuinely be in the title race three or four months from now. And it’s something Emery has long since struggled to find a balance for.

Unai Emery needs to find an answer to Villa’s road woes

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After all, this is a manager who not all that long ago in 2015/16 went the entire campaign without a single away win with Sevilla.

An aberration and an outlier, perhaps, but following his time in France with PSG he won seven on the road with Arsenal, then just once by November when he was sacked the following year. Back in Spain with Villarreal, his two full seasons yielded seven and six away league wins. Since Leicester’s title win in 15/16, the average away wins in the ensuing seven campaigns by the team finishing fourth in the Premier League is 9.4.

It isn’t an insurmountable improvement to make, but a difficult one, and in short order. Villa are about on track for eight or nine away wins right now, but consistency is everything at the top end of the table and it isn’t linear. Doing it for nine or 10 months is not merely twice as tough as doing so between August and December.

That said, Villa have little to fear from any visitor to their own ground right now, and if their exemplary home form continues then perhaps there’s room for manoeuvre on the away form front. Sheffield United present the next test and full expectation will be on the Villa Park faithful celebrating another three points come full time. If they do, they’ll have the finest early Christmas present the club has given them in a long time.


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