Why Ollie Watkins’ movement is his secret weapon, how Joe Gomez snubbed Man City for Liverpool – The Radar

Why Ollie Watkins’ movement is his secret weapon, how Joe Gomez snubbed Man City for Liverpool – The Radar


The Radar column looks at the attribute that makes Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins an elite striker and why Liverpool defender Joe Gomez turned down Manchester City; watch Aston Villa vs Spurs and Liverpool vs Man City live on Sky Sports on Sunday

Watkins’ movement key to his success

Thierry Henry gave a fascinating analysis of Ollie Watkins’ goals in Aston Villa’s win over Luton on Monday Night Football. The first, a towering header from a corner, was “Didier Drogba-like”. The second? Even better. “There is nobody who can stop that,” he said.

With 16 goals for the season in the Premier League, Watkins has surpassed his total for the whole of last term with two months to spare. But it is not just a case of sharpened finishing.

Defender Pau Torres was eager to get that message across when asked what has impressed him most about Watkins during a recent interview at Aston Villa’s Bodymoor Heath headquarters.

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Watch all of Ollie Watkins’ Premier League goals and assists so far this season

“I think he is a player who is constantly improving,” Torres said to Sky Sports. “First of all, he makes very good runs which make it easier for the players whose job it is to find him.”

Watkins has emerged as a creator as well as a scorer. He has 10 assists in addition to his goals. But it was telling that Torres started by highlighting the quality of his movement.

It is his biggest strength.

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His second goal against Luton, when he timed his run perfectly to latch onto Douglas Luiz’s free-kick, was one of nine this season – more than half his Premier League total – which has come as a result of his movement putting him one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

The runs which lead to goals are the ones that stick in the memory. But Watkins makes dozens like them in every game. According to data from Second Spectrum, he ranks top among all Premier League players this season for both high-speed runs and attacking runs.

Second Spectrum data highlights Ollie Watkins’ off-the-ball prowess

Drilling down further into the numbers tells us more. Remarkably, Watkins’ total of 444 runs challenging the opposition’s backline is more than 30 per cent higher than any other player’s. The 28-year-old also sits top of the pile for runs targeted by passes, on 349.

That final statistic backs up Torres’ assertion that Watkins’ movement makes it easier for his team-mates to pick him out. But Unai Emery deserves credit too. He has made crucial adjustments to the striker’s role over the course of his time as Aston Villa boss.

The first was to get him playing closer to goal.

With 179 touches in the opposition box this season, Watkins has already beaten his total for the whole of the last campaign (175), climbing from 11th to third among Premier League players.

Ollie Watkins is far more active in the opposition box under Unai Emery
Ollie Watkins is far more active in the opposition box under Unai Emery

Watkins is having more shots and creating more chances as a result, his threat transformed. It helps, too, that efforts are being made to conserve his energy during games.

Watkins boasts a formidable work-rate. But part of the reason he is now able to produce such an impressive volume of attacking runs is that he is no longer being asked to press as much.

According to Opta, the number of pressures he is registering has dropped in each of the last two seasons. He is now better able to channel his efforts into the business of scoring and creating.

Arguably most impressive of all, though, despite this change of emphasis, is that Watkins is still finding time to fulfil one of his other great strengths, which is dropping back to link the play.

Indeed, as well as making all those runs challenging the opposition’s backline, Watkins ranks second in the Premier League for hold-ups. Only two other strikers, Dominic Solanke and Erling Haaland, rank in the top 10 in both categories, never mind the top two.

“He is not just a penalty-box player,” added Torres. “He is involved a lot in the construction of attacks. He knows when to come and receive passes, how to generate spaces. He is a fantastic striker.”

There can be no disputing that description. The only question is whether Torres could have gone further. With his goals, his assists, and the quality of movement underpinning it all, Watkins – surely a shoo-in for England’s Euros squad – deserves to be considered among the elite.

Live Super Sunday

Gomez preferred Liverpool to Man City

Had a teenaged Joe Gomez decided differently, he might be turning out for title rivals Manchester City rather than Liverpool in Sunday’s game at Anfield, live on Sky Sports.

The decision in question was made in January of 2015, six months into an outstanding breakthrough season with Charlton Athletic in the Championship. City’s interest had been piqued. The option was there. But the young defender resolved it was in his best interests to finish the campaign with his boyhood club before reassessing his options in the summer.

Speaking to former striker Jason Euell soon after his subsequent move to Liverpool – the former striker served as his mentor while a youth coach at Charlton – shed light on the episode and offered an insight into the grounded personality behind the player.

Joe Gomez has impressed for Liverpool in recent months
Joe Gomez has impressed for Liverpool in recent months

“He knew he was an asset and the club would probably sell him, but he was saying he didn’t want to go to a bigger club after half a season in the Championship and play in their U23s,” Euell told Sky Sports. “He felt that wasn’t going to help him. He was in a good place playing men’s football, so why change?

“The move didn’t go through in January in the end, so when he did go to Liverpool in the summer, it went how he had wanted. That’s Joe. He was always very thoughtful in terms of his career and what he wanted to do. He was never trying to get ahead of himself.”

Gomez felt Liverpool offered a clearer first-team pathway and so it proved. At only 18, he was thrust straight into the side, starting the first six consecutive games of the 2015/16 season before suffering the misfortune of a cruciate knee ligament injury.

Injuries would become an unwanted theme of his Liverpool career. But the maturity and strength of character first demonstrated as a teenager at Charlton helped him through the difficult periods. Now, still only 26, he looks as important to the side as ever.

Joe Gomez has filled in at full-back on both sides and in holding midfield
Joe Gomez has filled in at full-back on both sides and in holding midfield

His humility can be seen in his willingness to play in different roles. This season, the centre-back has only started one Premier League game in his natural position, instead helping Jurgen Klopp cope with injuries by filling in at right-back, left-back and even in midfield.

Others have grabbed the headlines. But few players can claim to have made bigger contributions in helping Liverpool remain on track in recent months. They have won 13 of the last 15 games he has started. His quality, both on and off the ball, has shone through.

He will hope to show it again when Manchester City visit Anfield on Sunday. Nine years on, he can face the side he snubbed with no thought of what might have been. “What a wonderful player he is,” said Klopp earlier this week. “I am so happy he can show that again.”

Live Super Sunday

Kiwior’s confidence transformed

Conducting an interview with Jakub Kiwior at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground in September left a lasting impression. But not for the reasons you might expect.

Untypically for a top-level footballer, the Poland international was strikingly shy in front of the camera, speaking quietly through an interpreter and, at one point, having to be gently reminded to look at his interviewer, rather than the floor, when giving his answers.

Jakub Kiwior celebrates with Arsenal captain Martin Odegaard against Sheffield United
Jakub Kiwior celebrates with Arsenal captain Martin Odegaard against Sheffield United

It was endearing. A reminder that these players are not robots. Kiwior had arrived at Arsenal from Spezia nine months earlier. But he came with no knowledge of English and this was his first major interview. Plainly, he was still settling into his new surroundings.

Kiwior looked overawed on the pitch as well as off it at times in his early Arsenal appearances. In April, there was a particularly shaky cameo against Liverpool at Anfield. More recently, he was brought off prematurely in games against Luton and Fulham.

It was heartening, then, to see him now playing with enough confidence to pull off an audacious no-look assist for Gabriel Martinelli in Arsenal’s 6-0 win over Sheffield United before throwing himself into the celebrations with his team-mates.

Jakub Kiwior could be seen producing a no-look cut-back to set up Gabriel Martinelli
Jakub Kiwior could be seen producing a no-look cut-back to set up Gabriel Martinelli

His eye-catching performance at Bramall Lane came after similarly impressive displays in the wins over Newcastle, Burnley and West Ham. Suddenly, a player who was struggling to carve out a place in Mikel Arteta’s team looks to have become a key component of it.

It is all the more impressive considering he is playing in a role which is almost entirely new to him. Kiwior, a natural centre-back, also featured as a holding midfielder with Spezia in Serie A. But never as a left-back. And certainly never in a system as demanding as Arteta’s.

Is it any wonder it took him time to adjust? As Arteta put it himself recently: “It is like pulling William Saliba in at full-back and saying: ‘Tomorrow, perform and do what we have to do’.”

Ben White, Arsenal’s centre-back-turned-full-back on the opposite flank, underlined the complexity of the role in conversation with Sky Sports in October. “To play full-back for him,” he said, “you have got to be a centre-mid, a centre-back, a winger, a No 10.”

Jakub Kiwior has played as Arsenal's left-back since an injury to Oleksandr Zinchenko
Jakub Kiwior has played as Arsenal’s left-back since an injury to Oleksandr Zinchenko

Kiwior is now doing all of that, rampaging forward on the overlap, as he did for that assist against Sheffield United, one of three he has provided in the last five Premier League games, but also tucking inside to help Arsenal build the play through midfield.

“I think he has adapted really well and he is playing better and better,” added Arteta. “You can tell that he is earning the confidence and that he understands the role much better.”

Arsenal will expect more of the same from their converted left-back against Brentford, live on Sky Sports on Saturday. Given Kiwior’s recent form, Oleksandr Zinchenko’s eventual return to fitness might not necessarily mean a return to the starting line-up.

Watch Arsenal vs Brentford, Aston Villa vs Tottenham and Liverpool vs Man City live on Sky Sports this weekend

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