Ollie Watkins Has Shown That the Championship Can Produce a New Kind of Talent

Declan Houten
Nov 9, 2020, 2:45 PM GMT
Watkins took his tally for the season to six league goals with a brace against Arsenal
Watkins took his tally for the season to six league goals with a brace against Arsenal | Pool/Getty Images

When we think of Championship players succesfully making the leap to Premier League football, we most likely have a very specific image in mind.

If you close your eyes you might be picturing Chris Wood jumping over a petrified centre-back to crash in a header, Troy Deeney chasing the life out of a dainty, technical side and laughing about it in the post-match press conference afterwards, or a Grant Holt hitting a football extremely hard.

Their heritage has been honoured in the usual fashion this season, with the likes of Wood, Karlan Grant, Oli McBurnie and Michail Antonio quite literally following in the footsteps of giants, and when it comes to producing fully-formed footballers, the Championship's best product remains the ultra-direct big man.

A raft of talented Championship footballers have entered the league this season
A raft of talented Championship footballers have entered the league this season | Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Of course, the Championship, as the breadbasket of English footballing talent, has also been associated with young, skilful and somewhat raw players who have outgrown the league and are looking for Premier League minutes.

Guys in their late teens or early twenties will always be seen as an acceptable punt for top-flight sides, with Gareth Bale, Wilfried Zaha and Dele Alli three rather prominent examples, and this summer saw Crystal Palace take a chance on QPR's Eberechi Eze and Spurs snap up Swansea's Joe Rodon.

What's much less common is for clubs to recruit from a certain No Man's Land, to look at second-tier footballers who are neither experienced, bustling target men, or relatively cheap youngsters with just enough untapped potential to justify the outlay.

It will be another year of Championship football for Buendia after no Premier League club decided to take a risk on him
It will be another year of Championship football for Buendia after no Premier League club decided to take a risk on him | James Chance/Getty Images

Look at someone like Emi Buendía, who turns 24 this December. Before things got properly bad for Norwich last season he looked as if he'd been waiting his whole life to play in the Premier League - he led his team in assists and successful dribbles, while he was second when it came to interceptions. (FbRef)

One perceptive Twitter thread by The Athletic's Tom Worville suggested that part of the reason for Buendia being left to languish in the Championship for another year was the high-risk, high-reward nature of the creative midfielder's game, something that clubs looking for someone to deliver instant results cannot afford.

It is almost as if a player coming from the league below needs to offer something tangible straightaway, or has to be at an early enough stage at their development so that their less Premier League-y attributes can be ironed out over time. All until the last couple of summers, where a small change can be perceived in the Championship-to-Premier-League pipeline.

Maupay has been a huge success for Brighton
Maupay has been a huge success for Brighton | Marc Atkins/Getty Images

The substance of the change can be summarised thusly - Brentford have managed to sell (yes, we're counting Said Benrahma's weird loan agreement as a sale), three players in their mid 20s for a combined total of £74m.

Neil Maupay joined Brighton a few days shy of his 23rd birthday last season, Benrahma was picked up by West Ham this summer at the grand old age of 25, and Aston Villa caused a real fuss by wrapping up a £28m deal for Ollie Watkins this summer, who will also turn 25 this December.

These are three clubs who were all menaced, pretty uncomfortably at times, by the threat of relegation last season, and clubs who can't afford to make a single false move in the market, and Villa's purchase of Watkins in particular was met with some bemused reactions this summer. For a club who basically didn't have a viable centre-forward after Wesley's injury last season, could they really justify paying so much for an unproven talent?

Watkins' style seems so far to be intact
Watkins' style seems so far to be intact | Athena Pictures/Getty Images

Based on the evidence so far, £30m may well end up being pretty much on the money. Watkins now has six goals from seven Premier League games, including a hattrick against the champions Liverpool, and a brace against the Community Shield champions Arsenal.

The finer details of these goalscoring exploits, however, are what should excite Villa fans the most, as it seems to be the case that Watkins' skillset has transferred directly from the Championship to the Premier League without much fuss.

His first goal against the Gunners in particular will look extremely familiar to those that watched him last year - the Englishman darted towards the penalty box as Ross Barkley picked the ball up on the byline and planted a firm header on the former Everton man's cross amongst a crowd of Arsenal defenders.

It wasn't necessarily Watkins' power or speed that allowed him to nick the goal, but his uncanny sense of where the ball was going to be, and his ability to make good, precise contact with the ball from a header (he scored a whopping eight headers in the Championship last season according to WhoScored).

His hat-trick against Barnsley last year was the most striking example of these qualities, a game where Watkins again and again found himself strong, central positions between the centre-backs, and where he was able to softly guide these headed attempts into the corner.

Indeed, so much of what he did last season was ideal from the perspective of a midfielder servicing him - when Brentford's array of wingers/wide midfielders got free on the touchline he was frequently looking to give them the easiest path to an assist possible, as in his opener against Derby which sees him make one fluid movement from when Sergi Canos picks up the ball to when he applies his finish.

A player whose original aspirations were to play as a number 10, Watkins possesses a deceptive amount of ability in tight spaces and is capable of pulling off a series of technically-demanding finishes, as with his second goal, a crisp finish across the keeper - this is familiar territory for the striker who can play across the forward line - just look at his tricky, precise finish against Millwall last season.

It doesn't take much digging to connect Watkins' form, alongside Maupay's successes and Benrahma's undoubted promise, with the business model of Brentford.

Eschewing pragmatism for a statistical approach which aims to dominate games rather than play the percentages, it's no surprise that the Bees have produced players who you might not throw on in the last 10 minutes of a Premier League match, but who look surprisingly suited to life in a more flowing, expansive side. Indeed, this could explain the rapid adaptation of a similarly inexperienced Leeds squad to Premier League football.

The new breed of Championship players might not be young whippersnappers or firm old hands, then, but a series of dynamic, front-foot players who aren't just looking to struggle against relegation, but to elevate a side into a more fluid attacking outfit.