Emblematic canary yellow and green shirts empty Rio de Janeiro’s ticker tape-littered streets, as colourful murals decorated with caricatures fade into the brickwork of neighbourhood border walls – the 2014 World Cup had come and gone in the nation that lives and breathes football.

It was truly a once in a lifetime thing – a World Cup in Brazil – but England’s major tournament woes would surface again, this time at the beautiful game’s spiritual home. Two weeks later and Roy Hodgson’s Three Lions were packing their bags as national team turmoil was splashed across the back pages once again.

‘Reasons to be hopeful?’ is often murmured with a hint of trepidation before a major tournament kicks-off, even months before the obligatory photograph of England players lining up on the steps of the plane ignites belief for the footballing ardour of the nation.

The inquest shortly began only weeks after hopes were raised, but while the future of English football seemed bleak in the moments after falling short of Costa Rica in Group D, four miles from the Maracanã, the journey of an ambitious young man was just getting started.

Nestled deep at the heart of Rio’s busiest northern zone, Maracanã, the state’s renowned stadium dwarfs the many sacred spaces dedicated to football beneath it, as every inch of pitch squeezes between the tight confines of shanty buildings and high-rise flats. The Estádio das Laranjeiras might be a ten-minute drive away from the national stadium, through the famous Túnel Santa Bárbara, but a fortnight ago, chock-a-block with cars, this strip of the state was a carnival in motion.

The minimalistic Estádio das Laranjeiras – located marginally east of the prestigious 78,000 seater Maracanã – is well shaded by Paubrasilia trees surrounding the ground’s perimeter, bathed in the Brazilian sunshine. Though this is not the humble beginnings of Douglas Luiz, whose dreams of representing his Nova Holanda community were realised when Vasco da Gama scouts visited the shanty enclave in 2013.

For many youngsters in the favelas, football provides the only respite from a culture of firearms and flip-flops, cocaine and crack, on the same gritty, sweltering tarmac surfaces where Gabriel Jesus, Richarlison and legends Romario and Zico began their rags to riches fairytale.

This, however, was Ollie Watkins’ first pre-season tour with Exeter City – in the very heart of the South American football scene. Often an exercise in futility, pre-season tours from Shanghai to Sydney can be nothing more than a burden for footballers, but when League Two’s Exeter City went in search for some warm weather training, teenager Watkins was included in the squad to kick-start his professional career amongst the plush forest canopy and palm tree surroundings of the Laranjeiras stadium.

100 years had passed since Brazil played their first-ever football match, against Exeter City in a famed fixture that by accident formed the Brazilian national side. Local newspapers reported unprecedented interest in the game as the 6,000-capacity ground – which to this day is owned by Fluminense – was full well before kick-off.

Over 120 Grecians fans crossed the Atlantic Ocean to witness the reunion of this fascinating battle. For an 18-year-old not yet used to first-team training at the Cliff Hill Training Ground, off the Sidmouth Road in Exeter, this was an introduction to football culture like no other for Watkins.

Still, hung-over from that infamous 7-1 drubbing at the hands of eventual World Cup winners, Germany, the mood in Rio was lifted when Lionel Messi’s Argentina fell at the final hurdle on Brazil soil. With plenty of goal-scoring pedigree on show that night – including the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, Messi and all-time World Cup goalscorer Miroslav Klose pitting their wits in football’s greatest show – Watkins was about to get his first taste of a senior football a couple of weeks later, if not an unconventional introduction to a professional’s pre-season schedule.

By no means was this the making of Watkins, even if the Devon-born teenager has been earmarked as an exciting prospect on England’s south coast for some years before he was invited on his first pre-season tour with Exeter. As the nation mourned another major tournament embarrassment, Watkins was watching a miserable display with hopes of his own for the future, perhaps even in an England shirt. But despite kick-starting his professional career with an off-season in a part of the world that celebrates the game religiously, there would be plenty of obstacles to cross if he was to make it in the Premier League himself.

For Aston Villa fans, another dour major tournament with England failed to provide a distraction from Premier League matters in 2014, as in the same summer, supporters of Paul Lambert’s claret and blue army were braced for another battle against the dreaded top-flight trap door.

In need of his tenacious running and appetite for the game, a young Watkins would make a name for himself down south – his attitude would have no doubt lifted the spirits at Villa Park during the gloomiest of years. Frankly, times had to get worse before they could get better at B6, but as the club plans to make up for lost time, the boy who has made a journey like few others is heading one of the more exciting projects in English football.

As the teenage forward made appearances in game’s against Fluminense, Tupi and Associação Atlética – on Exeter’s tour of Rio de Janeiro – Watkins even scored a goal to match his impressive displays in South America. Only a few miles away, a 16-year-old Douglas Luiz was breaking through as the next big thing at Vasco da Gama. On Nova Holanda’s samba pitches, located directly north up the neighbouring hillsides around the Estádio das Laranjeiras, Luiz had been honing his special gift for years in his birthplace. Only the most talented, technical players have the opportunity to represent their roots rather than escape the challenges of a former life.

The favela nurtured the raw ability Luiz has possessed since his teens and by circumstance holds the typical traits of a South American midfielder. If England is the home of soccer, Brazil is its enormous playing field, and Luiz didn’t half make use of it.

Raised in the small market town of Newton Abbot, much of Watkins’ football career would take him away from home comforts, but such is the life of an aspiring, young footballer, there would be a lower-league grounding waiting to set him on his pathway to the Premier League.

Aston Villa are plotting their ascent back to the top of the English football ladder with a group of players all nurtured in different ways, with no two playing backgrounds the same in their personal pursuit to reach the top, working to achieve a common goal with Dean Smith’s Villa.

The moments that changed Ollie Watkins’ career

“Imagine if I’d scored five against Liverpool…”

There’s a relentless nature about Watkins’ pursuit of excellence. He often studies the mentality of Cristiano Ronaldo, to work harder in training and strive for improvement every day at Bodymoor Heath.

Dean Smith told the Villa forward that ‘the difference between the top players and the average players is that they forget their mistakes quicker’. Watkins is indebted to the support of the coach that has seen him grow in every shirt he has worn in his professional career. Though, repaying the faith Smith has shown in him was a long way off at one point or another.

After netting 30 goals for Exeter’s Under-18’s in the Youth Alliance South West Conference 2013/14 campaign, Watkins was touted as the next cab off the rank at St. James Park, having come through the club’s youth sides to sign a scholarship deal in 2012.

From a young age, learning his trade under Paul Tisdale at Exeter, Watkins based his ever-maturing game on Thierry Henry, who was his role model when growing up watching the Premier League. Despite injecting a little va-va-voom to his style, Watkins’ progress into the senior team would soon stall after youth-title wins and an encouraging pre-season by the Copacabana beach.

Ollie Watkins during his Exeter days

While the wheels wouldn’t come off altogether in Watkins’ journey to the top, he’d have to earn his stripes nonetheless. Watkins went on to work for five different managers during his career to date, but none have played a more significant role in his early development than Tisdale.

Exactly 12 months after impressing on the sun-soaked pitches dotted around the Maracanã, at 19 years of age, Watkins was left out of Exeter City’s 24-man pre-season tour squad in preparation for the 2015/16 season, at a time where his development at the south-coast club was in the balance.

“I remember going up to Scotland for a pre-season tour; he would have been 19 at the time, and he didn’t make our touring squad,” Tisdale remembers.

“Our left-back got injured and I said ‘you need to come along as a left-back, otherwise you’ll have to stay here and train on your own’, so he came along, played a couple of games and I remember him coming off really upset. He’d been thinking so hard about everything that he couldn’t control the ball, so we sat down a month or two later and started again.”

“In the next Reserve game, Reading away, I said ‘you need to make three headers, three tackles, three interceptions and recover three loose balls in the first half – that will be 12 touches’. I said ‘if you can repeat that in the second half, that’s 24 moments’, and the point was it changed the way he thought. He ticked those boxes, and he was now engaged with everything.”

It was the grounding Watkins needed to realise his potential.

“He got lots of passes, he picked the ball up and turned, everything, and it was enough to make me want to pick him for the first-team game, the derby against Plymouth.

“He played in the same position, which he hadn’t played in before that day at Reading, and he got Man of the Match as we won 2-0. Ollie was brilliant that day, and that was his moment. All of the training was there, the coaching was there, but he needed to play with freedom.”

Watkins knew he had the ability, but without hard work and application, he was coasting in the League Two club’s reserves for several years. Setbacks were, however, nothing new for the young forward.

Having previously failed in a trial with Exeter aged nine, in 2003, Watkins came back stronger only two years later by impressing academy coaches enough to earn a place in the Under-11’s. His first milestone on a journey to become a Premier League striker came after he made his professional debut in Exeter’s final League Two match of 2013-14, a couple of months before earning a place on the club’s pre-season tour of Rio de Janeiro.

Though after being named amongst the substitutes for the first three months of the 2014/15 campaign, Watkins was surplus to requirements and in need of some experience, perhaps even a culture shock.

2014 was supposed to be Watkins’ breakthrough year at Exeter, but after making only four appearances that whole calendar year, he’d depart on loan to Weston-super-Mare for an initial one-month loan deal in December 2014. Watkins featured regularly for the team, scoring 10 goals in 25 appearances before returning to St James Park at the end of the season.

His loan move was extended until the end of the 2014/15 season, having impressed at The Optima Stadium in his initial months at the National League team, and with Exeter finishing seven points shy of a play-off place that campaign, Watkins was handed a chance to prove his worth from thereon. The youngsters’ eye-opening loan move prepared him for his first full campaign at Exeter under manager Tisdale in the same campaign that Aston Villa would eventually drop out of the Premier League for the first time.

Watkins was frequently named as a substitute in the 2015/16 season’s opening months, but after scoring his first senior league goal against Portsmouth in March 2016, Watkins was afforded an extended run in the side in time for Exeter’s season finale.

He had to remain patient, but an impressive four goals in six appearances saw him win the EFL Young Player of the Month award for the first time, as well as the PFA Fans’ Player of the Month, and from there, Watkins never looked back.

Despite Exeter’s season-ending defeat at Wembley following a 2-1 loss to Blackpool in the League Two play-off final, it was a memorable one for Watkins whose 16 goals and 13 assists in an impressive 52 appearances saw him pick up the EFL Young Player of the Season Award at the 2017 EFL Awards ceremony. His form on the south-coast was enough to persuade Brentford to finally press ahead with a deal to sign the forward, whom head-coach Smith had headhunted for years.

Used predominantly as a wide man during his first two years at Brentford, Watkins managed ten goals in each of his first two seasons before moving into a central role following the sale of Brentford’s Neal Maupay to Brighton.

Watkins went on to become a crucial part of Brentford’s formidable ‘BMW’ forward line that included Saïd Benrahma and Bryan Mbeumo, last season. Thomas Frank’s side scored 80 goals last campaign – the most goals in the Championship in the 2019-20 season. Watkins scored twice in a game on four occasions and even managed a hat-trick of headers at Oakwell in a win over Barnsley.

Paul Tisdale was crucial to Waktkins development

Watkins’ 26 goal haul last term reaffirmed Villa’s interest to strike a deal having reportedly delved into negotiations for the forward last season.

Aston Villa’s record signing: Ollie Watkins finding his feet in the Premier League

There was no shortage of suitors for Dean Smith’s priority summer transfer target – one of the most in-demand strikers in English football and the EFL Player of the Season, Ollie Watkins.

Aston Villa stumped up a premium £33 million in add-ons to secure a number nine capable of leading Villa into a new, exciting era alongside local boys Smith and Jack Grealish. There’s an awful lot of faith in Watkins at Villa Park.

On his second start at his new home, Watkins became the first Premier League player to score a ‘perfect’ first-half hat-trick since Tommy Johnson did it for Villa in 1995. After that 7-2 victory over reigning champions Liverpool, Watkins will be fondly remembered by many a Villan for decades to come – he’s already made his mark.

From Weston-super-Mare to tormenting Virgil van Dijk, Watkins has made quite the journey to where he is today, but Villa’s striker is in no mood to settle for Premier League adulation – he wants to realise a potential that… nobody can cap. Predicting the heights that former Exeter and Brentford forward Watkins could achieve would be simply limiting his ceiling.

“The Ollie I had at Brentford had an unbelievable attitude as a player,” Villa boss Smith told talkSPORT. “He just wants to get better but he always tests you as a coach, asking you what he can do to improve.

“One of his questions, when I met up with him, was: ‘How can you get me in the England squad?’ That’s his ambition and I love it when people have got them targets and the hunger to get there. Hopefully, he’ll get there – it certainly won’t be for the lack of trying.”

 

It’s no surprise that Smith pleaded with Villa’s chiefs to break the bank for Watkins having seen up close his quality and potential while at Brentford. After scoring 15 goals under Smith from a wider role, Watkins finished last year’s Championship season as the league’s joint-top scorer with 26 goals having taken only a year to adapt into a central position at Griffin Park.

“Ollie has developed into one of the most sought-after strikers in the country,” said Smith after landing his priority target in September.

“We are looking forward to seeing him show his great qualities in an Aston Villa shirt. He is a hugely determined character who has both the ability and personality to succeed at the highest level.”

Watkins didn’t need much persuading, neither a red carpet rolled out to his feet as he greeted his former gaffer with a big hug at Bodymoor Heath after penning a long-term deal with Villa. Smith has followed Watkins’ career so closely that he first spotted him at Weston-super-Mare at non-league level.

“The fact that it’s a massive club, Dean sold it to me. I’m definitely excited to work with Dean again and I’m looking forward to getting started,” Watkins said.

“I feel like this is the next step for me, I always want to challenge myself and get myself out of my comfort zone and I felt like this was the right time for me to move on and have a new challenge and I’m really relishing this one.”

Observers routinely describe Watkins as a natural in front of goal, but after only acclimatising to the centre-forward role last season, Villa’s forward is versatile in a multitude of forward positions. Having previously described himself as a ‘number 10’, with a skill-set capable of contributing to both goals and assists from wide areas, Watkins has also showcased an invaluable ability to hold the ball up and press opposite defences to great effect this term.

Adept at threatening defenders on the wing or straight through the middle, Watkins only took to the striker role last season. It’s been a meteoric rise in whichever way you’d like to measure Watkins’ development from a positional sense, his goal record or more simply his rise from the seventh-tier to Premier League in under five years.

This season, Watkins scored on his debut in the Carabao Cup against Burton Albion and was unfortunate not to have taken a brace away from what was a promising audition when he struck the bar in the first half. Following up on his fast start with another goal in another away victory in the cup against Bristol City, Watkins saved his best three for the rout of Jurgen Klopp’s champions at the start of October as Villa made it three from three.

Without a goal in the nine games that followed his brace at The Emirates – only a few weeks after putting three past Liverpool – Watkins remained a thorn in top-flight defences alongside attacking duo Jack Grealish and Ross Barkley. Only Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Patrick Bamford have a better non-penalty xG (expected goals without penalties) than Watkins when compared with all strikers in the Premier League this season.

As a hard-working frontman too, in the Premier League, only Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne have made more defensive actions that have led to a shot attempt than Watkins, which can include a tackle, pressure or interception when defending from the front.

Defined by his determined character and infectious work-rate, Watkins isn’t averse to putting in the extra yard to realise his goals. In fact, Villa’s club-record signing has for a long time been tipped by many to reach the top following a lower-division grounding in League Two and below.

Ollie Watkins’ indispensable role in Dean Smith’s entertaining side

It might not come as a surprise to learn about Watkins’ route to Premier League stardom with Aston Villa, knowing his selfless, all-action style on the pitch – he plays an indispensable role in Dean Smith’s side.

Having won just three of their previous 40 Premier League games on the road before starting the 2020/21 campaign, Villa have become away day specialists this campaign. Villa have recorded the fewest touches in the defensive third this term, with 3,183 recorded so far this campaign. In the middle third of the pitch, Smith’s side have registered the second-fewest touches in the Premier League this season, 156 more than Steve Bruce’s Newcastle, who have registered 4114 in total.

Where we can really magnify Villa’s improvements and indeed, Watkins’ influence this season is demonstrated with the analysis of how the team have performed in the attacking third and inside the penalty box. Only Liverpool and Manchester City have recorded more touches in the penalty box than Villa this season, as Smith’s dynamic attackers have registered 593 touches inside the opposition’s box.

It can be suggested that Villa are also a more effective and efficient team this season, by virtue that West Ham United are the only other Premier League team to have averaged a total shot distance of below 16 metres, as well as Villa this campaign. In fact, Villa have taken more shots per 90 this season than any other team in the division, while also recording the highest shots on target per 90 – highlighting the effectiveness of attacking sequences deployed by Smith’s side this season.

This Premier League campaign, Villa are making effective use of not only the absence of home fans but also some impressive individual displays to put Smith’s plans into practice on the pitch, and nobody knows Smith’s methods better than Watkins.

Villa’s striker has been involved in most of Villa’s progressive movements towards goal and while Grealish glides in final-third possession, Smith’s side have clocked at least ten shots in each game so far this term – a feat unmatched by any other team in the division.

Villa’s capabilities to not only become competitive by means of defensive solidity or midfield dynamism but also by threatening in transition is proved with the justification of ball pressing analysis. On the whole, pressing among Premier League teams is on the decrease, with every team bar Villa experienced a reduction in the intensity of their pressing in the attacking and midfield thirds since last season.

Apart from newly-promoted Leeds, West Brom and Fulham due to their lack of data available to compare to last season, only Villa have increased the intensity of pressing, with particularly Watkins the key instigator. Smith’s dynamic system has afforded Villa with more opportunities to make use of Grealish’s ball-carrying efficiencies and club-record signing, Watkins’ pace and movement in behind a high defensive line.

This season, Villa have been content in inviting opponents forward before looking to exploit the spaces in transition. In fleeting moments last campaign, Villa would often break away after absorbing pressure, but to little avail. This term, the tenacity of Watkins, and versatile wingers, Anwar El Ghazi, Bertrand Traoré and Trezeguet have allowed Villa to become a significantly better team – defending from the front and packing a punch when on the ball.

It’s safe to say that Smith’s Villa side is well and truly taking shape. With an identity based on bravery and taking risks, Villa will get their due rewards as the season unfolds. Even if Watkins only took to the striker’s birth at Brentford last season, boss Thomas Frank has waxed lyrical about his versatility at the top of the pitch.

Watkins and Traore

“I normally call him the beast,” Frank told Sky Sports. “He’s a remarkable player and person. He’s so dedicated.

“He’s so dedicated to improving every single day, so he’s a coach’s dream because of course, we want to focus on little details. We’ve been working very hard on his positions and how to run in the box and the link-up play.

“Overall he’s just improved massively as a player and also as part of the leading group. He’s driving the team. Look out there how hard he works – it’s a joy to have a striker like that.

“He’s one of the hardest, if not the hardest working offensive players in the league, and he’s also the top scorer. That’s not a bad combination.”

After his first months in a Villa shirt, Watkins measures well against forwards in the league for his tireless contributions so far. The striker has completed the second most pressures in the attacking third, meaning that Watkins has hassled and disrupted more defenders in their own half than another striker in the division. Only Mohammed Salah has recorded more pressures in the final third than Watkins’s 155 pressures.

Bamford and Watkins are separated by ten pressures – the biggest interval listed in the rankings. Completing 289 pressures around the pitch overall, we can determine that Watkins is capable of working off the ball in any zone across the pitch, despite being in a positional sense, Villa’s frontman. In fact, Watkins’ 98 total successful pressures are only eight fewer than the Premier League’s most, with N’Golo Kanté and Pierre Emile Højbjerg topping the charts from holding midfield roles.

From pre-season shuttle runs under Brazilian palms, to playing left-back on the Scottish east coast – Ollie Watkins has already done the hard yards, but his immeasurable attitude to succeed in the Premier League will so happen to take Aston Villa to new levels.

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