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It is often said that strikers win football matches and it certainly seems to be true in the case of Ollie Watkins. The Aston Villa frontman was the first player of the 2023/24 Premier League season to hit double-digit goals and assists. His brace against Luton on 2nd March put him up to second in the Golden Boot race, just two behind the formidable Erling Haaland. Those two goals also mean he has either scored or assisted 44% of Aston Villa’s 2023/24 league goals.

To put it simply, Watkins is enjoying an exceptional season, his best in an Aston Villa shirt. While this is unlikely to result in a spot in the England starting eleven at Euro 2024, it could be enough to secure Champions League football for the Villans. This would mark a special achievement for the Birmingham outfit who were last part of the continent’s leading competition in 1982/83.

Have Villa, led by their in-form man Watkins, got what it takes though or are they likely to run out of steam?

Top 4 or Top 5?

If Villa are going to be certain of playing in next season’s Champions League, they will need to secure a top-four finish in the league. It may be that fifth place is sufficient too though, but this will depend on how the English teams perform on the continent for the rest of the season. At the time of writing England trail in the coefficient rankings but they could feasibly catch second place Germany. Doing so would see England handed five Champions League places for league position, rather than the usual four.

Although Villa has some influence on the nation’s coefficient thanks to their involvement in this year’s Europa Conference League, it is largely out of their control. As such, we will focus on Villa’s chances of securing a top-four finish this season.

What Do the Bookies Think?

Following gameweek 27, the race for Champions League football looked like this.

Position Team Games Played Points GD
1st Liverpool 27 63 39
2nd Man City 27 62 35
3rd Arsenal 27 61 45
4th Aston Villa 27 55 22
5th Spurs 26 50 16
6th Man Utd 27 44 -2
7th West Ham 27 42 -4

The top three seem to have their spots largely wrapped up while Man United and West Ham look like being too far adrift from making a real challenge, barring something spectacular. This means that we have a two-horse race battle between Villa and Spurs for the remaining guaranteed Champions League place. Villa’s advantage sees them narrowly ahead with the bookmakers, trading at 4/5 to secure a top-four finish. Tottenham meanwhile are available at 6/5, suggesting the contest will be a very tight one.

Premier League 2023-24 Top 4 Finish Odds

These odds may well change substantially following the result of the Villa versus Tottenham clash on 10th March. It would be wrong to say that this game will decide who finishes in the top four, but it is a very important fixture for both clubs. Villa do have the advantage but sustaining this will surely mean Watkins having a strong end to the campaign.

Can Watkins Keep it Up?

Fatigue is often a concern for any player with a busy schedule like Watkins. Although Villa are out of the FA Cup they still have Conference League fixtures to deal with and they are the favourites to go all the way in the competition. With no strong alternative upfront at Villa Park, Unai Emery can hardly give Watkins much of a rest for the remainder of the season.

Tiredness creeping in can impact a player’s output but Watkins is naturally a very fit player and one that should be capable of dealing with the relatively busy schedule. This is in part helped by the fact he will probably not get lots of minutes for England during the international break. More importantly, though, Watkins is a player that very rarely gets injured and when he does it tends to be only a minor issue. His robustness for a player that covers a lot of ground is hugely impressive at the stats show.

Season League Games Missed
2023/24 0
2022/23 1
2021/22 3
2020/21 1
2019/20 0

We’re not wishing to curse it, but it does seem very unlikely that Watkins will miss a considerable chunk of the season run-in to injury. As for whether he can maintain his level of performance, that is a different question but the stats also indicate his current form is largely sustainable.

Watkins, for all his strengths, is a fairly average finisher. Over the last four seasons, he has underperformed his expected goals by five according to Understat. This season there has only been a marginal improvement, with an underperformance of just 0.27 goals, so he is still converting chances at a seemingly sustainable rate. The way Villa are set up also means he regularly finds himself in shooting opportunities. When looking at shots recorded (as of gameweek 27) Watkins stood second in the league with 85, just five behind Haaland.

On this evidence, it seems that Watkins will continue to be a huge asset for Villa but will his performances be enough to help secure a top-four finish?

Villa or Spurs?

As good as Watkins has been this season, and likely will continue to be, he cannot secure Champions League football by himself. At the other end of the pitch, the Villa defence has not been performing to quite the same standards. In their last 11 league matches, Emery’s men have managed just two clean sheets, one of these coming against the hapless Sheffield United. Admittedly, this is still better than Tottenham who – at the time of writing – are without a clean sheet in 2024, so perhaps this should not be a big concern. Ange Postecoglou’s side have shown on many occasions this season that if you can outgun the opposition, it does not matter if you let one or two in.

Tottenham do have a couple of factors working in their favour though. One is that they have no European fixtures to deal with so they should be more rested for all remaining Premier League fixtures. Second is the London club’s superior squad depth. Even with Diego Carlos and John Duran back in training, Villa simply have fewer dependable options available in the squad. This would see them suffer more should they pick up a few more injuries between now and the end of the season.

As for remaining fixture difficulty, Spurs have the edge here too. Although both have fixtures against each of the top three coming up, Spurs still need to play all of the bottom four clubs (Sheffield Utd, Burnley, Luton and Forest) whereas Villa are up against none of these. Considering these factors, the race for Champions League football is likely going to go right down to the wire. If we were forced into a decision though, we would still go with Villa though thanks to their advantage in the table and the fact they face Spurs on home turf.


By cf378