As Gareth Southgate looked on, Ollie Watkins’ electric hat-trick was a perfect reflection of another Aston Villa performance showcased in association with Unai Emery.
Watkins has had Emery’s trust since the moment the latter arrived in Birmingham 11 months ago. So much so that in January, Emery sanctioned the departure of the top scorer at the time, Danny Ings. Some questioned this wisdom, but Watkins’ run of 11 goals in 12 league matches quickly vindicated Emery’s choice. And if the ink has dried up for a while, after opening his season at Stamford Bridge last week, he ends the weekend with 16 Premier League goals in 2023 and three goals ahead of the England manager – he may have just rediscover your rhythm at the right time.
The last of Watkins’ seven England caps came in March 2022. He played for just over an hour, scoring in a 2-0 win over Ivory Coast. In less than a fortnight, England host Australia in a friendly at Wembley, before Italy visits for a Euro 2023 qualifier. With Callum Wilson missing from the Newcastle squad Saturday and Ivan Toney still unavailable until early 2024, surely Watkins’ time has come? If not now, then when?
Regardless, Watkins is revered by a Holte End who sang his name with glee during a lunchtime dismantling of Brighton. There couldn’t be a tougher place to visit Villa Park right now. For the 10th consecutive Premier League match, Emery oversaw victory. This time it was galloping, the kind of afternoon where even 100% cotton shirts wouldn’t have felt heavy. Brighton were simply blown away.
Three points at the break – via a brace from Watkins and an own goal from Pervis Estupiñán – substitute Ansu Fati pulled one back early in the second to give Brighton hope. And for 15 minutes, they threatened to make it a competition. But then, at the break, Watkins scored his 50th goal for Villa, Jacob Ramsey came off the bench to score a fifth and, deep into injury time, Douglas Luiz scored a sixth.
The last time Villa had such a run at home was in 1989-90. That year, they surprised everyone by finishing second behind Liverpool. Current budget disparities make another feat unlikely, but the ease with which they overcame their much-heralded opposition was certainly a statement.
Much like Newcastle’s visit in April, this was billed as a meeting of equals, a treat for neutrals. But instead, just like at lunchtime, visitors barely put on their gloves, let alone used them.
Emery and Roberto De Zerbi have met three times since their respective appointments; three times the first has triumphed. Much of Brighton’s success comes from a pair of central midfielders linking up with two central defenders. From this square the ball passes between them and then, just when there seems to be trouble, flying and sitting high wingers are found. Except here, this bullet never arrived. Here Watkins, Moussa Diaby and Luiz disrupted Brighton’s rhythm. Here, Villa was clinical, as incisive as a master butcher preparing a fillet of steak.
The opening score came after a nice interaction on the left. John McGinn drifted inside and found Matty Cash’s run on the blind side of Kaoru Mitoma, and Watkins was presented with a simple chance with the square ball. Emery’s celebrations suggesting rehearsals on the training ground had paid off. Var checked whether Nicolo Zaniolo, standing in Jason Steele’s field of vision, was offside. Quite inexplicably, there was no intervention
Then came a bit of individual genius from Watkins. Joel Veltman was brought down in the Villa half and Diaby threw Watkins running. Cutting back, Watkins placed his low finish into the near corner.
Villa’s third came with a good dose of luck. Diaby’s initial strike was parried by Steele, the rebound headed well before Estupiñán diverted it towards goal. Once again, Var was involved, this time to verify a fault in the preparation. Once again, Villa had the upper hand.
De Zerbi’s triple substitution at half-time had the desired initial impact, but Emery quickly regained control. Brighton’s high-risk approach leaves them vulnerable to days like these. Days like these make Emery dream. Every piece fell into place.