Southgate must experiment with Watkins as England’s number nine

Harry Kane is currently the best centre forward in world football and England are lucky to have him. The 30-year-old is operating at the peak of his powers and is expected to be one of the stars of Euro 2024 next summer when the Three Lions will be among the favourites to go the distance in Kane’s new adopted homeland.

Gareth Southgate, however, must prepare for all eventualities, including the prospect that Kane could be unavailable for Euro 2024 either through injury or suspension. England need a Plan B and this is why Ollie Watkins must be given an opportunity to prove himself as Kane’s deputy for the national team.

Watkins has been in impressive form for Aston Villa this season. The 27-year-old has registered six goals and five assists in 12 Premier League appearances with Unai Emery’s team just three points off the top of the table. Villa are in contention for a top four finish and Watkins has been a driving force for them.

Emery has worked hard to get the best out of Watkins. He is thriving as Aston Villa’s attacking figurehead with Watkins offering plenty on and off the ball. His pressing from the front has made Villa a more difficult opponent to play against while his all-round game is getting more out of the players around him.

“I told him that his goals were a consequence of his work every day,” said Emery about Watkins’ recent form. “His commitment with the work tactically that we have to do not only in the attacking third, but as well when we are defending. And then he has the quality when there are spaces to attack. We helped him try and get on to good balls and his finishing has been amazing.”

Southgate needs a backup centre forward ahead of Euro 2024 and Watkins fits the bill for the Three Lions in several ways. His all-round game isn’t to the level of Kane’s, but nobody’s is. Kane is the most rounded striker in Europe right now. Nonetheless, Watkins is capable of holding up the ball and bringing others into the game in the attacking third of the pitch.

Look at how Leon Bailey, Moussa Diaby, John McGinn and Douglas Luiz are all excelling for Aston Villa this season. They all enjoy playing with Watkins ahead of them as the focal point of the Villa attack and there’s good reason the likes of Jude Bellingham, Jack Grealish and Marcus Rashford would have the same experience for England.

It’s possible Southgate could move Rashford into a central position in the even of a Kane injury or suspension. Rashford has operated in that role before for club and country, but he is a different sort of frontman to Watkins in the way he plays. Rashford likes to cut in off the left side whereas Watkins is more of a penalty box operator.

England are in an extremely fortunate position right now. They boast one of the strongest squads in international football with Kane and Bellingham in particular two of the best players anywhere in Europe at this moment in time. The Three Lions will take some stopping in Germany next summer. This might be their time to win a major tournament.

There would be no direct replacement for Kane if he was missing for England at Euro 2024, but Southgate must experiment with Watkins in his position before the start of the tournament. The upcoming matches against Malta and North Macedonia present Southgate with the chance to plan in advance and Watkins deserves an opportunity.

Author: Mark Hayes