Last week, I remember meticulously scanning the list of names released by the England football team’s Twitter. Where was the hyphenated surname of Southampton’s champion midfielder of recent weeks? Alexander-Arnold? Nope. Loftus-Cheek? Not our man. The shock and disarray began to settle as I neared the end of the sheet. My last bit of hope was extinguished when “Wilson” finally rounded out the list. How could this be I thought to myself? How could the highest scoring English midfielder in the Premier League be left off the roster of his national team? All of my emotions and the pride I take in James Ward-Prowse being a Southampton player and his excellence recently under manager Ralph Hasenhuttl came out in frustrating reaction posts on Twitter throughout the day. England’s current best midfielder had been snubbed and that was that.
On Monday, all those feelings were rectified when England manager Gareth Southgate announced there had been a roster update to accommodate for a few injuries sustained by players in club action over the recent weekend. In the update was an inclusion many felt should have been there from the start – Ward-Prowse. Ward-Prowse’s inclusion in the English team is one I can look at with immense satisfaction and be able to take pride in. And why not? Given his recent run of games for Southampton, Ward-Prowse is a player who truly deserves the plaudits of being selected for his national team – one of the most taken for granted honors footballers can receive in my opinion. With regard for the immense expectation Ward-Prowse carries as Southampton’s “golden boy”, it’s hard to describe just how impressive the central midfielder has been recently for Southampton. Playing in an inspired style, Ward-Prowse has been one of the Saints most instrumental players in his club’s march towards Premier League safety. But to fully appreciate the significance of Ward-Prowse’s first senior call up since March 2017, it is important to reflect on where he was before the season even began and why his run of form is nothing short of amazing.
In June 2018, talkSAINTS published my first article for the site, James Ward-Prowse: Southampton’s Stagnated Gem. In a brief synopsis, I discussed how Ward-Prowse has always been a player in Southampton’s current Premier League tenure viewed with enormous expectation – not only by pundits but especially by fans. As a current starter for a Premier League team with over 200 appearances for his club, Ward-Prowse is a benchmark for academy success. Where players like Luke Shaw and Callum Chambers have traded the Southampton badge for what they deemed fancier, Ward-Prowse has remained committed to the club which he has spent his whole footballing career with – over a decade-and-a-half if you’re counting.
Consequently, the admiration for the midfielder’s skill and loyalty turned into an immense expectation for him by fans – myself included. It is no secret that the Englishman has been plagued by inconsistency. It seemed that Ward-Prowse would show flashes of brilliance and receive a rare kind of praise from managers and then struggle to hold down starting roles when he had trouble making an impact in games. In my article, I discussed how Ward-Prowse been criticized by supporters for not being aggressive enough in matches. It was frustrating for fans like me to see this “prodigy” play so incredibly inconsistent. If there has been any player I have wanted to see succeed above all others since I’ve started supporting Southampton, it’s James Ward-Prowse.
Ultimately, I cited the constant changes in the manager position at Southampton as a reason for Ward-Prowse’s shortcomings. Apart from Ronald Koeman, Ward-Prowse’s ability never seemed to be accurately displayed under the last three managers on the south coast, despite Ward-Prowse receiving his first England senior call-up under Claude Puel. Under Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes, the potential for James Ward-Prowse and the Southampton Way, in general, seemed to be no more. It was to the point where sides like Watford began incessantly knocking on the door to offer the midfielder a fresh start. Luckily for both Ward-Prowse and Southampton, they held out long enough for the arrival of Ralph Hasenhuttl, the man who has seemingly jump-started the stagnation of Ward-Prowse’s career.
What Hasenhuttl has brought to Southampton since he arrived in December is special. What he has done with Ward-Prowse is even more special given the place the 2013 Saints Academy Scholar of the Year has in the hearts of Southampton fans. Some new player has been seemingly unlocked within Ward-Prowse that Saints fans have never seen under any previous managers. While Ward-Prowse has played some excellent roles in some memorable teams since Southampton’s return to the top flight, this is the first time in James Ward-Prowse’s senior career that he’s been one of the most influential players in the team.
What was the cause of this dramatic transformation? Looking at Ward-Prowse’s first half of season and comparing it to his current run (6 goals in 9 games and one of the team’s leading passers in the midfield), it does not take a football expert to see that there has been some significant effect in Ward-Prowse playing under Hasenhuttl. In January, it was revealed that Hasenhuttl had implored Ward-Prowse to be more aggressive in games. This was something that certainly drew my attention given that one of my biggest criticisms of Ward-Prowse was his lack of aggression in games. I was intrigued to see how Ward-Prowse would respond to the feedback from his new manager. In the very next match against Chelsea away at Stamford Bridge, Ward-Prowse showed exactly that, aggression. In Southampton’s goalless draw against the Blues, Ward-Prowse led the team in passes (45) and made 4 tackles and 2 interceptions against a talented Chelsea offence that featured a goal-hungry Eden Hazard. In a match that now seems to have been the turning point for Ward-Prowse individually, the midfielder has gone on three month run of form that is the best of his career and Southampton fans are hungry for more.
I concluded the June piece with this. “It is the point now where Ward-Prowse must step up for his boyhood club, or take what he has he learned and move on to a club where he can have a more impactful influence”. Looking back on his last 10 games or so, I can confidently admit that Ward-Prowse has stepped up for the Southampton. Within three months, Ward-Prowse has surpassed his career high-goal tally (5) when he knocked in a picture-perfect match winner from a set piece against Tottenham for his 6th goal of the season.
Had Romelu Lukaku not salvaged all three points for Manchester United at Old Trafford at the beginning of March, Ward-Prowse would be singularly responsible for securing Southampton’s last 4 vital league points with his venomous free-kick ability. There may not be a more menacing sight for opposing sides currently in the Premier League than Ward-Prowse setting up for a free kick outside the box. In addition, he’s shown that he can also score from open play in what was a wonder-strike against Everton at St. Mary’s (Which I was lucky enough to be present for).
Under the style of Hasenhuttl, Ward-Prowse has displayed physicality and shown that he can not only be a goal-scoring threat but influence the game in key areas as an exceptional pressing midfielder. For as long as Southampton retain Ralph Hasenhuttl and his tactical mastery of high-pressing opponents, they should retain Ward-Prowse for that all he brings and will bring to the continued success of Southampton.
There is something about Ward-Prowse as a player and person that makes one want to root for him. Whether it’s his constant look of determination on the pitch or the way he carries himself off it.
When he’s not banging in goals from set-pieces, he’s stopping to sign for every fan. In 2013, when 18-year-old James Ward-Prowse was recognized for his on and off the field achievements at the Southampton academy, he gave a spot-on impression of former England captain Steven Gerrard after accepting his award. The young midfielder clearly idolized the Liverpool legend, likely for his playing style and influence on games for both club and country.
With qualifying matches for the European Championships on the horizon, Ward-Prowse has an opportunity like Gerrard did to influence matches that matter for England. If given the opportunity to do so, Ward-Prowse could potentially do much beyond what he has already accomplished to influence the next generation of Southampton academy players.
While the greats like David Beckham and Gerrard serve as icons for young footballers across the nation, those who develop at Southampton will only have to look towards the senior training ground at Staplewood to see one of their own achieving excellence while wearing the same badge – a player who started exactly where they are and never altered course. Therefore, these two matches against the Czech Republic and Montenegro will be matches that I and many Southampton fans will cherish in a celebration of a player we collectively admire, should Ward-Prowse get his opportunity to shine.