In October 2011, a 16-year-old midfielder a week shy of his birthday made his professional debut for Southampton in a Carling Cup match vs Crystal Palace. Impressive in his start, Saints then-current boss Nigel Adkins expressed that the young midfielder
“looked very assured and comfortable with the ball”
despite Southampton coming up on the short end of a 2-0 defeat at Selhurst Park. Adkins also admitted ahead of the Saints’ clash with the Eagles that the teenage midfielder was unfazed by training with the first team, performing exceptionally well, and was a testament to the quality of Southampton’s academy to prepare young players for the top level. In the midfielder’s next starting appearance for Saints, he would find the back of the net for the first of two goals in an FA Cup victory over Coventry City before going on to win the Southampton Young Player of the Season award. Six seasons on with over 200 appearances for Saints, we arrive in June 2018 and James Ward-Prowse career as a Southampton player is a worthy topic of discussion.
A player with family ties to rivals Portsmouth, young James Ward-Prowse entered Southampton’s famed academy at the age of 8. Ward-Prowse found much success being able to effectively balance the demands of a student-athlete. The 2012/13 Southampton Scholar of the Season was one of four academy players to be offered a professional contract. Ward-Prowse was included in a group that included the likes of Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers and Jack Stephens for Southampton’s return to England’s top flight. Ward-Prowse has also found success in the international stage through England’s youth system. Compared with the likes of Steven Gerrard for his composure and leadership from the midfield, Ward-Prowse has close to 50 appearances for Young Lions squads. Ward-Prowse’s ability to take skilful free-kicks has also drawn comparisons to David Beckham. His England career has also included a captaincy during England’s successful 2017 U21 European Championship campaign which saw Ward-Prowse’s Young Lion’s exit the tournament in the semi finals after being heartbreakingly eliminated on a penalty shootout with Germany.
After much hype and constant emphasis on being integral to the future success of Southampton and England, Ward-Prowse has struggled to become a mainstay in Saints’ starting XI. He has also been criticized by supporters for not being aggressive enough in matches. Starting only 20 matches for Saints in their struggling 2017/18 season, Ward-Prowse scored 3 times while providing 3 assists in the Premier League. In Ward-Prowse’s defence, he did score those three goals in 4 appearances at the start of the year, so his better form this season is on the closer side of things. The Englishman’s last notable appearance this season came during Saints gutting 2-3 home loss to Chelsea, where he connected with Jan Bednarek on a brilliant free kick in which the Polish defender’s goal saw Saints double their lead over the Blues. Ward-Prowse would be substituted during the gruelling sequence of 8 minutes where Southampton watched their lead be stolen by Antonio Conte’s side. Ward-Prowse played a minor role in Southampton’s march to survival, being subbed off at the hour mark in the 0-0 draw against former boss Claude Puel’s Leicester, and coming on as a substitute in the final three matches, including the pivotal 1-0 victory at Swansea. For a player with much promise, it is not clear where he will fit in with Mark Hughes plan for the future and it is reasonable to think that Southampton supporters should expect more from the young midfielder at this point in his Southampton career.
Ward-Prowse most impactful campaign came last season under Claude Puel, where Ward-Prowse started 22 Premier League matches and all but one of Southampton’s six UEFA Europa League contests. The midfielder scored 4 times and assisted 4 goals and featured in the starting XI for the EFL Cup Final against Manchester United. It was also under Puel where Ward-Prowse was finally able to break into the England senior team alongside teammate Nathan Redmond, coming on as a substitute in the 83rd minute for former U21 coach Gareth Southgate’s side in a friendly against Germany. Ward-Prowse has not featured for the Three Lions since. In what could have been a golden opportunity for a promising player like Ward-Prowse to find a place on England’s World Cup squad, with his mentor Southgate at the helm, Ward-Prowse missed out on being picked for Southgate’s “youthful” squad which features the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Eric Dier, and Alexander Trent-Arnold, after an underwhelming campaign with Saints this season. On top of that, Ward-Prowse seemed to be not even in be the conversation. And when examining the young players featuring for England this summer, it just appears that they are more integral to the recent success of their respective sides than Ward-Prowse is for Southampton.
It is hard to blame Ward-Prowse single-handedly for these apparent shortcomings. He is still only 23 and has more Premier League experience than most his age, being solid at certain times. He was praised by Ronald Koeman in the 2015/16 season for an impressive run of form after scoring a free-kick goal and converting a penalty in a 3-0 win over West Bromwich Albion. Ward-Prowse has also been challenged with fairly frequent coaching changes, having played under 6 managers with distinct styles. As an attacking midfielder, Ward-Prowse has the ability to play centrally or even on a wing so he possesses useful versatility. Having to compete with the likes of Pierre Hojbjerg, Mario Lemina and Dusan Tadic, it is hard to prioritise Ward-Prowse above these talents at the moment given recent performances. More importantly, Ward-Prowse still remains prospective and has quite a resume. Perhaps, his ability to maintain consistency with Southampton has just been plagued by the constant change in management and the arrival of top European talent.
Given his stock, should Saints cash in on his potential as a player now before they begin to see a decrease in it? In the past Ward-Prowse as accumulated rumours of interest from the likes of Arsenal, but nothing confirmed. Therefore, it is possible Southampton could accumulate a decent amount by shipping Ward-Prowse off to a big money side ready to pay above the £16.2m mark he is currently valued at, according to TransferMarkt. On the other hand, Southampton could also do more to invest in Ward-Prowse to reward him for his loyalty to the club. Ward-Prowse is currently going into the third year of a six-year deal he signed in 2016, so there is not a better time to determine the Englishman’s future at the club. If Southampton were to retain Ward-Prowse, Hughes will need to do more to procure the best from the midfielder, as a player in Ward-Prowse situation of being in-and-out of the first team is neither beneficial for the club or the player. Some have proposed the idea of Ward-Prowse becoming more solidified in a single position or even taking on a greater role of responsibility as a team leader. I would personally enjoy seeing Ward-Prowse continue to suit up for Southampton as the concept of player loyalty is becoming more archaic in the modern game. However, I also want the club to make moves that will best set it up for success. 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.