Many Saints fans were eagerly anticipating the announcement of the first England squad since the international team had a successful run of results in November last year. It wasn’t due to any elusive hope of Alex McCarthy retaining his spot that Saints fans were elevated, but rather the expectation that their blossoming home-grown midfielder, once-capped James Ward-Prowse would receive a well-deserved second call-up to the national team. This expectation was shared by many of Britain’s mainstream sports periodicals.
The midfielder, like some of his teammates also under Ralph Hasenhüttl, has shown in recent months a newfound energy and confidence in his play that he seemed to lack under previous managers. Throughout his 226 appearances in Southampton’s senior team, James Ward-Prowse has often divided opinion. Few would doubt his ability and natural talent, especially in dead ball situations, but it is his level of consistency that has often come under scrutiny. The frustrating factors of his game in previous seasons have denied him a solid and unchallengeable place in the starting eleven. Between Pellegrino and Mark Hughes, the 24-year-old started just over half of the team’s thirty-eight league games last season. It most likely boils down to sentimentalism that caused Southampton fans’ frustration; naturally wanting to see the club’s ‘golden child’ produce enough to justify his selection, to reach his early potential and desiring that he become good enough or consistent enough to be one of the first names on every team sheet. Almost audaciously, James Ward-Prowse was subject to a £10 million bid by Watford ahead of this season. But now it is neither his ability nor his talent that causes frustration.
When Gareth Southgate announced his England squad on Wednesday afternoon, there was much dismay on the South Coast as it appeared as though Ward-Prowse – who was called up to England U21s by Southgate himself in 2013 and was given the captaincy by in 2016 – had been left off the list. Ward-Prowse had scored six goals in his last eight league appearances prior to the announcement, which included beating two world-class goalkeepers in David De Gea and Hugo Lloris with dreamy-eyed postage stamp free kicks in back to back games. The midfielder’s recent burst of form looked to have come at a good time for him with the next round of England matches coming up next week, but sadly unless there is an injury or two it is likely Ward-Prowse will have to watch from home or from among the fans wondering to himself what more it must take to make the grade.
The England manager seemed to stick to the majority of his World Cup 2018 midfielders with only Jesse Lingard missing out; his absence likely being solely due to injury. Not being limited this time to a 23-man roster, Southgate offered a first call up to West Ham’s Declan Rice. Rice, up until last month, had been making international appearances for the Republic of Ireland before announcing his change of allegiance. In his twenty-seven league appearances, this season Declan Rice has scored two league goals so far, which is just one third the amount that Ward-Prowse has tallied in his significantly lower amount of eighteen appearances this season. Admittedly though, Rice’s role for both club and country is more defensive by nature than Ward-Prowse’s. What was interesting however is that Southgate justified his decision to call up Rice by saying, “his form warrants it.”
Contradicting any notion that Southgate’s squad selection was actually based on form, the England manager also said of Ward-Prowse during the announcement: “This most recent spell is his best spell since we capped him before and he is, I would say, a world-class deliverer of set plays. But he’s only recently got back into the team at Southampton.” Club legend Matt Le Tissier responded on Twitter by saying, “Strange comment from Gareth considering JWP has played more minutes in PL than most of the midfielders he has picked.” Sure enough, the Portsmouth born set-piece taker has played every minute of each of the twelve games Southampton have played since the turn of the year and has outrun any and every Premier League player during that time.
Ward-Prowse, who is currently the highest-scoring English midfielder in the Premier League, and who, since the start of 2019, has also outscored Paul Pogba, Mo Salah and Leroy Sane, misses out on a place in his nation’s midfield also to Fabian Delph. Not only has Delph picked up more red cards than goals this season (1) but during the time that Ward-Prowse has played 990 minutes of Premier League football Delph has himself played a grand total of just 10 minutes. Ward-Prowse may have ‘recently got back into the team’ (there could be an argument over whether a three-month run constitutes as recent or not) but I can’t be the only one with enough wit to have recognised that unlike Delph, Ward-Prowse is actually in his team.
With fewer appearances this season and half as many league goals (3) as Ward-Prowse, Loftus-Cheek was no more worthy an impediment to the former’s international aspirations. Loftus-Cheek, much like Delph, has contributed very little this year in the way of club appearances or goals; only racking up 157 minutes since Christmas in a faltering Chelsea team, and having not scored since Chelsea’s 2-1 loss to Wolves over four months ago. Loftus-Cheek’s Chelsea teammate Ross Barkley somehow merited a recall. Loftus-Cheek and Barkley combined have scored as many Premier League goals this season as Ward-Prowse has on his own, though Ross Barkley – much like his teammate – also hasn’t scored since last year. Ward-Prowse rightfully made his way into the team of the week of BBC’s Garth Crooks after his performance against Tottenham. It was the second time Ward-Prowse has made the selection this year, which is two more occasions than Delph and Loftus-Cheek combined. The pundit said of Ward-Prowse; “It’s about time England manager Gareth Southgate introduced James Ward-Prowse into the England squad to add to the single cap he won in 2017. His performances against Tottenham and Manchester United in recent weeks are proof enough that the lad is ready. His work rate is phenomenal and his ability to take free-kicks is a tremendous asset.” Sadly, someone must have mislaid the message.
A fan of another Premier League team questioned this week why Southgate should be expected to make changes to a team that reached the 2018 World Cup semi-finals. While reaching the semi-finals last summer was impressive given England’s performance in their last several international contests, it needs to be remembered that they finished fourth. There were three countries, all of them European, that were better than England in the contest and all three of them could possibly face England again in UEFA Euro 2020. If Southgate and England are happy with resting on their fourth-placed World Cup laurels then maybe it is right to stick with near enough the same squad, but if they are to signal any ambition between now and next summer they will need to do what any other team with ambition does, and that brings in players that will enhance and strengthen the team; in-form players who actually merit a place in their national team based on their form and performance, and not just because of their reputation or club.
Ward-Prowse’s versatility cannot be criticised; this season the 24-year-old has already played in central midfield, attacking midfield, right midfield, right defensive midfield and right wing and hasn’t looked out of place in any of those areas. One thing is for certain; if James Ward-Prowse continues to perform in the manner which he has done thus far in 2019, Southgate will have no other option than to give the fastidious set-piece specialist, who in 2016 captained Southgate’s England U21s to their first Toulon Tournament victory in over twenty years, his much deserved England recall.