On Saturday, James Ward-Prowse ran the length of the pitch in the 102nd minute of the game to provide the cross that Shane Long tapped home to secure a 3-2 FA Cup victory over Swansea City. Southampton had been playing with ten men since the 29th minute and, without any fuss, Ward-Prowse slotted in at right back for the next 90 minutes.
Three days later and he worked tirelessly to be the best player on the pitch and inspire his side to a 4-1 league win against Brentford, providing another assist in the process.
If anything typifies the player that Ward-Prowse has become it is that three day period. Selfless, tireless, relentless, but also a player who has mastered his craft and drags his side through games on a weekly basis.
A captain that typifies everything about the club he leads, Ward-Prowse may now be considered a club legend at just 27 years of age.
Difficult start to season
The first thing Ward-Prowse had to deal with this season was the enormous disappointment of narrowly missing out on a place in Gareth Southgate’s England squad for the European Championships in the summer. The Southampton skipper was in contention right up until the tournament, but ultimately lost out to Kalvin Phillips of Leeds United. When Trent Alexander-Arnold pulled out through injury after the final squad had been selected, Ward-Prowse was presented with another glimmer of hope that was cruelly snatched away from him, with Ben White surprisingly drafted in.
The fact that this was a European Championships played predominantly on home soil, coupled with England’s run to the final, meant the misery of what might have been would have really hit home for Ward-Prowse. Add to this how instrumental Phillips, the player preferred to Ward-Prowse, was alongside Declan Rice throughout the tournament and the tournament must have felt very bittersweet for the onlooking midfielder.
After the disappointment of the summer, Ward-Prowse was determined to do what he does best: get his head down and work hard to improve. However, he found an unfamiliar obstacle in his way. A knee injury interrupted the 27-year-old’s pre-season, which he carried into the season. Injuries are somewhat alien to Ward-Prowse, evidenced by the fact he had played every minute of every league game for the two consecutive seasons prior to this season. He is the only outfield player who has achieved this feat in the Premier League, which is testament to his character, fitness and professionalism.
While Ward-Prowse’s pre-season was disrupted by his knee issues, there was another factor to contend with in the summer. The man who has been at Southampton since the age of eight was the recipricant of strong interest from Aston Villa. This speculation was intensified by the fact that the Saints had already sold talismanic striker, Danny Ings, to the midlands club in the same window. Unlike Ings, Ward-Prowse showed no desire to leave Southampton. The club made the decision to allow the likes of Ings and Jannik Vestergaard to leave in the summer, but the prospect of Ward-Prowse leaving wasn’t given a second thought by the Southampton hierarchy.
Oriol Romeu was very much aware of the transfer rumours surrounding his midfield partner, but was never worried that Ward-Prowse would leave, telling Hampshire Live: “He belongs to the club and the club belongs to him. It is the perfect relationship”.
This furore would have undoubtedly unsettled Ward-Prowse. The player himself has since admitted that he found the attention strange, as he had not been the subject of real firm transfer speculation before in his career. His performances over the last two seasons have been more than worthy of admiring glances from other clubs and, with the summer investments Aston Villa were making, the move would have tempted many. Instead, Ward-Prowse made his intentions clear and secured his future by signing a new long-term contract at Southampton, until 2026, silencing rumours of a move away from St Mary’s in the process.
Ward-Prowse started the season below par, when compared to his exceptionally high standards. Some may have feared that his head had been turned and this was the reason for the sub-standard performances in the opening weeks of the season. It wasn’t until Southampton’s number eight had to serve a three-match ban, following a red card against Chelsea, that it emerged that the knee injury had been effecting Ward-Prowse more than he and the club had let on, but also he had been contending with a stomach issue that was impacting his ability to play and train. This forced end to his run of consecutive appearances was the reset that Ward-Prowse needed to properly overcome his knee and stomach issues.
Since that enforced break at the start of October, Ward-Prowse hasn’t looked back.
Ward-Prowse’s game now reaching new levels
Before Ralf Hasenhuttl became Southampton manager, Ward-Prowse’s Southampton career was at risk of coming to an end. Fans were growing tired of his lack of contribution from open play, and he was struggling to cement a regular starting spot. He often found himself playing right midfield, as it was felt his influence was not great enough to play centrally.
Hasenhuttl did not bring his now most reliable player straight into the team when he arrived in December 2018. In fact, it wasn’t until a suspension to Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg that Ward-Prowse got his first real chance under the Austrian coach. Starting in a battling 0-0 draw away against Chelsea, Saints fans saw a new side to Ward-Prowse. An aggressive, combative, ugly, side to their now adored captain. This was the turning point in Ward-Prowse’s career.
Hasenhuttl had told Ward-Prowse that he had to become more aggressive to fulfil his potential and become a top player. Ward-Prowse took his manager’s words on board and is now the first to get stuck into a midfield battle, enjoying the darker arts of the game more than could have been imagined just three seasons ago. The Southampton man’s ongoing feud with Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha, where Ward-Prowse seems to know exactly how to get a reaction out of the winger, is proof that the midfielder now takes no prisoners once he crosses the white line.
Against Brentford, Ward-Prowse was immense. It was an all round performance that was made all the more impressive by the enormous expenditure of energy across the 120 minutes of football just three days earlier. The machine-like midfielder had the most touches of any player on the pitch against Brentford, as well as ranking top for passes, possessions won, crosses, and chances created. The cherry on top of the cake was his assist, perfectly executing a corner which Jan Bednarek headed home just five minutes into the encounter.
This goal contribution added to Ward-Prowse’s ever-improving rate of scoring and providing. His delivery and expertise from set pieces are still a level above anyone else in the Premier League, but he is now far more effective from open play too. For a player who operates at the base of the midfield, in a double pivot with Oriol Romeu, the fact that Ward-Prowse has either scored, assisted, or both, in five consecutive games in all competitions shows just how much more impactful he is becoming. Southampton fans are growing accustomed to seeing their captain’s trademark golf swing celebration on a far more regular basis.
In all competitions, Ward-Prowse has five goals and five assists already this season. All five of his goals have come in the league so far, meaning he is just three goals off of his career-best haul of eight league goals which he achieved last season. He looks sure to overtake this, alongside continuing to be the beating heart of his club. There are also only a handful of players who can strike genuine fear into opposition defenders, visible to see as soon as they concede a foul in the final third. His free-kicks are becoming the stuff of legend, and only David Beckham has now scored more Premier League free-kicks than Southampton’s leader.
With Kalvin Phillips’ injury troubles this season, and Ward-Prowse now 27, it feels like it may be now or never for the Saint to tie down a spot in the England squad. If he continues this rich vein of form then it is difficult to see him being left out of Southgate’s next squad at the end of January. With a World Cup coming at the end of the year, there couldn’t be a better time to get back on the England radar.
Ward-Prowse is soft spoken, but he is the embodiment of his football club. He is not the most vocal of leaders, but leads by example on the pitch and is an inspiration to his teammates. He will do whatever is required of him to help his club, even if that means sacrificing himself; as he has done when deputising at right back at various times across the past two seasons.
Ward-Prowse has dragged Southampton up to 11th in the Premier League by the scruff of their necks, and will continue to steer his teammates out of the choppy waters of what could have been a relegation battle.
After being at risk of fading away, he has become a hero for the fans of the Saints. Southampton is his club.