There is one obvious explanation behind Southampton’s recent upturn in form, with Danny Ings scoring nine goals in his last 10 outings to lift the Saints up the Premier League table away from immediate danger. This somewhat overlooks the contribution of James Ward-Prowse over this period, though.
Ward-Prowse has long been heralded as something of a set-piece master, one of the best at freekicks and corner kicks in the Premier League, maybe even Europe. Indeed, the 25-year-old deserves this reputation, but this minimises his quality as a midfield all-rounder. Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl certainly recognises what he brings to the table.
“Prowsey is a machine, always covering the most distance and never tired,” the Austrian manager explained in a recent interview after a particularly impressive Ward-Prowse performance in Saturday’s 2-0 FA Cup win over Huddersfield Town. “He also has a fantastic mind and was also a fantastic captain today. You can always count on him, he’s a very important player for us.”
Hasenhuttl is right to point out the often under-appreciated work ethic of his skipper. Ward-Prowse covers a deceptively large portion of the pitch with his naturally long strides which allows Southampton to deploy a 4-4-2 system when other sides would require more bodies in the centre of the pitch.
But it is Ward-Prowse’s ability on the ball that makes him such an important component of Hasenhuttl’s team. He is averaging 1.6 key passes per match, more than any other Southampton player this season, and 1.7 crosses per game - for context, the Saints’ next most prolific crosser of the ball is Cedric Soares who is averaging just 0.9 per match.
The 25-year-old carries a goal threat of his own, finding the net four times this season and averaging more shots on goal per game (1.6) than anyone else at St Mary’s Stadium besides Nathan Redmond (1.9) and of course Ings (2.3). Ward-Prowse is exceptional at finding space to drive into and possesses the weaponry to make the most of that.
Upon breaking into the Southampton first team as a youngster, Ward-Prowse was tipped as the next world-class product to come through the South coast club. It’s unlikely that the midfielder will reach the heights of Southampton alumni like Gareth Bale, Virgil Van Dijk and Sadio Mane, but the 25-year-old is better than many realise. Thankfully for him, Hasenhuttl is well aware of his qualities which stretch well beyond set pieces.