Adam Leitch takes a closer look at the growing influence of Southampton captain James Ward-Prowse in the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
Captain Fantastic is at it again.
James Ward-Prowse’s spectacular double to earn Saints a point at Brighton underlined once more not only his quality but his importance to Ralph Hasenhüttl’s team.
For all the attention lavished on goalkeepers and strikers, it is Ward-Prowse who has cemented his position as the club’s MVP.
A leader on the field and off it, he is proving that at his best he is close to unstoppable.
While the focus of many opposition teams is stopping a striker or a winger, the big question facing Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira is more likely to be how to stop Ward-Prowse?
He is the beating heart of the Saints side, and if you don’t find a way to cut him out of the game then it may not matter what else you do. That, however, is easier said than done.
Ward-Prowse is now a highly experienced player. He has seen it all before. More than 350 appearances for Saints at the age of 27 says it all.
Problem number one for any opposition trying to neutralise him is his workload. While his free-kicks get the headlines, it is his incredible ability to cover the pitch which is key to his effectiveness.
Hasenhüttl has been able to reliably play Ward-Prowse as part of a central midfield two alongside Oriol Romeu, whose remarkable defensive discipline allows his partner to express himself.
Ward-Prowse is able and happy to join the front four as part of the press, and sit ahead of Romeu to pounce on loose balls as a result of a press.
That he is so fit he can keep going up and down the pitch allows him to join attacks but also get in position in front of the defence. He and Romeu also cover full-back positions to allow Saints’ attacking width to flourish.
When Ward-Prowse is deeper, he is still integral to the Saints attack. His incredible passing range has allowed him to develop a quarterback style. His first instinct with the ball at his feet in deep areas is to look forward. He likes to deliver either a quick central ball, either to one of Saints’ two deep lying attacking players, or in behind.
Saints also love to use the width their attacking full-backs provide, and Ward-Prowse's passing is crucial, as he is able to arrow diagonal balls to open up attacks with remarkable ease.
The comparisons with David Beckham are now much talked about due to his free-kicks – he has scored four this season – including against Palace in the reverse fixture – to take his total to 14, just four behind Beckham’s Premier League record. And this in his most fruitful top-flight season of nine goals, four assists and counting.
But the comparisons actually began before Ward-Prowse’s free-kick prowess was common knowledge.
As a younger player he struggled to get into the team because managers thought of his position as ‘Beckham-esque’ due to his remarkable delivery skills.
The theory was that he needed to play on the right of midfield to whip balls into the box as Beckham did for Manchester United in his prime. However, Ward-Prowse couldn’t really get a consistent game like that because that style was no longer seen as successful in the Premier League, with target man strikers out of fashion.
It was only later that Ward-Prowse found managers – most importantly Hasenhuttl – who agreed with his own long-held belief that he could play the deeper lying central midfield role. It also helped that he toughened himself up and got a lot more aggressive.
And, returning to Crystal Palace, that has never been more obvious than his clashes with Wilfried Zaha. Expect sparks to fly again this weekend, but good luck stopping him.