Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe shines the spotlight on James Ward-Prowse, explaining how the midfielder has taken his game to new heights in recent weeks...
Since Ralph Hasenhüttl took the reins at Southampton, individual player improvement tales have flown thick and fast.
So many players have benefited from the Austrian’s impact at the helm, with youth teamers getting their first crack at senior action and even established pros learning new tricks.
From the constant presence of Academy graduates either on the pitch or on the bench, through to the vast progress made by the likes of Nathan Redmond and Jan Bednarek, Hasenhüttl’s hands-on effect has been tangible.
The latest Saint to hit his stride and make strides is James Ward-Prowse; he’s been one of the true heroes of Southampton’s last two victories.
A goal in each game paints a surface-level picture of effectiveness, but, dig a little deeper, and it’s clear the nature of his game is changing for the better.
The 24-year-old is now playing with more personality, more snap, more assertion. It’s something Hasenhüttl has been looking for from him – for him to imprint himself on games more obviously – and there’s been a really noticeable shift in his play to this end.
Relishing a central midfield role, handed to him in the aftermath of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg’s suspension in the first half of January, JWP allayed fears that the team’s fortunes would falter without their Great Dane.
He got stuck in like never before against Chelsea on January 2nd, totalling four tackles and contributing heavily to the defensive grit that earned a point against Eden Hazard and co.
Given the nod against Leicester City ten days later, he created three chances and scored a penalty that set Saints on course for victory.
But it was against Everton last weekend that Ward-Prowse truly appeared to come of age, to step forward and dictate in midfield like never before. As individual performances go, it had it all.
He was aggressive in the middle third, hounding Idrissa Gueye and André Gomes consistently and helping to prevent the Toffees from finding their rhythm.
Few who go toe-to-toe with Gueye in duels come out on top – he’s one of the finest midfield ball hoovers in the league – but JWP got the better of him on several occasions.
His passing was swift, smart, and direct; the quickness with which he distributed helped Southampton set a high tempo and move attacking pieces forward with speed.
He also flew forward off the ball, working in tandem with Danny Ings so that when the forward dropped in, he pushed into No. 9 positions, rubbing shoulders with centre-backs and demanding to be played in.
The goal he scored combined all of these things: aggression to beat Gueye in a 50/50 duel, the assertiveness to drive forward ten yards with the ball at his feet, and the confidence to smash home a thrilling finish from outside the box.
Taking the game by the scruff of the neck hasn’t been a trait you’d necessarily associate with JWP in the past, but under Hasenhüttl’s tutelage we’re seeing it regularly.
This change in on-field personality has played a major part in Saints’ recent haul of six points, leading the club through a suspension- and injury-filled patch with aplomb.