Excelling Southampton scholar James Ward-Prowse playing underrated role
If the exodus at Southampton this summer was meant to provide any positives for the club, it was the increased opportunities that would arise for yet more graduates of their incredible academy. Millions of pounds came and went as the squad was thoroughly overturned, and despite plenty of doubt about how successful they could possibly be after a summer of such extensive overhaul, just about every piece of business they did has paid off. All the while, a belief was shown in the staggeringly consistent conveyor belt of young talent continually produced at the club.
After losing so many of last season's stars, Saints dug their heels in over the mooted transfer away from St Mary's of Morgan Schneiderlin. He and Victor Wanyama form one of the most formidable defensive midfield screens in the Premier League, while Steven Davis is (outside of Southampton, at least) a highly underrated member of their squad, but there was no panic buying in central midfield in the summer.
Further forward, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert departed, while Jay Rodriguez is a long-term injury worry and the largely failed experiments that were Gastón Ramírez and Dani Osvaldo have both been abandoned, at least for the time being. A few much-needed replacements were brought in, but nothing too drastic. New manager Koeman, like his predecessor Mauricio Pochettino, had faith in the youngsters coming through at the club, and in nobody less so than James Ward-Prowse.
Growing up in a family full of Portsmouth fans, an offer to join Southampton at the age of eight would not have been the most welcomed of prospects for a young Ward-Prowse. Then again, there is unquestionably no better place for a youngster on these shores to learn their game than Saints Academy, not least for the opportunities that youngsters are afforded.
Ward-Prowse was only 19 years old at the start of the current season, yet he already had two seasons and some 49 Premier League appearances to his name. The great thing about Southampton is that the amount of game time he was given at such a young age is not anomalous, nor does that fact imply that debuts are handed out too readily at the club.
The midfield prospect has withstood the test of time with the backing of 3 different permanent managers. Already well into his third season of top flight football, he has been a relative constant in what has arguably been the past 3 seasons' most surprising yet consistently impressive Premier League side.
Players are brought through with the most professional of attitudes at Southampton. The chance to emulate alumni such as Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will likely spur them on, yet Ward-Prowse's professionalism still astounds nonetheless. A three-month injury layoff in mid-September was not met with lit up eyes at the opportunity for a birthday trip away for a mischievous soon-to-be 20-year-old. Instead, protective boot and all, Ward-Prowse spent the time working in the gym to come back stronger. He has done exactly that.
The fixture pile-up and resulting fatigue and injuries meant he was back in the side before Christmas. He played an hour in defeat at Burnley and then the full 90 in a disappointing Capital One Cup loss at Sheffield United. He might well have been out of the team for the following visit of Everton were it not for suspensions to both Schneiderlin and Wanyama, but he played a key role behind the strikers and has not looked back since.
Saints ran out convincing 3-0 winners when many expected a 6th consecutive loss, and have since embarked on an 8-match unbeaten streak. Despite the many returning stars, particularly in midfield, Ward-Prowse has started 7 of those matches and played a significant role in every one.
He set up two goals as Saints raced to a 3-0 lead at Crystal Palace, then played Sadio Mané in on goal to open the scoring in the victory over Arsenal. He played a role in the only goal of the game in the FA Cup replay win at Ipswich, before this weekend laying on Eljero Elia's opener as Southampton registered yet another 3 points, this time at Newcastle. Again they were without Schneiderlin and Wanyama, but more than coped.
Ward-Prowse now has 6 Premier League assists for the season in just 9 starts and 3 substitute appearances. That puts him eighth in the league overall. Every player ahead of him in terms of assists made has started at least twice as many matches and featured for at least 9 hours more than him. Of players to start at least 5 Premier League games this season, his rate of an assist every 138.5 minutes is second only to assist extraordinaire Cesc Fàbregas (123.4).
Now, if Ward-Prowse was a young English goalscorer, netting every one-and-a-half matches instead of creating that often, he would be praised to the rafters. He'd be touted for England; there would be constant rumoured interest from Europe's top clubs. Look at Saido Berahino: he has been excellent and has 9 goals this season, but those include 3 penalties and an indirect free-kick from 8 yards out. He has been in an England squad and been linked with a £23m move to Liverpool. Ward-Prowse is as exciting a talent.
Ross Barkley made it onto the radars of England fans and the management for thrilling with his dribbling ability, and perhaps Ward-Prowse is less celebrated because he does not excite in the same way. That should not detract from his unquestionable ability.
Technically gifted, with crossing, passing, key passes and taking set-pieces amongst his WhoScored strengths, Ward-Prowse completes 88.7% of his passes, an impressive rate considering he also makes 1.8 key passes per game. His 25.5% cross accuracy is also on the better side of many of the Premier League's top crossers of the ball. He was featured in a 'free-kick masterclass' video on the back of one he scored whilst in action for England Under-21s, and surely his first direct free-kick goal in the Premier League won't be too far off.
It is so pleasing to see a club like Southampton, who have been perennially picked apart when their best players have their heads turned, persevere with their tried-and-tested youth system. The form of James Ward-Prowse will only serve to convince the club further that they can continue look to youth for yet more future stars. Names such as Ward-Prowse's alongside Saints teammates Harrison Reed, Dominic Gape, Jason McCarthy and Jake Hesketh make for an exciting future at St Mary's. Whether Ward-Prowse himself can go as far as former Saints youth products have done in the recent past remains to be seen, but the signs so far are certainly positive.
How far do you think James Ward-Prowse can go?