On the stroke of half-time at the Amex on Monday night, Southampton were awarded a corner. Brighton were 1-0 up and were hoping to see out the danger, take their lead into the interval and build on it after the break. James Ward-Prowse, though, had other ideas. The Southampton skipper picked out Jannik Vestergaard, who headed his side level. The goal gave Ward-Prowse his third assist of a very productive season and set Southampton on their way to a 2-1 win.
When it became clear that Pierre-Emile Højbjerg would be leaving Southampton for Tottenham towards the end of last season, Ralph Hasenhüttl stripped the Dane of the captaincy and handed the armband to Ward-Prowse. It is not a choice the manager has regretted.
Ward-Prowse has made 242 appearances in the Premier League and, according to our ratings, five of his six best performances have come since Hasenhüttl appointed him captain in mid-June, the most impressive of which was in Southampton’s 4-3 win over Aston Villa last month, when he scored twice and set up another goal for Vestergaard. Any doubts that Southampton might struggle without Højbjerg alongside Ward-Prowse in the middle of the park have been swept aside. Their win at Brighton took Southampton up to fifth in the table, just above the Manchester clubs.
Much of their rise to a European spot has been due to the performances of Ward-Prowse. His accuracy from set pieces is huge for Southampton. All three of his assists this season have come from set pieces, while three of his four goals have come from direct free-kicks. There have only been six goals from direct free-kicks in the Premier League this season; Ward-Prowse has scored half of them (Matheus Pereira, Eberechi Eze and Jacob Murphy have scored the other three).
Ward-Prowse could even break the record for the most free-kicks goals in a Premier League season, which was set by David Beckham when he scored five in the 2000-01 season and then matched by Laurent Robert the following year. Ward-Prowse has scored nine goals from direct free-kicks in the Premier League. Only eight players have scored more in the history of the competition: David Beckham on 18; Thierry Henry and Gianfranco Zola on 12; Cristiano Ronaldo, Sebastian Larsson and Laurent Robert on 11; and Morten Gamst Pedersen and Ian Harte on 10.
There is more to Ward-Prowse’s game than scoring and setting up goals from dead-ball situations. In Hasenhuttl’s 4-4-2 setup, the two central midfielders need to work tirelessly off the ball to ensure the defence is well shielded and the full-backs have the chance to overlap and provide the width in attack.
Oriol Romeu carries out most of the defensive duties in the Southampton midfield – he ranks second for tackles and interceptions combined (58) and first for possession won the midfield third (56) in the league this season – but Ward-Prowse does not shirk his responsibilities. He ranks sixth for possession won in the midfield third and his total of 36 tackles or interceptions is also a solid return. Ward-Prowse is an all-round midfielder.
His fine form at Southampton has been rewarded with a regular spot in the England setup. Ward-Prowse was forced to pull out of the squad for last month’s international break with a tight hamstring, however, when fit, he deserves his place – not only for the next international break, but the European Championship too. Competition is rife in central midfield but, on current form, Ward-Prowse warrants his spot.
Ward-Prowse signed a new five-year contract in August. Hasenhüttl and the club’s fans will be hoping their captain maintains his superb form in the middle of the park, both with the ball in play and from set-pieces as they push for a European finish.