James Ward-Prowse Shows Improvement in Movement against Everton

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Last week, England’s under-21 side hosted Germany on a rain-soaked pitch at Riverside Stadium. The conditions seemed tailor-made for the long-ball football that many associate with the English game, but under Gareth Southgate, this team is a different proposition.

The familiar fighting spirit might still be there, but there’s also been an adjustment made, one in keeping with the general trajectory the top-flight game has taken in recent years. These days there is a far greater emphasis on technique, largely propelled by the Pep Guardiola years at Barcelona, and as Southgate’s charges marched towards a thrilling come-from-behind win over Germany, there could be no doubt that this has rubbed off, at least to some degree, on the way the nation approached the game.

Their third and decisive goal, scored by James Ward-Prowse, was indicative of this. There was no hoof forwards from the back, no knock-down from the target man and no opportunistic finish following a goalmouth scramble. This time, there was nothing but deliberate action – 34 passes of deliberate action, in fact.

It was a brilliant team goal, one made up of short passing, methodical build-up play and then, as they approached the box, an intricate exchange between the attackers. Ward-Prowse was crucial here, floating into the gap between central defender and fullback, before taking a touch in customarily technical fashion and applying the finish.

That made it 3-2, and in many ways, it was fitting that a product of Southampton’s much-vaunted youth academy completed the move. After all, it’s been within the confines of that setup that technique has been cherished, ball retention prized and players with those values generated. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott come to mind, as do Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana. And in Ward-Prowse, a 20-year-old still playing for his boyhood club, there can be no doubt that the conveyor belt continues its function unabated.

Following that impressive finish, scored as the skipper of the side, Ward-Prowse returned to Southampton’s starting line-up against Everton. He put in another solid shift, missing a free-kick by what he later described as “inches” and generally contributing to his side’s possession play in the process. What was perhaps most interesting about his performance, however, was the way in which he harmonised with Eljero Elia.

Stationed on the left flank, Elia, who was recently recalled to the Dutch national setup, acted as a kind of reference point for Ward-Prowse. Wherever Elia went, Everton’s right-back Seamus Coleman followed, and because of that, Ward-Prowse was able to move out of the standard playmaking position in order to exploit the spaces created by his teammate’s movement. This was important because, up until recently, the young Englishman’s appreciation of space has been questioned.

In the wake of Southampton’s 2-0 loss to Liverpool earlier in the year, for instance, Michael Cox asserted that, “James Ward-Prowse is a talented player but does not yet have the intelligence to play the No10 role effectively.” And in some ways, you can see his point. Ward-Prowse may be technically gifted, an excellent set-piece taker and a brilliant passer of the ball – his six assists place him second at St. Mary’s despite a 10 week absence earlier this season – but he’s still relatively inexperienced.

There remains a sense that, sometimes, he stays a little too high up the pitch. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and indeed, in a system like Southampton’s, he probably aims to position himself in this manner to feed off the talents of Graziano Pelle. Yet while this then allows him to link up with his other attackers in central locations, or even spread the play wide to Southampton’s marauding fullbacks, it can place a greater onus on the likes of Morgan Schneiderlin to play penetrative passes from deeper in midfield.

That can make things tricky, but as Ward-Prowse illustrated against Everton, his advanced positioning can also be a good thing. In just the fifth minute, for instance, Schneiderlin elegantly swept a long diagonal into the path of Ryan Bertrand on the left flank. This triggered a run from Elia, and as the Dutchman powered towards the touchline in order to provide an option, Coleman tracked his every move. There was now, in turn, a space in behind Coleman, and with Ward-Prowse still in between the lines and high up the pitch, he was able to sprint into that gap and become a target for Bertrand, whose lofted pass was ever so slightly overhit.

Everton Southampton April 2015

Later in the half, too, Ward-Prowse again became the target following an impressive piece of movement. The catalyst here was a counter-attack sparked by Victor Wanyama, who put his tenacity to good use by both retrieving possession and passing vertically to hold-up man Pelle. The Italian took a moment to find his bearings, and as he did so, Elia charged infield from the left, hoping to provide an option in behind.

Knowing that Coleman would follow, Ward-Prowse made an outside run towards the left-hand edge of the area. Pelle soon spotted it and played a well-weighted ball into the youngster’s path, but despite a good first touch, Coleman was able to curtail the danger with a strong challenge.

On both occasions, the moves came to nothing. But equally, on both occasions, Ward-Prowse also illustrated his aptitude for picking up on the movements of his teammates and driving into the spaces they had left vacant. This is a significant step forward for the Portsmouth-born player, as for all of his ability to strike balls from range and create danger with the dead-ball, he needs to be able to move well if he’s to establish himself as a No. 10.

And, based on his display at Goodison Park, Ward-Prowse appears to be well on the way to doing just that. The way he drove into the space between centre-back and fullback was somewhat reminiscent of the aforementioned goal he scored for England’s under-21’s, and if he can continue to do reproduce this sort of thoughtful movement on a regular basis, his running patterns might just start to rival his undoubted technical ability.