An England call up, a goal at the weekend, and arguably in the finest form of his Southampton career so far – like so many other academy graduates before him, James Ward-Prowse is truly starting to turn potential into performance.
Following a 3-1 defeat to West Ham on the 4th of February, Claude Puel opted for a 4231 system ahead of his side’s visit to the Stadium of Light – a decision that would see Southampton play with organisation, bravery, and attacking flair, in a promising 4-0 win away from home. It was clear for all to see that Southampton now had a platform to build upon with this change in system, and consequently, this formation carried over into the League Cup final against Manchester United.
Southampton ensured to play their own style for large quantities of the game, having the confidence to effectively dominate possession and counter against a robust Jose Mourinho set up. Southampton had proven that they weren’t phased by the occasion, and left each and every fan proud at the final whistle, despite going on to lose 3-2. Just six days later however, a spirited Southampton side once again returned against Watford, removing any doubt of cup final heartbreak with a 4-3 victory.
As for last weekend, Southampton tasted defeat at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur, but not for the want of trying. Puel’s side put in a stellar second half performance and asked all kinds of questions from a team that hasn’t lost at home since May 2016; any guesses for who that defeat came against?
But whilst Manolo Gabbiadini’s goals have obviously taken the headlines, the balance and creativity that Ward-Prowse currently offers has been vital to this season changing form.
Quite simply, Claude Puel has identified Ward-Prowse’s greatest strengths on the field, and is aiming to utilise them as much as physically possible.
Operating as the right-sided midfielder in a 4231 system (right), Puel is able to make the most of Ward-Prowse’s greatest skill sets; his wide passing range, his crossing ability, and his reading of the game.
When playing as a central midfielder in the Premier League, Ward-Prowse would often lack the physicality and intensity required to string together a number of consistently strong performances. But in this particular role as a right midfielder, Ward-Prowse’s need for physicality and a high intensity is greatly reduced, allowing him to play in a system that is better suited to his natural strengths.
Within the frontline, each player has their own tailor-made responsibilities. Gabbiadini’s role is to find space in the box, Tadic is the sides main creative outlet, Redmond is there to ask questions of the defence with his pace, whilst Ward-Prowse is there to distribute and create effectively.
Puel doesn’t want Ward-Prowse to try any fancy tricks, or even aim to beat his man. Instead, he wants Ward-Prowse to receive the ball in high and wide areas that are ideal for his immense deliveries. Simply take a look at the image below from Southampton’s Cup Final clash against Manchester United – Ward-Prowse hunted for space in a wide area and is now setting himself up to play a first time cross into the feet of Gabbiadini.
This is a series of play that I expect to become a regular feature in Puel’s Southampton side, especially with Gabbiadini’s illusive movement.
Using pass maps from the excellent 11tegen11, we are able to see Ward-Prowse’s average position on the ball, number of touches in comparison to teammates, and the number of passes to fellow teammates.
As shown on the right, Ward-Prowse’s average position on the ball in the game against Sunderland is extremely advanced. In fact, he is level with our centre forward, Gabbiadini. This reinforces my assumption of Puel’s demands from Ward-Prowse, as clearly he is being instructed to initially receive the ball in dangerous advanced areas.
If we once again look to the pass map, we can also see that Ward-prowse and Cedric Soares are exchanging passes and connecting on a regular basis (as illustrated by the larger arrows between one another). Given that the full backs are a vital attacking component in Puel’s system, this is extremely encouraging.
Cedric has received plenty of praise in recent weeks, and perhaps Ward-Prowse’s availability off the ball has helped him to attack so effectively. Ward-prowse has the option to either send Cedric down the line to deliver a cross, or to whip the ball in himself from a Cedric cut back – both of which have proven to be consistently threatening in recent fixtures.
This pass map isn’t an anomaly either, as my analysis also fits into the narrative of the Tottenham Hotspur and Watford pass maps too.
When needed, the 22-year-old is even able to slot into the midfield with Oriol Romeu and Steven Davis, for those particularly tough periods in a game when midfield dominance is key.
And of course, with Ward-Prowse now starting most games, there is also the added benefit of being able to utilise his sensational set-piece deliveries. Within the Premier League, only Kevin De Bruyne and Christian Eriksen spring to mind as being superior in that department.
For the first time in his Southampton career, it appears that Ward-Prowse is having the system altered to his game, rather than altering his game to the system. It’s a promising change that with continual support and guidance from Claude Puel, can hopefully take one of England’s brightest young talents to the next level.