In spite of the horrific situation that Southampton currently find themselves in, there are are a number of positives that we can take away from our recent fixtures. After all, if you can’t learn to savour the little pockets of joy when your teams struggling for form, football may not be for you…
In a season that’s been underwhelming at the very best, 2018 has provided us with some of the only highlights, and most importantly, they’ve come from two players who have risen the ranks at Southampton alongside each other. While others have shied away from taking responsibility for our embarrassing rut, this duo have displayed the leadership qualities that are oh-so important in a relegation battle.
Jack Stephens recently recorded three goals in three games having never scored previously for Southampton. Some of them have been of utmost importance; an equaliser in a relegation six-pointer vs Brighton, probably saving MoPe his job, on top of giving us the lead vs West Brom, which led us to our first Premier League win in 12 games. He’s even contributed outside of our battle to beat relegation too, by scoring against Watford in the 5th Round of the FA Cup to place our name in the next round of the draw.
Oh, and before anyone says, yes I know we bought him from Plymouth, but please just let us have some joy. The work that’s required to turn a 17-year-old who’s playing U18’s football into a regular starter in the Premier League is extraordinary. We can take our credit.
However, goals aren’t the most important part of his game, given that he’s a centre-half. What’s been most impressive for me is his seemingly new-found mentality. The way he handled Boufal’s moaning at James Ward-Prowse over the free-kick vs West Brom really impressed me; he knows who our chosen set-piece taker is, he took Sofiane away and calmed him down, and showed the captain-like qualities that he needs. An attitude like that, with a bit more of a steely resolve and leadership, is what we’ve been missing this season; Stephens looks like he’s making a huge step to become a leader in our squad, and if he continues in the same fashion, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him go on to fight for Southampton F.C. captaincy in the future, which is only mirrored and improved by the way in which he carries himself in pre and post-match press conferences.
With all of that said, he is still a young, rough gem. He’s not nearly physical enough, nor does he have the aerial prowess required to be considered a top-class Premier League centre-back. If you look at our past central defenders, such as Toby Alderweireld, Jose Fonte, Virgil Van Dijk, even going back as far as two of my all-time favourites, Claus Lundekvam and Michael Svensson, you can see a natural trend of ball-playing ability, leadership qualities, physicality and aerial dominance. Jack Stephens is on the road to becoming as good as some of the aforementioned players but seriously needs to improve his defensive dominance. I have every faith that he one day will.
James Ward-Prowse is another player who’s stepped up massively in the last two months, with important goals against Fulham, Watford and West Brom. His set-pieces have also proved to be an incredible attacking outlet in those games, too. His dead-ball ability is second to none in the Premier League, and he has all the makings of an old-fashioned right-midfielder, but there’s still something lacking in the former England U21 captain’s game.
The Premier League these days is all about pace and power, neither of which James Ward-Prowse really has. I wouldn’t be surprised if his career as a right winger will most likely be short-lived, especially if Saints bring in Quincy Promes. However, that’s all depending on if we beat the drop and believe that there is indeed a “deal in principle” as numerous local journalists suggest.
So where does JWP fit in? He’s not quick or skilful enough to become an inside forward on the left wing, and there are at least three central midfielders who are better than him, as we’ve seen in recent weeks. However, his set-piece ability, the leadership qualities he’s demonstrated alongside Stephens, and his bond with the fans having come from the academy are just a few reasons as to why he needs to be playing week-in-week-out at Southampton, furthered even more by his recent form.
In my eyes, Ward-Prowse has to become an attacking midfielder, who’s capable of pushing out to the right in the mould of Hakan Calhanoglu – with phenomenal set-piece ability, defence-splitting through balls and more goals to his game. Realistically, should we keep Lemina, Hojbjerg and Romeu in the long term, Ward-Prowse must cement a role outside of central midfield if he wishes to remain a regular in the side.
There’s no denying that Ward-Prowse has the ability, and if recent months can act as a measuring stick, then in a more free-form and fluid attacking team, he could genuinely thrive as our future playmaker and attacking midfielder.