Southampton have a rich tradition when it comes to promoting from within. Their youth academy is seen as one of the finest in England thanks to their development of several future internationals in Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers.
For many years it was widely assumed James Ward-Prowse would be the next on that list. And, earlier in 2017, that hypothetical scenario became reality, with the midfielder coming on for the Three Lions during a 1-0 friendly defeat to Germany in March.
His senior international debut came on the back of some impressive performances at club level for Southampton, where he finally appeared set to fulfil his potential after many years in and around the first team.
However, this term he has failed to nail down a regular starting berth.
Going into the summer break Ward-Prowse may have dreamt of Russia next summer and competing at a World Cup. But now his primary aim is simply to get concerted game time at St Mary’s.
So what has gone wrong for the midfielder? There are a number of different reasons as to why the 23-year-old has fallen from grace in 2017/18.
FROM PUEL TO PELLEGRINO
Throughout much of his uninspiring one season in charge at Southampton, Claude Puel stuck by a three-man midfield. Whether in a 4-3-1-2 or a 4-3-3 system, there tended to be at least three central berths available for Ward-Prowse to compete for.
And, when the Frenchman shifted to a 4-4-1-1 as the campaign drifted towards an unsatisfactory conclusion, the academy graduate often filled in on the right-hand side of the flat midfield four.
Mauricio Pellegrino has implemented a rough 4-2-3-1 since he was appointed as Puel’s successor, however. This system involves both full-backs attacking the flanks and taking up high positions, while the nominal wingers come infield and exchange positions with the central attacking midfielder.
Essentially, this leads to more of a 2-3-5 shape in the attacking phase with plenty of fluidity in the final third.The tactical change has led to a reduction of the slots that Ward-Prowse can fill.
While before there were often three central midfield roles, now there are only two. And where Puel wanted his wide midfielders to stay relatively wide, when used, the new manager prefers them to drive inward.
Competition for each midfield position is intense. Oriol Romeu asserted himself as one of the best defensive midfielders in the Premier League last season – only Idrissa Gueye, Jordan Henderson and N’Golo Kanté averaged more tackles per game than the Spaniard.
Alongside him, the signature of Mario Lemina has provided extra quality in the centre. The former Juventus man has averaged three tackles per game – the same as Romeu this term – and his pass accuracy of 91.1 per cent is the highest in Southampton’s squad.
Meanwhile, further up in attacking midfield, Dušan Tadić and Nathan Redmond remain the most obvious candidates for the wider roles. Both are among the club’s top four dribblers, averaging 1.7 and 1.9 per game respectively. The only two to eclipse them in this aspect are Lemina and Sofiane Boufal, who has cut an increasingly impressive figure in recent weeks in an admittedly blunt attack.
The Moroccan can play in any of the three attacking midfield roles, while the evergreen Steven Davis is Southampton’s best box-to-box option. The 32-year-old, whose passing stats have gone up this season, can play as one of the two central midfielders or in a slightly more advanced position.
All of this leaves Ward-Prowse in a difficult situation. As a midfielder who is best suited to a three, he is unable to find a natural role within Pellegrino’s starting line-up. And even if he channels his attention on an attacking midfield berth, there are at least four other players in the running.
WARD-PROWSE’S STATISTICAL DECLINE
The argument in favour of Ward-Prowse deserving more game time is perhaps swayed by Southampton’s recent history of successful academy products. But, at 23 years of age, the midfielder is no longer a prospect to be babied, but a player who must force his way in.
His latest start came in the 1-1 draw away to Brighton and Hove Albion, where he showcased once again his exceptional quality from dead balls. It was his free kick that hit the woodwork and rebounded out for Davis to prod home. However, that moment of magic aside, he struggled to make an impact on the match.
Unlike Boufal, Davis and Tadić, Ward-Prowse didn’t complete a single dribble or key pass. He also contributed fewer passes than the Northern Irishman, who is perhaps his most obvious positional rival, while completing almost three per cent fewer of his passes.
Looking at a wider sample of statistics, most of the youngster’s most important numbers have declined from last season. He is completing fewer passes per 90 minutes, while a lower percentage of those passes are going forward. His completion rate is down, albeit only by one per cent, while he is creating fewer chances. He is also contributing fewer dribbles and tackles on average.
Ward-Prowse has spoken openly about the tactical turbulence caused by Pellegrino’s succeeding Puel in the hot seat.
“This season we have a new manager, a new style of play and a few new signings as well which have had a positive impact on the team. It’s a building process still for us all, but it’s a positive one in the making.”
The process may be a positive one for the team as a whole, but as yet there is little to no evidence to suggest it is a similar experience for the 23-year-old on an individual level.
His statistics may be down because of a lack of consistent time on the pitch, but there is sound reasoning behind his making more substitute appearances than starts: He doesn’t entirely suit Pellegrino’s tactics.
Ward-Prowse has lost ground on a number of other English midfielders in the race for a spot on the plane to Russia next summer, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jack Cork the latest call-ups to Gareth Southgate’s squad.
And, if he sees the World Cup as a serious goal, he may need to move on in January to achieve it.