When Ralph Hasenhuttl first arrived at Southampton on December 5th 2018, James Ward-Prowse went three games without a single minute of football, after coming on for just the final ten minutes in the Austrian’s first game – a 1-0 loss to Cardiff only three days into the job.
“I had a face-to-face meeting with him and told him what I think is his strength and weakness,” the Austrian said of Ward-Prowse after his first start of the new manager’s tenure.
“Sometimes he wasn’t hard enough, not aggressive enough at winning the ball, getting in the duels. We saw against Manchester City a step forward in this manner, and it’s a good way for him to keep going now.”
Since then, the former England U21 captain hasn’t missed a single minute of football – a stretch of 14 games. In that period, he’s played in three different positions – central midfield, attacking midfield, and right wing-back. It is a versatility that has perhaps hindered rather than helped his Southampton career prior to now.
Since making his debut in October 2011 under Nigel Adkins, Ward-Prowse has played under seven managers – Adkins, Mauricio Pochettino, Claude Puel, Mauricio Pellegrino, Mark Hughes, and now Hasenhuttl – and in that time, he has been deployed in a number of positions, usually providing the other option, and additional cover to the well-stocked ranks.
Should he complete the full 90 minutes of the remaining 5 games of the season, he would’ve clocked up more minutes this season – 2009 – than any of his previous six and would equal his record for most starts – 22.
It is the consistency afforded to him by Hasenhuttl that has enhanced the performances of a player who’s long been capable of producing the quality he is now. Six goals have come in his last 11 games – already his best return in a season – and an added bite to his repertoire points towards an improvement of his all-round game.
For the player himself, his career has somewhat replicated another one of Southampton’s successful academy products in Adam Lallana. When Lallana was finally let loose on the Premier League in 2012, it had been quite some time since the other big names in his graduate year had done so. In the 2005 FA Youth Cup Final, the Saints team contained future 4-time Champions League winner Gareth Bale and two-time FA Cup winner Theo Walcott, and just a year ahead was Andrew Surman. Walcott left in 2006, Bale in 2007 and Surman in 2009.
Similarly, Ward-Prowse signed his professional contract in the summer of 2012 alongside Calum Chambers and Luke Shaw, who left in 2014 for Arsenal and Manchester United respectively. A year above them, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain followed Walcott, and preceded Chambers, in moving to Arsenal in the summer of 2011.
The striking difference between Ward-Prowse and that first group of academy products is that his formative years were not in the lower tiers of English football, but in the top flight in a team that finished in the top eight for four consecutive seasons. With that has come added pressure and increased competition, but arguably a better working environment has given more opportunity and greater experience.
Since leaving in 2014, Chambers has made 96 league appearances and has suffered two Premier League relegations during loan spells at Middlesbrough and Fulham. In the same time, Luke Shaw has managed 69 appearances, only cementing a starting spot at Manchester United this season. Ward-Prowse has made 140. Patience seems to finally be prevailing.
“I am only 18 but I’m not content sitting on the bench,” Ward-Prowse told BBC Radio Solent in the summer of 2013, “I don’t think I’ve proved myself. I only would have when I’m playing week in, week out.”
It has been a slow process, repeatedly reset by numerous new managers, and having to compete against the likes of Jack Cork, Morgan Schneiderlin, Steve Davis, Victor Wanyama, Oriol Romeu, and Pierre Hojbjerg along the way. But if this recent spell is anything to go by, it seems Ward-Prowse has found a patron in Hasenhuttl. And the common ground, it seems, could be based on a shared approach to the game, and his manager’s trust in him to play it – a return to ‘The Southampton Way.’
When Pochettino was brought to Southampton in 2013, with him came an approach that suited the club perfectly. Honed at Espanyol, he blueprinted his approach to management as so: enforce the same tactical style on all of the clubs’ teams from the firsts down to youth level; work closely with the youth teams to witness their progression first-hand and remain informed; a preference for a high-press; and a constantly open pathway for players from the academy to the first team. This, on top of a willingness to play out from the back and attempt to play the most direct forward pass available at first instant, was the Southampton Way.
Although only at the club for 18 months, during that time both Chambers and Shaw were first-teamers and Ward-Prowse himself made, to this date, the most league appearances he has in a season – 34. Although Ward-Prowse started 4 out of the first 5 games of the following campaign, before fracturing his foot, new manager Ronald Koeman was a break away from what the Southampton Way was meant to be, and it was never to return. At least not until Hasenhuttl.
Under Koeman, Saints defended deep and relied on quick counter-attacks to score goals. This came from the speed and incision of Sadio Mane and Shane Long (who was magnificent under Koeman in his second season in charge) and the target man credentials of Graziano Pelle. It was the opposite to Pochettino, but over the next couple of years, even Koeman’s style became sanitised. Where he was willing to leave two men in attack when defending, Puel would leave one at best, and Pellegrino would rarely allow even that. From a high press that even became a marketing tool and social media meme, to a completely depressed side, the Southampton Way was overgrown to the point that not even the path from the youth team up could be seen, and the first team lost its way on the pitch.
From playing youth at the first opportunity, under Koeman, and to a lesser extent the next two managers, Southampton began sending their young players with potential out on loan after loan, or simply allowed them to be ignored by the first team managers. Jake Hesketh was set to be the next big thing out of the academy, but after a debut against Manchester United in 2014 and a start against Burnley in the game that followed, he didn’t get close to first-team league action again. Following consecutive seasons in the U23s, he has spent this season on loan at Burton and MK Dons respectively. Similar situations have occurred with others, such as Sam Gallagher who made his debut in 2013 under Pochettino but has barely pulled a first-team shirt on with any meaning since. Harrison Reed, Sam McQueen and Josh Sims are some of the players subject to a similar fate – all players versed in the Southampton Way.
Sims had his own little subplot in 2016, however, when he assisted Charlie Austin inside a minute of kick-off to help Saints to a 1-0 win over Ronald Koeman’s Everton. Koeman stood accused of stating that none of Saints’ U21 team were good enough to play in the Premier League, and after the game, he said: “I wasn’t aware of Josh Sims when I was here and he is not my problem.”
Now with Hasenhuttl at the helm, Ward-Prowse suddenly looks like a new player, like a technician operating in a system he was handcrafted to play in. It is no surprise Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg has also excelled under the former RB Leipzig manager, given the match in playing styles. With an average of 58 passes per game, the Dane is 21 ahead of the next player in the first-choice XI, fellow countryman Jannik Vestergaard – a centre-back encouraged to play out from the back, and regularly seen breaching the halfway line.
In the close to five months, he has been in charge, the Saints manager has utilised five youth players – Kayne Ramsay, Yan Valery, Callum Slattery, Michael Obafemi and Tyreke Johnson – on top of academy product Matt Targett, and the aforementioned James Ward-Prowse, Jack Stephens, Sam Gallagher, and Josh Sims.
All of these players have seamlessly slotted in and around the Saints first team and its fringes, clearly well trained in the methodology the club set out to impose five years ago. It is thus no surprise that not only have they suited the style Hasenhuttl has imposed, but they’ve been active members – particularly Valery – in the upturn in form since his arrival.
Next season has to be the making of James Ward-Prowse. His stars are aligning. With a manager who the club can – with legitimacy and integrity – claim embodies the Southampton Way, and the midfielder a product of it, he will have no excuses. On top of that, he is – even at the age of 24 – already Southampton’s longest-serving player.
Key to his performances will be his intelligence and decision-making – both things he has consistently displayed over the years, regardless of the system or manager, and was refined and polished as he came through the youth ranks.
“Ward-Prowse is a prototype of the intelligent footballer Southampton are trying to produce through their own unique brand of football schooling,” Alec Fenn wrote for FourFourTwo, in an article on Southampton’s academy system.
“[He is] the poster boy of the Saints philosophy. He made his first team debut aged 16 and achieved a distinction in a BTEC qualification two years later, which could’ve seen him go on to study at a top university.”
It was, however, a mindset that the son of a barrister already had.
“As he moved through school,” his secondary school headteacher Matthew Quinn told Portsmouth News last month, “he also progressed with the Southampton Academy and was out for four days a week towards the end. However, alongside that, he maintained commitment through his GCSEs and did very well.”
“I recall having a chat with his dad about should the football thing fall apart then he’d come back here to do A-levels. His dad was quite realistic, he knew it only takes one unfortunate knock and you are out of the game.
“James came back here in 2016 for our prize-giving ceremony and gave a speech. I would go as far as to say he was inspirational in what he said to the pupils, what a tremendous role model.”
“As a pupil, he was very affable, well-liked and worked hard at whatever he did. He deserves the success he’s now experiencing.”
Hasenhuttl hasn’t settled on a particular position for Ward-Prowse yet – likely because the 5-man defence formations he is playing this season will not be his preference for the next, judging on his historical predilection for a narrow 4-2-2-2 with inverted wingers – but believes he’ll flourish wherever he does finally settle on.
“I think he shows in every game that he’s not only a hard-working guy, but he can also come into positions where he has the chance to score,” he told the club’s official website, “he’s the complete package at the moment, [he] fits perfectly in our game”
Be it right wing-back, as a number six, or as a trequartista, Ward-Prowse’s intelligence and suitability to a return to the Southampton Way has enabled him to put his name back onto the teamsheet in permanent marker for the first time in a while. For now, he’ll be deployed wherever his manager sees fit. But next season, all being well, James Ward-Prowse will be Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Intelligista.