Most people would agree that Pep Guardiola is the best football manager in the world. What he has done at Manchester City has been aided by vast sums of money. But it’s also been remarkable. Those players know his way of playing inside out, and just look at their record as a result. When Pep Guardiola speaks, people listen.
“There is no better taker,” Guardiola said about a Premier League player back in January. He was talking about free-kick-takers. And he was of course talking about James Ward-Prowse.
“Southampton have the best free-kick-taker I have ever seen, or at least he is in the world right now.”
Guardiola was looking ahead to facing Southampton in his next game—a week after Ward-Prowse had arrowed into the net a fabulous free-kick from range against Wolves. It was so far out that the Wolves players never expected him to shoot; it was a technique unlike any of the stunning, curling, bending free-kicks he has become known for.
So Guardiola is an admirer of Ward-Prowse’s free-kicks. Frankly, who isn’t? If he’s not the greatest free-kick-taker in the world then he’s mightily close. It’s a skill he has totally mastered, and one at which he is comfortably world-class.
The problem for Southampton’s softly spoken 27-year-old comes back to an age-old idiom that shows its face in cases like this. Everything’s relative. Let me explain.
Because Ward-Prowse is world-class at free-kicks, the football world — fans, journalists and people in the game alike — fall into the trap of measuring his other attributes relative to his free-kicks. His one world-class skill wrongly becomes the barometer by which to measure his quality in other areas. It’s highly unlikely his heading or short-passing or tackling were ever likely to reach the level of his superb spot-kicks.
And because, understandably, those attributes are worse than his free-kicks, people blindly assume he’s underperforming in those areas—because they can’t detach his midfield game from his dazzling free-kick ability. So Ward-Prowse is deemed to be a below-average midfielder who simply has a freakish ability to strike a dead-ball into the top corner from anywhere between 18 and 30 yards.
I suspect this is why he has been labelled a “Southgate player” when the England manager Gareth Southgate has ever named him in an England squad. I also suspect this is why Southampton’s most ardent fans are the only group who regularly call for their captain to start in England’s midfield.
Football should be viewing Ward-Prowse in a different light. Rather than holding his overall game victim to his stupendous free-kick ability, what’s surely more telling is how he compares to other midfielders around. That certainly seems the fairest way to decide whether he’s worthy of a spot in the England team ahead of the World Cup.
Watch any Southampton game and you’ll note just how adept he is at setting the tempo for their attacks, at slowing the game down when he sees fit, at breathing life into his team by never standing still himself. This is the case whether they’re hosting a League One team in the EFL Cup or indeed playing visitors to Guardiola’s Manchester City at the Etihad.
Ward-Prowse only had one cap for the national team when Southgate selected his squad for the 2018 World Cup. He was more experienced when he was named in the initial 33-man provisional squad for Euro 2020, but again missed out on the final squad. This winter offers Ward-Prowse his best opportunity yet of playing at a major tournament. He could even make a last-gasp dash for the starting line-up if he impresses enough between now and the World Cup.
With Kalvin Phillips out of the squad to have surgery to correct a persistent shoulder injury, Ward-Prowse only has to think about four rivals for a starting berth at the World Cup this winter.
Declan Rice is a cert to start in England’s opener — such is his undoubted quality — so he shouldn’t be seen as a rival, more as a potential partner in a double pivot.
That leaves only Jordan Henderson and Jude Bellingham as the players who Ward-Prowse must edge past in order to become an England starter. Henderson has not played particularly well for a faltering Liverpool so far this term. His England career is petering out; the question is whether it’ll include a major role in the 2022 World Cup before it does.
Bellingham — though outstanding — might not have quite gained Southgate’s trust in such a tactically demanding role, despite regular evidence in the Bundesliga and Champions League that he’s more than capable of midfield discipline at the upper echelons of the game. Under Southgate, the fact Bellingham is only 19 might work against him. Southgate loves youth, but perhaps he is less willing to trust young players through the spine of his team.
What a chance this presents Ward-Prowse. If Southgate is able to judge the player not relative to his free-kicks but instead relative to his midfield competitors, then the Saints captain might just be the wildcard choice in his starting line-up against Iran for England’s opener on 21 November.
After Guardiola had waxed lyrical about Ward-Prowse’s free-kicks that day in January, the City manager felt he needed to make an important clarification.
“He is so good that maybe you miss a little bit of the footballer player”, he said — staring at a room of journalists staring back at him. “He is a team player of great quality, without the ball and with the ball.
“He really understands the game but it is his free-kicks, set-pieces, and corners that people pay more attention to.”
Guardiola spotted the problem. Don’t penalise James Ward-Prowse for being better at free-kicks than everything else. See him as excellent at most things and world-class at one.