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SOUTHAMPTON’S 4-3 win over Aston Villa at Villa Park took them up to fifth in the Premier League table after seven games.

A game which highlighted the significant growth under Ralph Hasenhüttl over the past year and the progress the club as a whole are currently undergoing. Sunday’s win took their unbeaten streak to five games since their capitulation at home to Tottenham Hotspur mid-September.

It is a run that has given the whole club some cause for optimism for the campaign, and questions are already being asked whether Hasenhüttl can lead the club that one step further, challenge for a Europa League place.

He certainly holds the players to achieve the unthinkable and while many have leaped to the praise of the resurgent Danny Ings over the past year, it is their current club captain James Ward-Prowse whose performances, technical abilities and leadership has quietly gone under the radar. However, his wonderful technical attributes were brought to the fore against Villa with two sumptuous free-kicks to race his side into a 3-0 lead before half-time.

Ward-Prowse’s two goals took his free-kick tally for Southampton to eight, surpassing the legendary Matt Le Tissier’s record of 7.

It also made him the ninth player in Premier League history to score two direct free-kick goals in a game and the first since Christian Eriksen for Tottenham against Swansea in October 2015.

And while the midfielder may receive such stark praise for his two fabulous efforts, his performances and consistency as a whole over the past year should also deserves acclaim.

Ward-Prowse is arguably amongst the best midfielders in the division right now, proving to be at the heart of everything good about Southampton since that torrid night against Leicester last year. His goal against Everton on Matchday 6 also provided the wow-factor, a goal representing his tremendous technical qualities on the ball.

Certainly, his free-kicks and corner kicks are an art form but it’s his engine on the pitch, the ease at which he fulfils numerous responsibilities within such a hugely demanding philosophy such as Hasenhüttl’s in the centre of midfield is just as effective as it is brilliant. If you analyse the midfielder’s game, he is a player who is just as efficient without the ball as he is with it. He already averages 1.9 tackles per game, 0.9 interceptions, as well as 2 blocks, 4.14 successful pressures to an opponent per 90 this season, a real metronome in the centre of the pitch.

James Ward-Prowse is indeed a fighter, his off-the-ball and defensive duel numbers are outstanding, and it’s about time the 26-year-old is recognized for the kind of impact he offers in such a well-rounded and finely balanced Southampton team.

His partnership with Oriol Romeu of late provides the team with a solid foundation, both players give as much as each other when in possession and without it. They both know how to find their more forward teammates in dangerous areas, and also when combat a potential counter or press the opposition once they’ve lost the ball.

If Ward-Prowse can keep up his rich vein of form and fitness for much of the campaign, there’s no reason why Southampton can’t mount a serious challenge for the Europa League places. With Danny Ings out for 4-6 weeks with a knee injury, their need for James Ward-Prowse couldn’t be any clearer.

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June 2024