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Spotlight: James Ward-Prowse

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Southampton is fighting to avoid the drop; can the resurgent midfielder save their season and earn himself England plaudits?

Southampton v Liverpool - Premier League
Southampton’s Premier League hopes rest on the continued rise of James Ward-Prowse.
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

The name is Prowse. James Ward-Prowse.

There is no hiding behind the fact that this has been a dire season for Southampton; one that, on current form, would result in a shock relegation for the Saints. Simply put, the team is conceding at a higher rate than in previous campaigns, their goal scoring continues to suffer since the departure of The Haircut (Graziano Pelle), and the overall feel of the team amounts to: “We have too many guys like Sofiane Boufal and Nathan Redmond that, while not good enough for the Premier League, will surely lead us back to the promised land once we get relegated.” This is also known as “The Dwight Gayle Identity”.

In what should have been an inspired campaign for Southampton’s crop of English talents looking to book flights to Russia for the World Cup effort, the result has been extremely disappointing. Goalkeeper Fraser Forster, once seen as a challenger to Joe Hart for England’s #1 shirt, is now on the substitutes’ bench wondering what went wrong. Left back Ryan Bertrand has had a very boring season indeed, neither defending nor attacking with any particular verve or distinction. The less said about Redmond, the better.

Sometimes, despite the despair and the darkness, a hero rises. As Gotham City DA Harvey Dent reminded his broken and frightened city, “The night is darkest just before dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming.” As the Saints’ Year of Horrible Futbol seemingly draws to a sad end, we may have seen signs of a possible dawn.

The name is Prowse. James Ward-Prowse.

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Yes, what’s old is new again

As dedicated fantasy managers, we have of course been here before with the spectacularly posh-named Southampton midfielder whom I’ll call by the decidedly less spectacularly posh JWP. He’s shown flashes of ability and potential since the 2015-16 campaign, wowing Southampton followers with skilled set piece delivery. However, none of Southampton’s managers have fully trusted him as a regular in their team sheets.

Because of this, he carries a slight whiff of a failing (failed?) prospect — a one-note specialist (free kicks) who, for whatever reason, never made it and may be too old to make it still.

In truth, JWP is only 23, not the 26 or 27 years that casual observers might imagine. While no prodigy, there is still time for JWP to become a more generally useful player.

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But isn’t he a one-note player?

Not really. JWP has some interesting strengths as a midfielder, including crossing the ball, taking set-pieces, and creating scoring chances. He also has a knack for finding himself the recipient of crosses from the left-side of the pitch, particularly from Bertrand.

The issue with JWP is that he has not developed into an able finisher. His headers from Bertrand crosses, while generally on target, are almost always easy saves for the opposing keeper. Moreover, the lack of quality finishing extends to the entire Southampton squad, which significantly decreases JWP’s assists potential.

In fantasy formats such as Togga that reward chances created, shots on target and successful crosses, JWP is a quality play because he’ll always have a relatively high floor, but he’ll never rise to the level of an upper echelon midfielder until he’s able to convert chances into more assists and goals. When he does, however, JWP shall instantly become the second or third best midfielder on any Togga roster.

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So if he’s kinda, sorta good and can be excellent on his day, why doesn’t he play more?

I believe the main issue that Saints’ managers have with JWP is where to play him on the futbol pitch. He looks like he could/should be a really nice box-to-box midfielder — someone to slot in a midfield trio with pitbull Oriol Romeu and a diligent-type like Steven Davis. In that role he could, in theory, help clog the midfield when opponents attack, and shift to a #10 role behind the striker when Southampton are looking to score.

While it’s pretty to think of JWP as the ideal box-to-box central midfielder, he hasn’t been very good in that role. One of the reasons is that he’s a rubbish defender; more specifically, he is one of the weaker tacklers in the Premier League. This glaring weakness really moots the point of positioning him in central midfield. Per Whoscored, JWP’s best position is actually as an attacking midfielder on the right side of the pitch — think of the Marc Albrighton left-sided role during Leicester’s championship effort, but shift it to the right. As a right-sided midfielder, JWP can whip crosses, create plays for his strikers and receive Bertrand’s crosses. The one big problem in this position is his relatively poor finishing.

And therein lies the JWP conundrum: he is neither a good enough defender for central midfield nor a good enough finisher to shine in a more attacking position.

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So if he’s not that good, why am I reading this Spotlight article?

I thought you’d never ask, dear reader. As savvy fantasy managers we are always looking to unearth a diamond-in-the-rough; one who other managers have overlooked, like, say JWP?

The Russians have a wonderful expression that summarizes someone or something that is neither one thing nor the other: loosely translated as “neither fish nor meat” (in English: “neither fish nor fowl”).

We’ve established that JWP is neither fish nor meat. Unless he drastically improves his tackling and defensive nous, or he discovers fine finishing, he will never be a reliable star. However, for fantasy purposes, we’ve also established that he has a relatively high floor and can have a high ceiling so he’s most definitely a differential to consider.

The main thing to look for with JWP is less about where he’s positioned on the futbol pitch and more about his playing time.

Over the first 20 games of this term, JWP’s playing time is best summed up as “sporadic”. Since then, however, the beleaguered Mauricio Pellegrino has promoted JWP to regular starter and the results have been Togga fantasy gold:

GW 21: 7 pts in 90 minutes

GW 22: 4 pts in 70

GW 23: 28 pts (2G) in 89

GW 24: 9.5 pts in 90

GW 25: 19.5 pts (1A) in 90

GW 26: 20 pts (1G, 1A) in 90

GW 27: 12 pts in 71

That’s three goals and two assists over the past five game weeks for JWP, which is most of his total fantasy production in Togga (3G, 4A).

In fact, any time JWP starts, he’s a good bet to produce. Don’t believe me? Here’s the proof (in Togga points across all JWP starts in 2017-18):

10.5 points (71 minutes); 7 (84); 18 (90); 3.5 (90); 2 (90); 11 (90); 7 (90); 4 (70); 28 (89); 9.5 (90); 19.5 (90); 20 (90); 12 (71). For those of us into a bit of math, this translates to an average of 11.7 points per start, making him an excellent midfield pick in the mold of a Jesse Lingard, Johann Berg Gudmunsson or Abdoulaye Doucoure.

That’s quite solid production for a player who is 62% owned in Togga. Players with similar owned rates include his teammate Oriol Romeu and Tottenham bench fodder Lucas Moura. In Official FPL, JWP offers similar differential value, priced at £5.1 and owned in 3% of squads. Since GW 23, JWP has given Official FPL managers very solid returns: 15, 2, 8, 12, 2. Similarly priced midfielders include Gudmunsson (2, 2, 2, 10, 2 since GW 23), Ryan Fraser (5, 9, 3, 2, 5), Fernandinho (1, 2, 10, 2, 2) and Joe Allen (2, 11, 3, 2, 2).

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Am I too late then, have we reached peak JWP?

When projecting any player over the course of a season, I am usually concerned with three things:

1. Is the player in form and is he getting minutes?

2. How good/bad are the upcoming fixtures?

3. Does the player have something to play for?

To answer my first question, we’ve established that JWP is a player in form who is also getting minutes. One red flag was his early substitution on 70 minutes in the GW 27 match with Liverpool. JWP had looked lively in attack and it was a bit of a shocker when Pellegrino recalled him from the futbol pitch. This bears monitoring.

To answer my second question, JWP’s fixtures to close out the term are inviting for the most part:

@ Burnley (good!); Stoke (good!); at Newcastle (ok); @ Swansea (good!); @ West Ham (good!); @ Arsenal (ok/meh); Chelsea (bad?); @ Leicester (ok); Bournemouth (good); @ Everton (good); Manchester City (bad, but maybe post-trophy)

And to answer my third and final question, JWP most definitely, 100%, for sure has something to play for. First and foremost is his battle to either avoid relegation or, if that proves futile, prove to teams that he’s an EPL caliber player and market himself accordingly. This being a World Cup year, JWP has to believe he is in contention for an England call from Gareth Southgate. If he can finish the year on current form, he could be an interesting midfield pick for a thin-at-the-position England squad. He is likely in competition with the uninspiring likes of Nathaniel Chalobah, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana, yuck Ross Barkley yuck, Jesse Lingard, Lewis Cook and Fabian Delph.

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In conclusion, then, is it yay/nay for JWP in fantasy?

Based on all the supporting evidence, the answer is: Yay!

What do you think? Are you in on JWP or do you fear that, yet again, he’s a flash in the pan? Is there another midfield differential pick you prefer? And it’s never too early to talk England midfield in the World Cup! Is JWP a good pick? See you in the comments section!