A Southampton player for over two decades, James Ward-Prowse was stepping into the unknown when making the move to West Ham in the summer.
With Southampton's 11-year stay in the Premier League coming to an end last term as the Saints were relegated to the Championship, it seemed inevitable that there would be transfer interest in star player and skipper Ward-Prowse.
So it transpired, with West Ham, seemingly at the direct request of manager David Moyes, parting with around £30m to bring the 29-year-old to East London.
A player widely revered for his outstanding set-piece taking ability, there has often been question marks regarding his all-round skillset, with sceptics questioning his capacity to play at a higher level.
Four months into his West Ham career, it is safe to say Ward-Prowse has silenced a lot of those doubters, with the midfielder contributing 12 goal contributions in a Hammers side sat top of their Europa League group and gathering growing momentum in the top half of the Premier League.
We take a look at Ward Prowse's time at West Ham to date, what he has added to David Moyes' side and his international hopes in the latest edition of In Focus...
Despite hailing from rivalling city Portsmouth and a family of Pompey supports, Ward-Prowse joined Southampton's academy at the age of eight and proceeded to spend the next 20 years of his life at the Saints.
Making his first team debut for Southampton aged 16 in a League Cup tie against Crystal Palace in October 2011, Ward-Prowse was one of four youth team players to be offered new contracts following the club's promotion to the Premier League in May 2012 - alongside Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers and Jack Stephens.
From the summer of 2012 onwards, Ward-Prowse continued to grow and develop in the Premier League at Southampton under managers including Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman, and eventually became club captain in 2020.
After initially holding their own in the top flight following promotion from the Championship in 2012 - achieving four top half finishes in their first five seasons back in the Premier League - Southampton went on to finish in the bottom half in each of the subsequent six campaigns culminating in relegation last summer.
At every step of the way, the technically gifted Ward-Prowse was an inspirational standout figure for the Saints, with his prowess from dead balls and ability to dictate the play from the centre of midfield marking him out as one of the top players in the Premier League outside of the typically recognised 'Big Six' clubs.
Ward-Prowse's form for Southampton in the Premier League first earned him senior international recognition in March 2017 when called into the England squad for matches against Germany and Lithuania, and has gone on to collect 11 caps for his country to date.
In March 2023, the uber-consistent midfielder reached the impressive milestone of becoming Southampton's all-time record appearance holder in the Premier League, with his 330th outing in the English top flight against West Ham surpassing Jason Dodd's total.
As a respected Premier League player and England international, it was clear that Ward-Prowse faced a defining juncture in his career after a dismal campaign from the Saints ended in relegation to the Championship last term.
When West Ham came calling to offer Ward-Prowse a chance to continue operating at Premier League level, nobody associated with Southampton could justifiably begrudge their popular academy graduate from taking the opportunity to move on.
|Matt Le Tissier
Marking his West Ham debut with two assists in a 3-1 derby triumph for the Hammers against Chelsea at the London Stadium, it's safe to say it did not take long for Ward-Prowse to settle into his new surroundings.
Ward-Prowse has since described how he felt right at home straight away in West Ham colours:
"I could feel it on my debut against Chelsea. There was a feeling in the air – the aggressive, hard-working nature of the club. That’s what I like."
The goal contributions have yet to slow down since, with Ward-Prowse having registered 12 goals or assists in all competitions so far this season - with his winner at Tottenham meaning he now boasts a ratio of better than one in every two games in the Premier League with eight attacking returns in 14 appearances.
Within West Ham boss Moyes' preferred 4-3-3 set up, Ward-Prowse has most commonly operated as an archetypal box-to-box midfielder, with fellow new summer signing Edson Alvarez protecting the back four and gangly Czech Republic international Tomas Soucek roaming forward to get on the end of crosses.
It's not just in the Premier League where Ward-Prowse has shone for his new club, with the ex-Southampton man having also played a pivotal role in West Ham's European campaign to date.
Drawn in a group alongside SC Freiburg, Olympiacos and Backa Topola, West Ham have already secured qualification to the knockout rounds with four wins and one loss from their opening five matches, with a draw at home to Freiburg in their final game enough to see Moyes' men seal top spot in the section.
Starting every match for the Irons in the Europa League so far, Ward-Prowse is currently the joint-leader for assists in the competition with four alongside Bayer Leverkusen wonderkid Florian Wirtz and Marseille duo Amine Harit and Jonathan Clauss.
Ward-Prowse also leads the way in Key Passes (21) and Expected Assists (2.1) amongst all players in the Europa League, as the Hammers attempt to follow up last season's Europa Conference League glory by winning even more prestigious silverware on the continent this term.
Having last turned out in European competition for Southampton in the Europa League way back in the 2016/17 season, a return to this elite level of club football is something Ward-Prowse has certainly relished:
It means everything [to be playing in Europe]. I think the last couple of years I’d normally be settling down with a cup of tea to watch these sort of games with my slippers on.
- James Ward-Prowse, October 2023
There is no getting away from the fact that Ward-Prowse's set piece taking ability is one of his game's key strengths, something the midfielder himself acknowledges.
Incredibly, of Ward-Prowse's nine assists in all competitions so far this season, a total of seven have come from corners.
With notable height and power within the West Ham ranks, including players such as captain Kurt Zouma, Nayef Aguerd, Tomas Soucek and Michail Antonio, it goes without saying that the Hammers pose a huge threat from set-piece situations when you factor in Ward-Prowse's sensational delivery.
As for the quality of his free-kicks, the numbers speak for themselves - Ward-Prowse's tally of 17 free kick goals in the Premier League is currently second to only David Beckham, who is one above him on 18.
Selecting Beckham's iconic number seven to adorn his West Ham shirt when signing from Southampton in the summer, Ward-Prowse is on record as having idolised the former England captain as a kid and sought to emulate his free-kick taking prowess:
"He was someone I emulated as a kid growing up in the garden and would want to perfect his free kicks and copied a few of his hairstyles along the way which I won’t be doing now.
He was definitely an idol for me growing up."
Ward-Prowse's much-revered free kick exploits have culminated in a unique phenomenon within Premier League grounds, with a palpable anticipation swirling whenever his team are fouled in and around the opposition's penalty area.
His technique in these situations is so good that it's almost as if his side have been awarded a penalty.
Amongst Ward-Prowse's army of admirers is none other than Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, who stated ahead of a meeting against Southampton in January 2022:
"Southampton have the best free-kick taker I have ever seen, or at least he is in the world right now."
The Englishman's new teammate at West Ham, Czech right-back Vladimir Coufal, has been equally impressed by Ward-Prowse's ability from dead balls:
"He is absolutely world class. He reminds me of Andrea Pirlo or Juninho Pernambucano. He chooses the spot and he delivers exactly to that spot. It is easy for him. His kicking technique is absolutely amazing."
Despite his well documented free-kick statistics at Southampton, Ward-Prowse is actually yet to convert a free-kick in West Ham colours, a fact the 29-year-old will likely be eager to address as soon as possible.
It's also important to stress that the Englishman is far from a one-trick pony, something West Ham boss Moyes and Ward-Prowse have both been keen to stress his arrival at the London Stadium.
An energetic midfielder not averse to sticking the boot in where necessary, ex-Southampton skipper Ward-Prowse has referenced discussions he held with Moyes prior to signing for West Ham about filling the leadership void at the club left by previous captains Declan Rice and Mark Noble, who have both departed over the past two years.
For Ward-Prowse, the external fixation on his set-piece ability can at times seem to override other aspects of his game:
I’ve worked very hard over the course of my career to work on lots of different things, not just the set pieces. Of course it’s one of the strongest assets in my game but I do believe I get stereotyped with that set piece thing. It’s up to me to show people that I can do more than that.
- James Ward-Prowse, August 2023
|Morten Gamst Pedersen
While Ward-Prowse has received plenty plaudits for his impressive start to his West Ham career, one man who is seemingly yet to be fully convinced of his quality is England manager Gareth Southgate.
Since transferring to West Ham in August, Ward-Prowse has been left out of three separate England squads by Southgate, and last turned out for country in a 0-0 draw against Italy in the Nations League back in June 2022.
Although the England squad is on the whole arguably as strong as it has ever been, central midfield could be acknowledged to be one of the weaker areas, a fact which makes Ward-Prowse's repeated omission from the set up at St George's Park increasingly difficult to understand.
With Arsenal's man-of-the-moment Declan Rice seemingly the only nailed on starter in central midfield for England at present, it appears as though there ought to be competition for places in this position ahead of next summer's Euros in Germany.
In the most recent England squad called up for Euros Qualifiers against Malta and North Macedonia, Southgate opted for Jordan Henderson, Kalvin Phillips and Conor Gallagher as his central midfield options alongside automatic pick Rice.
There are thus justifiable grounds for Ward-Prowse to feel hard done by, with Henderson making a controversial switch to the Saudi Pro League in the summer, Phillips having participated in just 89 minutes of league action for Man City so far this season, and Gallagher's total of four goal contributions in the Premier League half that of the West Ham man.
If international selection ought to be a meritocracy, such a principle is certainly not being applied in the case of Ward-Prowse's England hopes at present.
Of course, in reality there a number of factors which formulate the England manager's thinking when it comes to selecting his squads, such as loyalty to those who have served him well previously and his tactical plans, both of which may see Ward-Prowse's credentials cast aside.
Whatever Southgate's thinking, Ward-Prowse undoubtedly holds a strong case for international selection, and with injuries and form such fluctuating factors to consider in the sport of football, it would not come as a big surprise should West Ham's free-kick maestro find a way into England's Euros squad come the end of the season.
He [Southgate] is taking the mick. Ward-Prowse, how on Earth is he not getting a call up? It’s embarrassing, the stats that he has, everything that he’s doing, been playing week in, week out for years.
- Michail Antonio, West Ham striker, October 2023