There's no mystery to why James Ward-Prowse isn't in the England squad - he isn't good enough
A lot of people think James Ward-Prowse should be in the England squad - but Gareth Southgate isn't one of them. Is he right to leave the West Ham man out?
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An immutable law of England team selections is that, regardless of the manager or circumstances, there must always be one player who persistent omission horrifies the general public and generates endless debate. Ahead of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, it was James Maddison. Now that he's firmly in the fold - or at least would be if he wasn't injured - focus has turned elsewhere. The spotlight seems to have fallen firmly on James Ward-Prowse.
There's no great mystery as to why. He's a brilliant set-piece taker, and one of the best in the world with a dead ball in front of him. On Sunday he drifted two pin-point corners into the box while playing for West Ham United, resulting in headed goals for Jarrod Bowen and Tomáš Souček and, in turn, a 3-2 win over Nottingham Forest. Without his delivery, the Hammers would likely have lost.
And that's hardly a flash in the pan - he's already up to two goals and five assists on the season, a pretty handy return for a nominally defensive midfielder, and it's not long ago that he reached double figures in scoring for Southampton two seasons running. When you have Ward-Prowse, you are guaranteed goals because his free-kicks and corners are as good as anyone in the game. He may well be the best set-piece taker in world football.
So why, when blessed with a player with such an exceptional talent, would Gareth Southgate not put him in his squad? Why does it look very much like he won't be heading to the next European Championship? To be blunt, it's pretty simple - apart from his dead balls, he isn't all that good.
Obviously, a statement like that needs qualification. Let's start with the raw numbers - as a midfielder, Ward-Prowse's game is based almost entirely on his passing, despite which his statistics aren't all that great. His pass completion over the last two seasons is 82%, which is below average for a midfielder in Europe's top leagues. His long passing completion is below 40%, which is deeply underwhelming and speaks to a limited creative range. He's also averages 4.36 'progressive' passes per game (completed passes over 10 yards in distance or into the box), which is worse than nearly two-thirds of players at an equivalent level. These are not the numbers of a creative powerhouse, at all.
To compare those key figures with Jordan Henderson, the midfielder whose continued selection seems to rile people up the most - Henderson hasn't got a much better passing completion rate (83.8%) but is miles ahead on long passes (64.6%) and on progressive passes (almost exactly eight per game). What that tells you is that Henderson is far, far better at getting the ball forward effectively and with regularity.
What makes those numbers especially important is that Southgate likes his central midfield to get the ball forward at pace to the front line. In a slower, tiki taka-style set-up, there would be an argument that Ward-Prowse's better rates at more economical, short-range passing would make him better, but that isn't what this England side are trying to do. They're trying to utilise the pace and dribbling skills of the wide forwards and Jude Bellingham, and that means quick, accurate balls forward. Henderson is very good at that. Ward-Prowse is simply not.
He's also no use with the ball at his feet - on average, he successfully dribbles past a player once every four games. Which is fine in the right set-up, of course, but that set-up isn't England's. Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips and Henderson are all demonstrably better running with the ball and at getting it forward effectively.
Of course, none of that factors the set pieces in, and there's obviously no debate that Ward-Prowse would immediately become England's best dead ball man if he was in the side. So how many goals are all those superb corners and free-kicks worth? On average over the past five seasons, he's chipped in with a goal or assist at a rate of slightly better than once every three games. That isn't bad at all, but is it such a great rate that it's worth his reduced contribution in other areas?
Over the course of a six-game run at the Euros - in other words, reaching the final - he'd expect to score or set up two goals. The question is whether that makes up for the fact that he can't add to the grander tactical scheme of the squad in the same way that other players in the same position can - and to offer the same comparison as before, Henderson adds a goal directly about once every six games. So basically, Ward-Prowse is worth about one extra goal over the course of a full major tournament campaign, although granted that Henderson's numbers do include a spell in Saudi Arabia, where his four assist have probably been slightly easier to come by that Ward-Prowse's have in the Premier League.
None of this is to suggest that Ward-Prowse is a bad player. That is demonstrably not the case. In one aspect of the game, he is among the best on the planet, and in the rest he is a tidy player who can keep play ticking over efficiently enough, who delivers respectable defensive performances, and who works well in a double pivot formation which looks for its deeper midfielders to keep in nice and tidy. In other words, he's a good fit for West Ham, for whom he is a fine player - but what England need is different, and frankly England's demands should be higher.
Ward-Prowse is a good Premier League player who does one thing exceptionally well. But when it comes to the creativity, dynamism, speed and guile that Southgate needs from his midfield - the blunt fact is that he simply isn't on the right level. Now, if you want to start wondering whether Curtis Jones should get a chance to show us what he can do...