In Focus: Skipper Ward-Prowse answering Saints' survival prayers
When Southampton needed him most, captain James Ward-Prowse inspired Nathan Jones’ side to a crucial win at Everton.
The 28-year-old midfielder scored two excellent goals to earn the Saints a 2-1 comeback victory at Goodison Park — their first in the Premier League since the former Luton boss took the reins.
With Aston Villa up next on Saturday, we look at the talismanic role their skipper could play in their bid for survival.
Moving on up
Ward-Prowse thrived for several years at St Mary’s as one of two deep-lying midfield pivots in Ralph Hasenhuttl's system — but he has taken on an entirely different role under the new manager.
Moving to an advanced midfield position in a 4-2-3-1 formation in three of Southampton’s last four games in all competitions, Ibrahima Diallo and Romeo Lavia are tasked with providing support in deeper areas.
That gives the England international license to get forward and maximise his immense goalscoring ability as much as possible.
The homegrown hero said of his new position: "I get a bit dizzy being that high up the pitch, it’s slightly different.
"But having spoken to the manager he sees me as one of those goalscoring midfielders. To have that license to ghost in the box and get those important goals is great.
"I think it’s a slightly different role and that opens up a different role for somebody else."
Among the goals
And while that shift forward is a relatively recent tactical tweak by Jones, there has clearly been an emphasis placed on getting his No8 in front of goal as much as possible since arriving on the South Coast.
Scoring once and managing and one assist under Hasenhuttl this season, Ward-Prowse has netted five times and set up another in eight games under the Welsh coach in all competitions.
What is more, Ward-Prowse has been taking significantly more shots at goal — averaging two per 90 minutes compared to just 0.86 previously.
His exceptional ball-winning numbers have largely stayed the same, though he is now reclaiming possession higher up the pitch — up to 0.6 times each game from only 0.07 before.
Jones said of his main man: "We had to give him a platform.
"We played him a little bit higher so he can be more aggressive as his distances are through the roof week-in, and week-out, so we know we can get a lot out of him. Everything he does is excellent."
Ward-Prowse arguably saved his most vital contribution of the campaign for the Saints' biggest game of the season so far.
The rock-bottom side’s clash with struggling Everton had all the makings of a relegation six-pointer before kick-off, with a defeat inflicting an almightly blow to the loser’s hopes of beating the drop.
So when they went 1-0 down through Amadou Onana’s header, you could forgive even the most optimistic of Saints fans for fearing the worst.
Step forward Ward-Prowse, who was on hand to once again drag his team out of the depths of trouble.
The classy operator stunned Goodison Park when he equalised only a minute into the second half, exhibiting the benefits of his new advanced position by latching on to Che Adams’ nod down before expertly stroking the ball past Jordan Pickford.
His winner 12 minutes from time was a more familiar sight, as he beautifully curled home a free-kick into Pickford’s right-hand corner with a strike that left the England stopper rooted to the spot.
With his 16th successful free-kick in the Premier League, Ward-Prowse is edging ever closer to David Beckham's record of 18 in the English top flight.
While Jones can take plenty of credit for Ward-Prowse’s resurgence, it also coincides with another significant moment in his season.
For the second major tournament running, the midfielder once again missed out on England’s World Cup squad despite being a regular feature in Gareth Southgate’s plans prior to the Qatar showpiece.
His club manager believes that is one of the driving forces behind Ward-Prowse's sensational recent showings.
After the win on Merseyside, Jones said: "My first conversation with him was 10 minutes after he didn’t get picked for the England squad.
"Since that moment, he’s been absolutely world class for me. The way he reacted and the performances you’re seeing now, it’s really motivated and driven.
"He's one of the best technicians I've ever seen. The consistency he shows is world class. I mean it's world class.
"It genuinely is and in everything he does and his desire to play for Southampton, his humility in terms of everything — I can't speak of him highly enough."
In-form Aston Villa are next in line to face the Saints as Jones' men look to record successive Premier League wins for the first time this season.
With players all seemingly singing from the same hymn sheet and a talent like Ward-Prowse in this kind of form, they will fancy themselves against anyone as they continue to fight for their top-flight survival.