James Ward-Prowse knew he was going to score even before he put the ball down. The Southampton captain had already found the top corner with one free-kick at Aston Villa last Sunday and he had bent another from the flank on to the head of his teammate Jannik Vestergaard to open the scoring. Now he had an opportunity bang in the middle, one yard outside the Villa area.
Was it too close to work his trademark up-and-down technique? Vestergaard thought so. The big centre-half told Ward-Prowse he should just let him smack it. Ward-Prowse was incredulous.
“I turned round to Jannik as if to be like: ‘Are you sure? Hang on. This is my area of expertise,’” Ward-Prowse says. “I just saw the way the wall was set up, the way the keeper was and I said to him: ‘No. I’ve got this.’ I was so confident in my ability that I was like: ‘I’m going to score again here.’ To have that feeling is unbelievable.”
This is what the highest grade of self-belief looks like, the heady culmination of years of hard work on the training ground, the distillation of every tiny detail. Ward-Prowse duly got the ball up and over a jumping Villa wall and back down with plenty to spare. It ended up fizzing into the corner of the net.
Southampton were 3-0 up going into half-time – they would win 4-3 to cement their status as the Premier League’s most in-form team over the past five games – and Ward-Prowse had created a little piece of history. Matt Le Tissier had held the club record for the number of free-kick goals scored in the Premier League era with seven. Now Ward-Prowse had eight. They have come from 64 attempts, giving him a conversion rate of 13% – the highest since Opta began keeping the statistic in 2003-04.
The art of free-kick-taking has long held fans in thrall, with the latest twist being offered by the players that strike the valve on the ball such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Marcus Rashford and Gareth Bale. They get it to wobble and fade and swerve viciously in flight. Ward-Prowse is from the David Beckham school, his style all about whip and dip, an angle of connection that is so extreme it almost leads him to fall over.
“I’ve seen a few still images of my body and the way I am when I strike the ball and it baffles me a little bit,” Ward-Prowse says. “You think: ‘I’m putting stress on my body, I shouldn’t be able to walk some days if I’ve taken 10 free-kicks in a row.’ But I’ve just adapted my body to deal with it. I find that this technique allows me to get the up and down I need to be on target. Everybody’s technique is different. Some players will be upright. I think with Rashford, he is quite hunched over the ball to try to get that dip side of things.”
Watching Ward-Prowse at every stage of his routine, it is difficult to ignore the parallels to Beckham, which is not surprising given how he idolised the former England captain. Beckham remains on top of the Premier League free-kicks scored list with 18; the next best are Thierry Henry and Gianfranco Zola with 12.
“Beckham was the one for me,” Ward-Prowse says. “Not only his free-kicks but his overall image. I copied every haircut, I wanted his boots, I wanted to wear his number. He was the guy that I looked up to and thought: ‘Wow.’ He had that effect on me and inspired me to try and take free-kicks.
“I’ve lost count of the amount of people that have mentioned the similarities in our techniques. But I do feel there are differences as well. I know Beckham’s was the big arm swing and he was kind of leant back a bit more. He wasn’t as hunched over the ball. And when I strike it, I tend to jump to force that up and down movement. The more I’ve tried to develop a technique, I’ve just found my own way of doing it.”
Like Beckham, Ward-Prowse has come to feel a sense of expectation when he addresses a free-kick and it is something that he embraces together with the theatre of the moment, the perfect stillness. “The game freezes for a minute,” Ward-Prowse says. “And it’s even more pronounced at the moment without fans because it really does fall silent. The referee’s whistle blows and everyone is just waiting.”
Ward-Prowse always places the ball with the sponsor’s logo facing upwards. It is not out of superstition, rather a deliberate muscle memory trigger, a note to self that, in his words, tells him: “This is a free-kick, the Nike tick is facing this way and I go from there.”
He adds: “I thought I needed a constant, something to set me in that rhythm. I believe in muscle memory – the more you practice an action, the more your body becomes in sync with it. Look at Roger Federer’s famous backhand down the line – the amount of times he’s hit that shot – or Jonny Wilkinson. I’ve read his book about the way he approaches things. If you practise so much and do so many repetitions, your body just synchronises, recognises the technique and improves your quality of strike.”
It was the former Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino who put Ward-Prowse on set pieces in the pre-season of 2013 and, back then, the midfielder would practise an awful lot. These days, he prioritises quality over quantity, hitting “maybe 10-12 free-kicks once a week”. He feels it better replicates the pressure of a match-day situation and helps him physically because “if I’m out there kicking loads of balls over and over, it’s not effective enough and not good for my body”.
Ward-Prowse says that he will analyse goalkeepers but, really, it comes down to his technique and body shape, to his mindset. “I’m a big believer in my technique and, if I can put the ball where I want to, no keeper can save it,” he says.
The 26-year-old goes as far to say that he backs himself more on free-kicks than penalties. He ceded spot-kick duties to Danny Ings last season, although his close friend is now out for four to six weeks with a knee injury. “I think I have more chance of scoring a free-kick than a penalty because a penalty is kind of 50-50, it could go either way, whereas with a free-kick, I feel I’ve got more power over the goalkeeper.”
Ward-Prowse speaks with clarity and conviction, having been steeled during a journey that began when he joined the Southampton academy as an eight-year-old. He can reflect on a particularly low point in December 2018, shortly after Ralph Hasenhüttl had taken over as the manager but, as ever, it provided the motivation for him to dig deeper.
Ward-Prowse had not been a fixture in the team before Hasenhüttl’s arrival yet things hit rock bottom when he was taken to Huddersfield for a league game only to be left out of the 18-man squad.
“I was sat in the stand, with a chocolate bar and a cup of tea to drown the sorrows, and I was thinking: ‘Is my future here with this manager?’” Ward-Prowse says. “When a new manager comes in, you are filled with the feeling that it can be a new beginning for you and straight away it was like that didn’t exist again.”
Hasenhüttl told him in no uncertain terms what he had to do to play in his team – the essence of it was that he needed to be more aggressive – and Ward-Prowse remembers giving teammate Stuart Armstrong a dead leg in training as he desperately tried to prove he could mix it. Ward-Prowse got back into the lineup at the end of that month and he has since missed parts of only two matches in all competitions. Hasenhüttl, who has regularly referred to him as a machine, gave him the captaincy towards the end of last season.
“I am incredibly proud of being the academy boy and coming through but that only gets you so far,” Ward-Prowse says. “When you are in the heat of a battle, you need to have a different side to you than maybe what the academy boy has. This manager has shown me that. If you want to win stuff and be successful, you need to have a different edge to you.”
Ward-Prowse knows that if Southampton can beat Newcastle at home on Friday night they would surge to the top of the table and having been named in all three of Gareth Southgate’s England squads this season, he has his sights set on the European Championship next summer.
The value that Southgate places on precision set-piece delivery is no secret. At the World Cup in Russia, six of England’s 12 goals came from corners or free-kicks and two of the successfully converted penalties were won following corners. Southgate described Ward-Prowse on Thursday as possessing “as good a delivery as anyone I have ever played with or managed” – and bear in mind that he played with Beckham. Could Ward-Prowse be ready to make the difference at the highest level?