What more does James Ward-Prowse have to do?

James Ward-Prowse (Photo by Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images,)
James Ward-Prowse (Photo by Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images,) /

Another international break is upon us, and James Ward-Prowse has not been picked for Gareth Southgate’s England squad. The former Three Lions under-21 captain has not been picked for England since a 2022 Nations League match against Italy and will have to wait to add to his 11 senior caps.

Southgate has come under fire in recent years for favoring players based on their history with the England team, despite their club form. But this omission of Prowsey is the most egregious yet. The biggest criticism of the former Southampton captain is just that — he played for Southampton. He has performed at an elite level, but never on an elite stage. Couple that with the sentiment (only held by people who don’t watch him consistently) that he is a set-piece merchant, and his lack of England caps makes sense.

The issue with that is that it’s all bollocks. After Southampton’s relegation, the former one-club man got a dream move to West Ham, where he has taken to his new club like a rabbit shot out of a cannon: 2 goals and 3 assists in 6 Premier League appearances. But he doesn’t do it on the big stage, some say. How about 3 assists in two Europa League games? And if you like advanced statistics — you’re in luck.

James Ward-Prowse is playing lights-out football

Prowsey is 89th percentile in expected assisted goals per 90, 87th in shot-creating actions per 90, 82nd in interceptions per 90, and a whopping 95th in non-penalty goals per 90. Yes, he still struggles with ball progression and carries (44th percentile in progressive passes, 13th in carries, and 5th in take-ons), but West Ham have played to his strengths by allowing him to roam higher up the pitch, and they have been richly rewarded.

All that is to say the 28-year-old James Ward-Prowse is playing some of the finest football of his career. If there was ever a time for him to play meaningful matches for England, it is now. And Southgate’s men have a meaningful match to play: a Euro qualifying date with Italy. A loss would see Italy draw level with the Three Lions on points in their group, with Ukraine and North Macedonia lurking just 3 points back.

But Southgate has once again gone with his usual favorites. There are some deserved fresh faces in the side, namely Eddie Nketiah, Ollie Watkins, Levi Colwill, Lewis Dunk, and West Ham’s own Jarrod Bowen. But in midfield, two names stand out: Jordan Henderson, and Kalvin Phillips (not mentioning Harry Maguire here, he plays a completely different position, and analyzing his inclusion is a completely different article).

If you are James Ward-Prowse, these were the players whose spot you were targeting. Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham are shoo-ins for the midfield role. Conor Gallagher also likely deserves his spot over Prowsey, but it’s closer than most might think. But what on earth have Phillips and Henderson done in 2023 to earn their places? Henderson no longer plays in a top league, having completed a move to Saudi Arabian side Al-Ettifaq in the summer, and is pushing into his 30s. And Kalvin Phillips doesn’t even play at all anymore.

Phillips got his big move from Leeds to Manchester City in 2022. Since then in 2022-2023 he played 300 Premier League minutes, in 2023-2024 so far just 73. None of those were starts. JWP has played more minutes so far this season in the Premier League (530) than Phillips has in two years. And Kalvin Phillips’ only statistic since his move to City: one yellow card…no goals, no assists.

Add on JWP’s versatility (he can play as a 6, 8, 10, and even right back in a pinch), and the decision to leave him out is mind-boggling. In Prowsey, you have a guy who is one of the best dead ball specialists in the world, will give you a guaranteed chance to score from any set-piece situation, and is at the top of all the other facets of his game right now. Would you rather have him, or an aging Jordan Henderson plus a man who isn’t playing for his club?

But Henderson and Phillips have been targets of England fans’ ire at Southgate for quite some time. This isn’t breaking news. However, the biggest ramification from this snubbing of JWP is this: what else can he do? He’s playing about as well as he can, in a top league, in European competition, and still couldn’t crack the team.

In previous years, Southgate could lean on Southampton’s poor record or Prowsey being out of form. Not anymore. Gareth Southgate has told any England midfielder dreaming of playing for their country — until my favorites literally cannot kick a ball anymore, the team is closed. Don’t even bother trying. Your form means nothing.

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And this could hurt England down the road. If you are a young, up-and-coming talent looking to commit your future to a national side, wouldn’t you want a place where you earn your position based on merit alone? England already missed out on the Folarin Balogun sweepstakes to the US national team, and there are quite a few dual-eligibility wonderkids in the pipeline. Michael Olise, Noni Madueke, Anthony Gordon, Marcus Edwards, and many others are watching.