After scoring the winner in the friendly against pre-tournament favourites Germany, James Ward-Prowse would have not only disappointed to have seen the England under-21 squad crash out of the European Championships, but have played just sixty minutes whilst out in the Czech Republic.
Despite being part of an England midfield that was dominated by their Portuguese counterparts, coming against William Carvalho of Sporting Lisbon and Bernardo Silva of Monaco, Ward-Prowse may have perhaps felt that his dropping was rather harsh; his replacements hardly shone bright, either.
But this perhaps sums up where the 20 year old is right now. Many pundits, journalists and Premier League watchers bill the affectionately named ‘JWP’ as the next bright England talent, the saviour… some even go as far as the heir to Steven Gerrard’s recently vacated throne.
Yet Ward-Prowse is a hot topic amongst Southampton fans, but instead of being discussed as a world star in the making, the next off the Staplewood conveyer belt, it’s the complete opposite: many Southampton fans simply do not rate him.
His lack of goals, especially for someone who plays as the most advanced midfielder for Southampton, is a regular criticism; having scored just two goals in 90 appearances for Saints, having not scored from open play back in 2012, it’s a justified argument. Six assists outweigh this, but four were in the space of a month, with his last coming in the away win at Newcastle in January.
But for many Southampton fans, the biggest question is often wondering what exactly is his best position?
Where is he most effective?
His lack of pace rules him out from playing out wide in the front three Koeman likes to play with, yet many also see his lack of strength ruling him out from a more defensive position, so he has to play more advanced.
Yet when Ward-Prowse does play as the most advanced midfielder, Graziano Pellè has looked isolated up front. It was very noticeable how much closer Ward-Prowse would get to Pellè after half time; a clear instruction from his club manager Ronald Koeman.
The fact that the 20-year-old has played four different midfield positions under Pochettino and Koeman, even as an emergency right back on occasion, adds to this uncertainty; he hasn't got a position he truly can call his own.
Next season sees Ward-Prowse face his toughest yet. Whilst be in touching distance of reaching 100 career appearances before he can even touch a drop of alcohol in the United States (not that he would, anyway), it also brings with it a bigger amount of responsibility. Any errors he makes wouldn’t be afforded the excuse of youthful naivety, anymore.
2015/16 also promises to be a new era at St Mary’s. Not just a return to European football after a twelve-year absence, but for the first time in seven years Southampton won’t be able to call on the services of Morgan Schneiderlin, but perhaps that could be to Ward-Prowse’s advantage.
Although he played for just sixty minutes there this summer, Ward-Prowse played for England U-21’s as a defensive midfielder. Not as a traditional ball-winner like his regular partner Nathaniel Chalobah, but as someone who receives the ball from the centre backs, dictates the tempo and starts attacks.
Remarkably similar to the role Schneiderlin played for Southampton last season, the Frenchman’s exit could finally give ‘JWP’ the role he seems most suited to. Alongside the muscle of Victor Wanyama, Ward-Prowse could give Saints something the creativity from deep that was lacked last season.
There’s obviously the debate about whether the 20 year old would be strong enough for that role, but that would be something for the fitness coach Jan Kluitenberg to help the youngster with.
After all, Schneiderlin himself was much the same in terms of body shape when he was Ward-Prowse’s age, playing in the much more physical League One, but with time the Frenchman grew into his frame and perhaps history could repeat itself once more.
Saints have been heavily linked with midfielders, with Koeman’s former pupil and Feyenoord captain Jordy Clasie a definite target for the transfer committee, and that could present a problem for Ward-Prowse if he has similar ideas on playing where Schneiderlin played, especially with Clasie possessing not only similar traits but the aggression and defensive skills that many say Ward-Prowse simply does not have.
But whilst many see his strong points as just set pieces and crosses, Ward-Prowse also is incredibly iron-willed. This is someone who at 18 refused to go to Bournemouth on loan, despite being advised to by his coaches, because he felt he could break into the Southampton first team; by the end of that season, he had made 39 appearances. Point made.
Part of the frustration with Ward-Prowse is not only does he seem to possess the talent to go far, but the mentality too; if he didn’t fulfil his potential, it would be seen as a huge disappointment.
This season is his biggest challenge once again, and he needs to grasp it with both feet. With his first taste of European football and Schneiderlin departing, Ward-Prowse has to step up and show what he is made of.