James Ward-Prowse has moved away from the nice guy image, with extra bite and aggression in his game bringing about an upturn in fortunes at Southampton and a return to the England set-up.
Two years on from his one and only senior cap in Germany, the 24-year-old midfielder was brought into the squad on Monday after injuries took their toll on Gareth Southgate’s squad.
Eyebrows were raised at Ward-Prowse’s initial omission after performing so impressively for Saints, having scored six goals since the turn of the year and improving his all-round game under manager Ralph Hasenhuttl.
Long considered to be a nice, technically-gifted midfielder, the Austrian has made him tackle more and play with aggression and the kind of edge epitomised by his reaction to Wilfried Zaha’s sending off in January.
“I think that’s pretty summed it up well,” Ward-Prowse said with a smile.
“It is a good thing to be nice but to get to a certain level you have to have that bite and difference and ultimately, I want to play week in, week out and if the manager demands certain things of me, I have to abide by it and change my ways.
“I feel I have benefited as a person and as a player from those changes.”
This England call-up marks quite the turnaround for Ward-Prowse, who was linked to an exit last summer and was struggling for game-time just a matter of months ago.
Hasenhuttl has given the Saints midfielder a new lease of life, with the 24-year-old keen to create his own image and “stamp on things” having long been put up as a model academy graduate.
“Having come through the academy at Southampton I have always been known as the academy boy, the way to go,” Ward-Prowse said.
“Since the new manager at Southampton came in, he mentioned a few things I needed to change, and I took that on board.
“I want to get away from that perception of the Southampton academy boy. That’s not what I want to be anymore. That played a part in it for sure.
“A bit more aggressive, to try and stamp my authority a bit more on what’s going on, so it was a good conversation I had, and I respected the way he approached me with that.
“I have utmost respect for him. He told me my strengths, my weaknesses and I feel I have benefited from that.”
One clear strength has always been set pieces, with Ward-Prowse netting in back-to-back games against Manchester United and Tottenham.
“The obvious ones come to mind: (David) Beckham, (Steven) Gerrard and (Frank) Lampard,” he said of free-kick takers he admired.
“I watched videos of them but ultimately I created my own technique, what was right for me, a lot of hard work, a lot of hours on the training pitch.
“It is nice to get moments in games like against Tottenham to win us the game, it is nice to see those moments paying off.”
Southgate called Ward-Prowse a “world-class deliverer of set-plays” after omitting him from the England squad – comments the midfielder saw after finding out he had not made the cut last week.
The England manager did not hide his admiration for the midfielder, though, and joked that he was sometimes accused of being father of a player he previously named as captain of the Under-21s.
Southgate was senior manager when Ward-Prowse made his debut two years ago, with the midfielder returning to the fold as a more mature man and player.
“A lot of things have happened in those two years,” he said.
“I’ve had different managers and been in and out of the team. I’ve had difficult experiences and obviously there’s been the birth of my son.
“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but I feel like I’m in the strongest position I’ve ever been as a person and as a player.”
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