While fixtures against San Marino and Albania are hardly the most interesting for England, this cluster of World Cup qualifying games is the final hurdle the Three Lions face before they jump on the plane for the European Championship this summer.
And with Poland still to play, there has been plenty for Gareth Southgate to learn about his side before the tournament. Namely, understanding how to ensure such a talented crop builds on the efforts of their run at the 2018 World Cup, so that everyone can spend summer running around bulk ordering pints and wearing waistcoats once again.
With such an immense roster of attacking talent, using a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 in 2018 immediately meant that it was a struggle to piece together the attack so ruthlessly, with the focus on defence. England must move on from that this year, however, and getting the midfield balance right is key to that.
James Ward-Prowse has never really been held in ‘England regular’ esteem, and is rarely even in the conversation of the Premier League’s top midfielders. The 26-year-old has impressed this season, though, and his individual performances for England in the March international break thus far are a sign of that.
Central midfield is perhaps England’s weakest area. A collection of players who are solid, but beyond Jordan Henderson, there is a distinct lack of the same certified game-winning ability that the squad possesses in attack. Declan Rice is a competent defensive midfielder, but with Henderson a doubt for the Euros, Ward-Prowse feels like the best option to step into the empty slot should it come to it.
Again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. These solid performances have come against San Marino and Albania. But, you can only play what’s in front of you and the attitude of the Southampton man has been a positive, bagging his first international goals in the process.
What he lacks in a consistent, game-defining passing range and defensive attributes, he makes up for with an unrelenting engine and obvious leadership qualities, serving as Southampton’s captain at club level.
There are shouts for Kalvin Phillips to take the spot that Ward-Prowse would occupy, and while there are concerns that neither are truly at the require level, Phillips is simply too defensive an inclusion when considering that Rice is already in the XI – he could come in very handy in tougher fixtures, though.
Ward-Prowse does the dirty work. He’s not the most flashy, nor is he going to regularly pick out passes that we won’t see even after 100 attempts, but he does the important jobs. There’s a lot of ridiculing about running and only being in a side to press, but it is an increasingly important part of the game and having someone box-to-box like the 26-year-old guarantees a tireless performance, with Jude Bellingham still a little green and Mason Mount not quite suited to the deeper role over a full tournament.
Consider also that he loves a set piece, it seems like Southgate might warm to him fairly quickly in summer, which is understandable. Not only does his inclusion feel like the best suited replacement should Henderson not be fit, but he brings a unique quality from dead-ball situations that amplifies England’s threat significantly, especially when considering how the likes of Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and Jack Grealish (just kidding, he isn’t playing, is he?) can beat a man and draw fouls in dangerous areas.
Is it the most glamorous option? No. If Henderson is out for the Euros, then Gareth Southgate has a huge headache regardless of how he navigates replacing him throughout the tournament. And while Ward-Prowse is by no means destined for international greatness, he could certainly do a job with some healthy rotation, and allows England to play both a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3.
He’s not perfect, but he might just be the ideal man in Southgate’s system in summer.