The routine is almost like a religious ritual with its precise movements. He bounces the ball twice before spinning it in his hands to reveal the Nike symbol. Gently placing it on the ground, he takes four steps back at a 45-degree angle and shuffles to set his feet. A quick wipe of his nose on his sleeve and a final glance at his target. Then, a small pause, as all great artists require, where the picture is already complete, but only James Ward-Prowse can envision it.
The initial action is in reverse: a slight quarter-step, a bounce that will propel him forward. Then comes the burst: four rapid strides, the final one concluding with the left foot firmly planted and the right leg powerfully extended, with the calf touching the back of the thigh.
If you pause the video at the point of impact, Ward-Prowse appears to be a person in the midst of a painful fall. His body forms a capital J shape, with his hips bent sharply and his legs stretched out in front at varying angles. His eyes remain focused on the ball until it is well into the air. The strength of his swing propels him off the ground. It seems impossible for a human body to achieve this movement, let alone repeatedly and consistently without sustaining injury.
This passage implies that despite the abundance of data and scrutiny in football, there are certain aspects that remain unknown. After playing in the Premier League for ten years, Ward-Prowse is still somewhat of an enigma. While his skills are recognized, the methods behind them are a mystery. It is perplexing how something as basic as kicking a football, a common action that many dedicate their lives to, can be transformed into something unique, exceptional, and aesthetically pleasing.
West Ham’s victory against Nottingham Forest on Sunday, where Ward-Prowse displayed his skills, is just one example of his exceptional ability. After a few initial attempts, he successfully executed two corner kicks that led to goals from Jarrod Bowen and Tomas Soucek, turning the game around from a 2-1 deficit. However, simply labeling them as “deliveries” downplays the true artistry of Ward-Prowse’s set pieces. His accuracy, along with the incredible dip and swerve, sets him apart from any other footballer in the world, including big names like Lionel Messi, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Dani Parejo, and Alexia Putellas. None of them can currently match Ward-Prowse’s talent in this aspect.
What is the reason for feeling silly while typing that statement? Why does it seem ironic to classify James Ward-Prowse, the midfielder for West Ham, who is not on the English team and will never be considered for the Ballon d’Or, as one of the most creative players in the sport? This could be due in part to the casual attitude towards set-piece skill in this country, viewing it as a common and unremarkable ability, almost separate from the game rather than an integral part of it.
One of England’s most well-known football players, David Beckham, is often seen in various roles such as celebrity, icon, businessman, and brand. However, his skills as a ball-striker are often overlooked. In comparison to the traditional English midfielder, Beckham had a unique style of play. He was not one to tackle or be tackled, nor did he aim to get injured or cover the entire field. Instead, he focused on his precise ball-striking abilities, which made him incredibly effective on the field. As a result, English football tends to discuss Beckham in a more abstract manner rather than analyzing his specific strengths and techniques.
There has been a longstanding reluctance in most coverage of the game to analyze fundamental techniques. While tactics, systems, space, and shape are often discussed, the more basic aspects of the game, such as touch and control, are often overlooked. On Sunday’s Match of the Day 2, there was a three-minute segment dedicated to discussing Ward-Prowse without any attempt to demystify his skills. Mark Chapman suggested that his delivery is simply too good while Alan Shearer repeatedly praised Ward-Prowse’s set-piece abilities, showing endless replays of him hitting the ball into a designated electronic box. Shearer also emphasized that Ward-Prowse’s precise deliveries give his teammates a great chance to score.
Undoubtedly, there is technology available to conduct a more precise examination. This is evident from its frequent usage in reviewing fouls and handball calls with meticulous attention to detail. It is also utilized to analyze golf swings, spin bowling, and tennis serves. However, what sets Ward-Prowse apart in terms of accuracy? How does he manage to generate a higher number of revolutions on the ball? Why are others unable to replicate this? And why does it appear so impressive?
Maybe nobody is aware. It may be simpler to praise and admire, to analyze statistics and give our thoughts on whether he would be a good fit for Gareth Southgate’s midfield next summer. The topic of beauty is not discussed enough in football. We also don’t discuss form enough. This may not make a difference to Ward-Prowse, as he is already familiar with those four perfect strides to the point where he could perform them in his sleep. It seems like the rest of us are being excluded from this secret.