Once Southampton's relegation was confirmed earlier in the year, the expectation was that James Ward-Prowse would make an immediate exit from St. Mary's. Rather, it wasn't until the start of August that the 28-year-old would leave Saints, actually featuring in their opening Championship game of the season as they beat Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 at Hillsbrough.
Saints were rightly digging their heels in over Ward-Prowse's exit. The midfielder had been a leading light in a dreary domestic campaign for the south coast side, and Saints were demanding a hefty fee for their captain. Ultimately a reported £30m fee was agreed between Southampton and West Ham last month and with each passing week, that price is looking all the more the bargain.
A brace of assists for the Hammers against TSC Backa Topola on Thursday night means that in five domestic and European appearances for West Ham, Ward Prowse has five assists and two goals to his name. Three of those have come in the Premier League, just two shy of matching Jarrod Bowen's return from 2022/23 campaign, the attacker West Ham's top assister last season.
There's a sound argument to be made that Ward-Prowse is already the signing of the season given his overall impact for the Hammers in the final third. West Ham have already scored 10 league goals this term, and are well on course to better their record of 42 from last season. Ward-Prowse has been directly involved in five of those. They've made a solid start to the campaign, which is all the more impressive when you consider the sale of Declan Rice over the summer.
⚒️ James Ward-Prowse's start to life at West Ham:— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) September 22, 2023
🆚 Chelsea - 🅰️🅰️
🆚 Brighton - ⚽️
🆚 Luton - 🅰️
🆚 Man City - ⚽️
🆚 FK TSC - 🅰️🅰️
👏 A goal or assist in each of his first 5 matches pic.twitter.com/PDRYSA7Mwk
Many felt West Ham would have really struggled following Rice's big money move to Arsenal, yet they look a more cohensive unit, and much of that is down to Ward-Prowse's influence in the middle of the park. Suddenly there isn't the pressure on Rice to essentially bail the Hammers out of danger, but rather when they do win the ball, they can look to Ward-Prowse to help keep possession, alleviating pressure on the goal in a different way.
Ward-Prowse's pass success rate of 89.3% is the best of all West Ham players and while the possession average is down from last season, albeit from a small sample size, the Hammers are able to get the ball forward faster and this is benefiting the attacking players at David Moyes' disposal. They receive possession quicker than last season, and with more space to run into, they are able to do more damage in the final third. It's no wonder that West Ham's attempted counter attacks per game are up from 0.56 to 0.80.
In addition, this forces opponents into action more frequently as they seek to stop the Hammers through any means possible. West Ham as a team are now fouled more frequently per game this season (9.2) than last season (8.3) and for a player of Ward-Prowse's ilk, this is another weapon that Moyes has sought to maximise.
It's no secret that Ward-Prowse is a dead ball specialist and this is reflected in that four of his five key passes in the Premier League this season have been from set-piece situations. Since the start of the 2022/23 campaign, Ward-Prowse ranks fifth for key passes from set-pieces of all West Ham players. And it's not just from free-kicks that the former Saints man can do damage. With West Ham breaking forward quicker, defenders are forced into last ditch challenges that often result in corners, and this plays into both Ward-Prowse and the east London side's hand.
The latter was maximised superbly in West Ham's 3-1 win over TSC Backa Topola on Thursday with both of Ward-Prowse's assists coming from corners. Considering the players at Moyes' disposal, it's hardly a surprise that this is a route to goal that the West Ham boss is pursuing and is evidently having a positive impact on the 2022/23 Europa Conference League winners.
A lack of competition in Ward-Prowse's services over the summer meant West Ham effectively had a clear run at the England international, which meant they were able to negotiate down Saints' initial asking price of £50m. Premier League sides that needed to strengthen in midfield in the off-season must now be looking on at West Ham enviously given Ward-Prowse's rapid success at the London Stadium. He's more than lived up to the billing in the capital, and for a fraction of the price West Ham sold Rice to Arsenal for, with the Hammers quickly moving on from their former captain and finding a new midfield hero in their summer arrival.