In many eyes, Paul Scholes is one of the most underrated players in Premier League history. A league which revels in midfielders that are either bruising bullies in battle or have cannonball shots worthy of scorching the net from improbable distances, Scholes was much more of the Spanish or Italian variety: a pace setter who had the control of the entire pitch on offense, and an eagle-eyed artist who never found a pass too demanding.
Scholes amassed an amazing 499 appearances for Manchester United yet only 66 for the Three Lions. In comparison, fellow Englishman Steven Gerrard has made 494 appearances for Liverpool but almost doubles Scholes’s international appearances with 114. Even though Scholes was an incredible presence in the United side, he never was emblematic of English football, with the Red Devil fans preferring Beckham, Rooney, the Welshman Ryan Giggs, or the Irish Roy Keane. There just was nothing eye-popping to Paul’s game, despite being a technical genius.
Now, there’s a young English player very reminiscent to Scholes and the way he plays in the baby-faced James Ward-Prowse. Ward-Prowse is technically remarkable, only being rivaled in his age group by the 22-year-old Marco Verratti. His pass to Saido Mane to score Southampton’s first goal against Arsenal was just the latest display at how comfortable he is at being asked to do, well, almost anything with the ball. He’s already an accomplished set piece taker, an extraordinary crosser of the ball for someone placed in the middle of the field, and even beats all his U-20 countrymen in crossbar challenge quite handily. He’s also one of the top two talents in the country (behind only Raheem Sterling), and an integral cog in the Southampton machine.
Yet, he is largely ignored for his style of play. He’s not a key pass machine like teammate Dusan Tadic, he doesn’t average over 80 passes per game like Yaya Toure and Cesc Fabregas, he’s not very developed defensively (yet), doesn’t score goals (like, at all, still hasn’t scored in the EPL), and isn’t anything eye popping.
He’s still 20, he’s technically gifted, and he’s showing moments of brilliance. For every brilliant bit of attacking play the Saints show, James is not far behind it.
He’s not old enough yet to be a controller in the midfield, but is gifted enough of a passer that he’s a must start in the Southampton midfield, as the club suffered a meltdown when he was off injured earlier this season. During his absence, the Saints lost to both Manchester clubs, Arsenal and Burnley.
(Stats via WhoScored)
But he doesn’t have the blistering speed and physical gifts of Raheem or Luke Shaw, or isn’t the shot taking hub of Harry Kane, or the goal smashing ability of Ross Barkley, or the big club prestige of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Ward-Prowse is a much more subtle being, both on and off the field.
He’s far from the typical English star.
Yet that’s exactly what England needs to take the next step with the new generation.