‘Best in the world’ England star could solve Pep Guardiola's Fernandinho conundrum at Man City

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What is it about Pep Guardiola and Southampton players?

Manchester City head to St Mary’s on Saturday buoyed by a 12-game winning streak in the league and an 11-point lead at the top of the table, but there is no way Guardiola will be taking his weekend opponents lightly.

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Each time this fixture comes around we remember the City boss’ impromptu and mildly terrifying words of encouragement to Nathan Redmond as the Blues won a November 2017 thriller deep into stoppage time thanks to Raheem Sterling.

The FA investigated the unusual incident and Saints winger Redmond said Guardiola “was very passionate, intense and aggressive but he was only very complimentary and positive to me”.

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It might be wise for James Ward-Prowse to brace himself ahead of the weekend.

“He’s the best [dead-ball] taker right now worldwide. There isn’t a better taker than Ward-Prowse,” Guardiola marvelled at his Friday news conference, having no doubt watched the England star’s 35-yard effort at Wolves last time out with a mixture of admiration and trepidation.

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“He’s so good at it that maybe you miss a little bit his quality as a football player and, as a football player, he is exceptional as well.

“He is a guy who adapts in different positions, he is a team player who has great quality without the ball and with the ball, understanding the game.

“At free-kicks, corners he is exceptional and people pay more attention on that.”

Guardiola also hailed “exceptional” Saints manager Ralph Hasenhuttl as “one of the best in the league by far”. At this point, it’s hard not to imagine Guardiola in his playing pomp pouring over VHS copies of Matt Le Tissier’s best moments on days off at Barcelona.

But an issue looming over City’s squad this summer means Pep’s praise of Ward-Prowse could amount to a little more than mere warm words.

Fernandinho will be 37 and out of contract at the end end of the season, while Rodri’s imperious form makes City a tough sell to an ambitious specialist defensive midfielder.

A technically adept performer such as Ward-Prowse, who can fill in at number six but also play in more progressive midfield roles, might just fit the bill.

‘Best in the world’ England star could solve Pep Guardiola's Fernandinho conundrum at Man City
© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images James Ward-Prowse of Southampton runs with the ball past Bernardo Silva of Manchester City during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Southampton at Etihad Stadium on March 10, 2021 in Manchester, England. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors.

As Guardiola noted, the 27-year-old’s show-stopping exploits from dead-ball situations mean his overall capabilities can fall under the radar.

Only Jack Grealish (35) has completed more key passes – a pass leading to an attempt on goal – than Ward-Prowse (32) in City’s squad this season.

His supreme ability from long-range means six Premier League goals this term outperforms his expected goals (xG) figure by 2.7. That’s the ninth-best in the division and in the same ballpark as Kevin De Bruyne (+3.2) and Bernardo Silva (+2.9).

The creative burden placed on Ward-Prowse is not one he would enjoy at City. His pass completion of 77.5% in the Premier League this season is similar to De Bruyne’s (75.7%) and indicates a player with similar responsibility for playing game-breaking passes. Bernardo and Ilkay Gundogan clock in above 85%, while Rodri is in excess of 90.

Bernardo exemplifies the combination of technical quality and tenacity required to thrive in a Guardiola midfield and Ward-Prowse holds his own alongside the Portugal favourite in the latter regard. He has won 18 of 30 tackles in the Premier League this season, compared to Bernardo’s 22/36, while the duo have 93 and 94 successful pressures respectively.

There will be higher-profile, more A-list pieces of business on the agenda for City this summer, but if Guardiola’s admiration of Ward-Prowse extends beyond press conference pleasantries then maybe he is worthy of a little more attention after the dust settles on Saturday’s teatime tussle.

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