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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Malik Ouzia

West Ham: James Ward-Prowse proves he is more than just a set-piece specialist

Had Nayef Aguerd headed in from any of the three first-half corners that James Ward-Prowse whipped, with predictable accuracy, right onto his bonce, the story of this game might have taken a more serene turn for West Ham. And for Ward-Prowse, after a few quiet weeks, a more familiar one at that.

Manager David Moyes had almost scoffed when asked ahead of Olympiacos's visit about the midfielder's run of six games without a goal or assist, given he managed at least one or the other in each of the season's first half-dozen matches. "Bad that, isn't it?" he said with a smirk.

But with Aguerd's failure to snaffle a hat-trick of chances of varying difficulty and style, one powered, one looped, one glanced, but none into the net, came a roundabout window of opportunity, Ward-Prowse instead left to craft a late winner for Lucas Paqueta from a domain some would have you believe is alien territory — open play.

On a night when West Ham dominated possession and did not give up a single shot on target, they had created precious little against the Greeks, Said Benrahma's decision-making off and Mohammed Kudus's lively bursts finding dead ends.

James Ward-Prowse is no one-trick pony (AFP via Getty Images)

With 15 minutes to play, though, and the Hammers on the brink of ceding control of Group A to Freiburg, Ward-Prowse picked the lock, a perfectly lofted pass in behind met by Paqueta on the volley, who, as the provider later joked, resisted his natural temptation for something outrageous and instead simply applied the prescribed finish.

The linesman's flag accused one or both of errant timing, but replays showed no such thing and — here is a sentence not written much of late — VAR thankfully intervened, handing West Ham the 1-0 victory that keeps them top of the group and on course for the knockout phase.

The assist, these days, bears almost as much currency as the goal, millions of fantasy football managers conditioned by instinct to meet news of any strike with the question of who laid it on. It is curious, then, that Ward-Prowse's set-piece prowess continues to be adopted as half-a-stick to beat him with, the perception one of a player whose dead-ball skills mask broader failings elsewhere.

Were that the case, plenty of managers — and certainly Moyes is in the category — would still take end product over show; Ward-Prowse now has nine goal involvements since signing for West Ham, five from set-pieces and four of them from open play. But this was a night on which the 29-year-old showcased all sides of his game, not only cracking the Greek defence but also bailing out his own on the one occasion when they threatened to be truly exposed, stopping a three-on-two break in its tracks with the scores still square.

"I think as players, we know," goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski said, when asked whether his team-mate goes under-appreciated as an all-round footballer. "Even when he was at Southampton, we knew that he was a really good player on the ball, in terms of controlling the tempo of the game, the passing game he has and today with a beautiful assist."

Earlier on Thursday, Ward-Prowse had again been left out of Gareth Southgate's England squad, though in truth, perhaps with less a sense of grievance than when omitted from either of the previous two.

Quickly, though, a player who for a long while seemed destined to be a one-club man has been recognised for all his worth in pastures new.

"We always knew the quality he had and we see it even more now he's in our team," Fabianski added. "Hopefully, he can stay at this level for a long, long time and be a very important player for us — from set-pieces and playmaking on the pitch."

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