James Ward-Prowse’s brilliant free-kick technique: the biomechanics analyzed

Not many players come close to Lionel Messi or David Beckham in their careers.

But James Ward-Prowse is just one goal away from Beckham’s direct free-kick record in the Premier League (18) after last month’s match-winner was away at Chelsea. He has already surpassed Beckham in free-kick goals away from home (11) and the typically brilliant shot at Stamford Bridge was his sixth Premier League winner from a direct free-kick.

Even more impressive is how he repeatedly scores the same free kick from the same spot on the pitch. Ward-Prowse himself describes his ideal territory as about 25 yards away, offset slightly to the left, as that gives the distance and angle needed to hit “over the wall to the top left.”

Ward-Prowse’s rise to free-kick prominence was rapid. Sixteen of his 17 such goals have come since the start of the 2017/18 season, and 12 of those since the Premier League ‘project restart’ in June 2020. The video below shows his first 12 up to and including his effort at Wolves in January 2022. The fact That he’s added five more in just over a year shows how effective he is.

A map of all of Ward-Prowse’s efforts shows he sometimes – like all players – misses by a wide margin, but overall his consistency suits a player keen to set a new Premier League record when he ends his career .

His first 11 direct free-kick goals in the Premier League were a trademark on the top left, but he’s also struck three times on the right. The most memorable of these was away to Wolverhampton Wanderers in January 2022, Ward-Prowse’s only free-kick goal from over 30 yards in the competition – he scored it with the knuckleball technique resulting from a ‘loss of a head’ when Southampton were 3 down. 0 at this point.

He also rolled one into the top right corner at Fulham earlier this season when goalkeeper Bernd Leno deliberately positioned himself off center to cover Ward-Prowse’s signature finish.

To analyze the Ward-Prowse technique in more detail, the athlete spoke to the lecturer and expert Dr. Neal Smith, Head of Biomechanics at the University of Chichester.

Here’s what he said.

The structure

“I like to bounce the ball twice, with the Nike tick up, always pointing toward the sky, and then I look for where I’m going to place it,” Ward-Prowse explained in March 2019.

He cites legendary English rugby union kickers Jonny Wilkinson and Beckham as inspiration. The routine and technique is something Ward-Prowse has honed for over a decade.

The above wins are in December 2021 at Crystal Palace and January 2023 in Fulham. Below is Ward-Prowse preparing before scoring in a 2-1 loss to Brazil U21s at the 2014 Toulon tournament.

launch and strike

“Most players approach the ball from a 30 to 45 degree angle,” said Smith, who points out that Ward-Prowse approaches from a 90 degree angle, similar to Beckham.

Religiously, he takes four steps back and, as he approaches, takes larger and larger strides, standing on tiptoe (picture one) to activate his leg muscles.

This wider angle means his supporting leg can “lean” away from the ball (picture two), while keeping his non-batting leg (left) straight on the penultimate step.

This straightness means Ward-Prowse can transmit more power through the punch, but it also makes room for what Smith explains using a clockwise analogy: Ward-Prowse’s baton moves from an eight o’clock to a two o’clock position, which is particularly striking by the ball of his foot with the arch of his foot – not the instep – the flattest part of the foot (pictures two to four in a row). This gives Ward-Prowse more control and allows him to manipulate the ball.

Ward-Prowse v Chelsea (A), 2022-23

We’re talking milliseconds, but Ward-Prowse’s foot is in contact with the ball longer than most shooters. Notice that the left leg stays straight as you hit.

Ward-Prowse v Leeds (A), 2021-22

When he hits the ball this way, his right leg becomes stiff, adding momentum to the shot.

“I like to hit the bottom right side of the ball to try and create some topspin by stroking it,” said Ward-Prowse.


My game in my words. By James Ward-Prowse

Smith says this top spin results in “dodging and diving so he can get around and over the wall.” For those who learned Bernoulli’s principle in school, here it is in action.

Ward-Prowse likens it to a tennis forehand, which is accurate but ironic given his golf swing celebration.

The upper body

In these situations it is important to look over the waist.

“I know Beckham’s (technique) was the big arm swing and he was a little more reclined. He wasn’t that hunched over the ball,” Ward-Prowse said.

Smith says Ward-Prowse’s torso is a “great example of Newtonian mechanics, since every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” Ward-Prowse creates an “arc of tension across his pelvis and torso,” with his torso and kicking thigh flexing at the same time. This energy is released in the kick.

This can already be seen in October 2013 when Ward-Prowse scored for England Under-21s in their home game against Lithuania. Notice the minimal movement of the torso between images three and four.

Ward-Prowse v Lithuania U21, October 2013

We can see something similar with his second goal in the 4-3 away win at Aston Villa in October 2020. Southampton head coach Ralph Hasenhuttl described him as “getting better and better” at free-kicks after the game, in which Ward-Prowse was just the ninth Premier League player to score two direct free-kicks in a game.

Ward-Prowse second goal v Aston Villa (A), 2020-21

The landing

Former employees have expressed concerns about the safety of his technique, fearing that his firing speed and awkwardness of landing could have physical repercussions.

Smith emphasizes that this is an effect of the rotation in his technique, as “he takes off after contact, lands on his batter foot and has almost rotated 90 degrees at this point.” This can be seen in picture five.

Ward-Prowse v Brighton & Hove Albion (A), 2021-22

Ward-Prowse v Crystal Palace (A), 2020-21

Ward-Prowse acknowledges those concerns: “I’ve seen a few stills of my body and how I’m like when I hit the ball and it confuses me a little.”

“You think, ‘I’m stressing my body, I shouldn’t be able to walk some days when I’ve taken 10 free-kicks in a row.’ But I just adjusted my body to deal with it.”

Another to match his idol and two more for the record, which feels inevitable at this point. This weekend, Southampton are at Old Trafford, the scene of some of David Beckham’s best free-kicks.

Bend it like Beckham stuck, maybe we need to introduce Whip it like Ward-Prowse?

(Photo above by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)


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