In Focus: The keys to Walcott's Southampton resurgence
They say you should never go back — but Theo Walcott is enjoying a new lease of life on the South Coast.
The Everton forward, 32, is out of contract this summer and Southampton are keen to reward his impressive loan spell at St Mary's by signing him permanently.
As Ralph Hasenhuttl’s men get set to face Leicester tonight, we look at how Walcott has recaptured his form in the city where he originally made his name.
Since rejoining Southampton last October, Walcott has been deployed in a number of positions.
He has played in a two-man attack and as part of a duo behind Southampton’s double-pronged forward line, while also operating off either flank.
Hasenhuttl employs a complex 4-4-2 system, so having a versatile player who can implement his instructions in multiple areas of the pitch makes Walcott a valuable option in his manager’s armoury.
Players at Southampton also need to be able to press intensely.
The Saints rank fifth for passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA) at 11.7, meaning they have to pull their weight without the ball in order to guarantee there is no easy escape for the opposition.
Walcott is in the 75th percentile for pressures per 90 minutes across Europe’s top five leagues and in continental competition, making him particularly well suited to these tactics.
Southampton have a fairly young, inexperienced squad — particularly when it comes to attacking options.
Moussa Djenepo is only 22, while Michael Obafemi does not turn 21 until July. Che Adams, 24, still has not entered his peak years and there is uncertainty over the future of experienced hitman Danny Ings.
The forward line at St Mary’s could do with a player of Walcott’s ilk to help guide the next crop of players and make use of his influence off the pitch as well as his ability on it.
A reliable goal threat
With Ings potentially leaving this summer in search of Champions League football, Hasenhuttl would need to find a way to replace his No9’s goals.
The 28-year-old has scored 32 across the last two Premier League campaigns — almost three times Adams’ tally (11) over the same period.
Walcott is not a 20-goal-a-season attacker but he is a fairly reliable goal threat for a wide forward.
While at Goodison Park, his expected goals (xG) averaged out at a respectable 0.2 per 90 minutes. It has dropped to 0.18 at Southampton but injury and positional changes have had an impact on the numbers he is posting this season.
Give Walcott a set role in the team closer to goal and, along with Adams, he might be able to partially offset the loss of Ings.
A top professional
Hasenhuttl confirmed the club are interested in making Walcott’s move permanent earlier this month.
The Austrian, 53, said: "We are in negotiations with the agent and with him.
"It’s not a secret that I have been very happy with him as long as he’s here now because he did a fantastic job.
"We missed him, definitely, when he was injured. I like a lot of things in this player.
"Not only his workload, also his mentality, his attitude, his professionalism.
"This is something every team needs to have. It’s a player every manager likes to work with, because he was positive always and very, very open-minded for new things and in the end never stops getting better."
Sven-Goran Eriksson named Walcott in his 2006 World Cup squad as a wildcard option.
On that occasion, it did not pay off — but his unpredictability remains. This could be something that gives Southampton an edge in certain situations next season.
Modern attackers do a lot of their best work on the ball. Walcott, however, is a bit of the throwback in the sense he will make off-the-ball runs to get in behind.
He causes panic in a way that few within the Southampton squad do, adding a mercurial quality that has brought an element of excitement.
Saints fans will be hoping for more of the same if he does indeed become a permanent recruit.