It isn’t often that you can pinpoint one moment in which one person’s life or the way they are perceived is changed beyond recognition. But that is undoubtedly the case for Marko Arnautovic and his relationship with the supporters of West Ham United.
December 2017. The Hammers were already 1-0 up, and the Austrian was putting his former club through the mill at the Britannia Stadium, his athleticism and technical skill causing Stoke plenty of problems. The only thing missing was a goal. It came in the 75th minute. Manuel Lanzini clipped the ball over the Potters’ defence to Arnie, who took one touch before hitting the ball past the onrushing Jack Butland, for the second of West Ham’s three goals in a comfortable win.
There were no muted celebrations, which seem to be customary when scoring against a former team in the modern game. Instead, when Arnautovic got back to the centre circle, he crossed his hands above his head to make the irons sign before banging the hammers on his chest. The boos around the ground intensified, gifs were prepared to be shared all over the internet, and West Ham fans laughed. They took him to their hearts immediately, even as fans who had once adored him relentlessly berated him. Marko Arnautovic may have arrived in East London in July 2017. But it was on that Saturday in December at Stoke-on-Trent that he truly announced himself to the Hammers faithful.
Before that, his relationship with West Ham’s supporters wasn’t the best. This wasn’t helped by the fact that he was sent off just half an hour into his second appearance for the club, having caught Jack Stephens with a flying elbow when shutting down the Southampton centre back. In addition to this, he didn’t score a single goal in his entire time under Slaven Bilic, managing just two assists in a Carabao Cup win against Bolton Wanderers. It was obvious that there was talent within him, but most supporters found him a frustrating player to watch, feeling that he seemed disinterested and egotistical.
Hammers fans weren’t alone in their disdain for Arnautovic. He has had questions asked of his temperament throughout his career. Whether at FC Twente, Inter Milan, Werder Bremen or Stoke City, there have always been those with abject views regarding his character. Though often among the most talented of his peers, he was rarely the most loved.
When David Moyes came to West Ham, he moved Arnautovic from the wing and played him as a lone striker. This decision will remain the manager’s greatest (and possibly only) legacy at the club. It paid off immediately, even before the Saturday in Stoke. With the Hammers on an eight-game winless run in the league, they welcomed Chelsea to the London Stadium. It was Arnie who ensured the welcomes didn’t last too long. In the sixth minute, he played a one-two with Lanzini, pushed the ball past Cesar Azpilicueta with his right boot, before curling it past Thibaut Courtois with his left. This turned out to be the only goal of the game, and it was this game, the first West Ham league win he had been involved with, which kickstarted West Ham’s season and Arnautovic’s career at the club.
It is incredible how quickly things changed after this. It wasn’t merely a burst of form though. Marko Arnautovic went from West Ham’s liability of a winger to their talismanic forward, the complete striker long missing from the club. His aggression was channelled perfectly into intense presses which panicked many a defender. There was a natural instinct to get into the right areas to pick up scrappy goals, but also the technical ability to pull off the sublime. He bagged a brace to earn a point away against AFC Bournemouth; scored a brilliant half volley, before assisting twice to get a 4-1 win at Huddersfield; he poached West Ham’s second goal in a 2-0 win against Watford; he then bagged twice in the 3-0 win against Southampton which all but confirmed safety.
What is most interesting though is that the very thing which had seen him berated at the beginning of the season was now earning him so much affection: with Marko Arnautovic there is a clear ego. He backs his ability in any situation and carries himself in a way that makes it clear. The difference now though is that he supports this with his performances. Last season he got 11 goals and six assists in 20 Premier League matches as a striker. That return was enough to earn him Hammer of the Year and the Players’ Player of the Year at the West Ham end-of-season awards.
The question, previously, had been whether West Ham could rely on Marko Arnautovic; now, it is whether they’ve come to rely on him too much. This summer saw £100 million worth of talent walk through the doors of the London Stadium – including record signing Felipe Anderson and Ukrainian Andriy Yarmolenko – but there isn’t any doubt that Arnautovic is still the main man in East London. He’s the focal point of West Ham’s attacks, the first man to start any press, and among the most technically gifted in the side. Manchester United had flirted with the idea of bringing the Austrian to Old Trafford during the summer, but there was no way West Ham were going to let their number seven leave. While managing the Austrian at Inter Milan in 2009, Jose Mourinho had said of the then 20-year-old: “Marko is a great guy, but he has the mentality of a child.” That he considered bringing him to Old Trafford highlights that he feels Arnautovic has matured and channeled his attentions since joining the Hammers.
So far this season he has contributed to almost two thirds of West Ham’s goals. The Everton match best highlights his impact. With the Hammers having lost all of their first four games, they went to Goodison Park in need of a win. They looked to the Austrian for inspiration and he gave it; he was simply unplayable. He unselfishly set up Yarmolenko for the game’s opener, and then, with the score at 2-1, slid the ball home for the last of the match to ensure the Hammers took all three points.
While his reliability in front of goal is obviously a great sign when he is scoring, it can be worrying when he isn’t. Without Arnautovic on the pitch, West Ham did brilliantly to get a draw against a Chelsea side who have been rampant so far this season. However, there is the feeling that had he been on the pitch, he would have converted one of the three clear chances the men in claret and blue had to win it. On the flipside, with Arnautovic struggling in front of goal against Brighton and Hove Albion, nobody else managed to step up to the plate and the Hammers lost 1-0. But, it seems that with the aforementioned signings now beginning to settle in and show their quality, Arnautovic will now be the figurehead of one of the best front threes outside of the top six rather than a lone ranger. Even if Hammers fans will have to wait to see this trio in full effect following Yarmolenko’s injury against Tottenham.
One thing is clear. Regardless of what is happening around him, Marko Arnautovic will continuously come up with the goods for West Ham. In those early stages there were matches where he was booed, but now his name adorns the back of countless tops and is sung from the stands. Those fans were never quite sure what to expect from him; now they know that whenever he takes the field, there’s every chance they’ll get to see their hero crossing his arms to form the irons in celebration of yet another goal; just like that night in Stoke.