Marko Arnautović scored another two goals for West Ham on Saturday, including a Goal of the Season contender. It’s making supporters feel all funny…
We’ve seen plenty of dramatic transformations in the last few years, from Matthew McConaughey morphing from forgotten 80s star into prestige Hollywood actor all the way to Donald Trump going from bizarre TV personality to president of the US.
And now we can add Marko Arnautović’s reinvention as a proper Premier League No.9 to the list.
The Austrian has always largely been characterised as the kind of winger who has flitted in and out of games, the sort of player you can only really rely on when everything else is going well around him.
However, since being shifted up front by David Moyes, he now has nine goals in his last 13 Premier League appearances and appears to have the service and responsibility to go with the self-confidence he has never lacked.
Having a high opinion of oneself can be an asset, as demonstrated by Zlatan Ibrahimović, a man with whom Arnautović has often been compared (albeit usually with the precursor ‘budget’), but when delivery fails to match self-image you end up, often unfairly, with Nicklas Bendtner levels of ridicule.
Before this season, Arnautović had rarely troubled the upper reaches of the goalscoring charts, as might be expected of someone who regularly started games out wide, but a notable exception was the breakthrough season at Twente which saw José Mourinho’s Inter come calling.
And it seems appropriate that, on the same day Ibrahimović produced a match-winning cameo on his Los Angeles Galaxy debut, another man allowed to move on by Mourinho would produce a crucial two-goal display.
Is there a footballer in the world who is a more fully formed cartoon character / superhero than Zlatan Ibrahimovic?
Is there a city in the world more suitable as a home to such a footballer character than LA?pic.twitter.com/cFeIVmrJXr
— Nick Harris (@sportingintel) April 1, 2018
Considering Mourinho’s public condemnation of Arnautović’s attitude while at Inter, it’s almost amusing that Mark Hughes, rather than the Manchester United manager, seems to be the main target of his anger.
There’s only one thing better than a bitter rivalry between two giants of the game, and that’s an even bitterer rivalry between two people whose mutual hatred barely even registers away from their respective clubs.
West Ham have won twice against Hughes-managed teams this season, a 3-0 win at Stoke in December and then victory by the same scoreline against Southampton in the Welshman’s first game back in the Premier League.
Arnautović has been instrumental in both. Not only that, though, he has given the impression of stepping up his game purely to get one over on his former boss.
In his new attacking role, he has been averaging three shots per game, yet in the victories over Stoke and Southampton the total has gone up to six.
Hughes had accused the player of making a sideways move by joining West Ham, and it feels like he was determined to make a point – he came close to finding the net seconds after João Mário’s opener, and did so at the second attempt shortly after, as if working in the knowledge he’d earn himself more chances by sheer force of will.
Arnautović’s second goal, however, was the type of goal which was both improbable in the context of his early-season woes and inevitable now.
The idea of a David Moyes side scoring one of the goals of the season is preposterous enough, but the idea of West Ham or Arnautović scoring at all was itself pretty far-fetched earlier in the campaign – they found the net just twice under Slaven Bilić while their record signing was on the field of play.
Perhaps all that was missing was the presence of Arthur Masuaku, who started just twice this season under Bilić and whose absence through suspension has coincided with a run of four points from six games.
Masuaku is another who can struggle when on the back foot but who absolutely thrives when he’s able to back himself, and his cross for West Ham’s third goal is a case in point.
Since I wrote about his re-emergence a few months ago, the wing-back has only taken his pursuit of cult hero status further, and fans will hope his recent decision to abandon his DR Congo team-mates is a sign of individualism and high standards rather than one of petulance.
Speaking of high standards, the ball for Arnautović is on the plane of ‘almost too stupid to even try, if it was anyone else’.
There are six Southampton defenders between Masuaku and Arnautović when the ball leaves his foot, with two of them positioned well enough that the ball finding its way to the number seven ought to be impossible. Even when it gets to him there’s plenty of work to be done, but Arnautović makes it look incredibly simple.
Considering his past behaviour and current rapport with the West Ham faithful, comparisons with Paolo Di Canio seem almost too convenient. The lack of imagination comes in part from confusion at the London Stadium, where a generation of fans have rarely had anyone with the confidence and ability to back himself and then actually deliver.
Between the second and third goals, after chasing down Saints keeper Alex McCarthy, Arnautović appeared to be moving a little gingerly.
However, rather than showing any signs of an injury, it became clear that he was simply conserving some energy for his next go at the visitors’ back four.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see how this kind of behaviour could be construed as lazy on the part of a wide-player making fewer attacking contributions, but he has more than earned the right to take a breather now and again.
Plenty of the greatest lessons in football are counter-intuitive when viewed within the prism of regular life, and Arnautović is evidence of the most important one.
When presented with an unpredictable and often petulant individual, you shouldn’t attempt to rein in their misbehaviour.
Instead, the key is indulging them at any given opportunity and hoping blindly this leads to them attaining maturity: as a manager, you sometimes need to act less like the strict parent and more like the fun Godfather who can spoil them with sweets and fast food without having to worry about the consequences.
Back in August, a restrained Marko Arnautović lashed out at Jack Stephens to earn himself a first-half red card. In the reverse fixture, he was let off the leash while Stephens was left chasing his own tail.
Sometimes you’re best off not even trying to explain your logic in football, beyond the knowledge that if something’s working, however you got there, you don’t change it.
By Tom Victor