Football is the single most immersive form of escapism; at least once a week for an hour and a half life’s issues cease to exist, and any withstanding complications are condemned to wait.
The same is true for a footballer; in most cases, a good performance on the pitch vastly outweighs a poor week elsewhere. Those 90 minutes count for significantly more than any of the other 9,990.
Marko Arnautovic encapsulates this theory entirely.
The Austrian international is one of football’s many notorious ‘bad boys’; players whose on-pitch exploits are often so spectacular they transcend and excuse their poor behaviour away from match day.
Despite West Ham enduring a frustrating start to the season, their former record signing has managed two goals in four games; an impressive ratio considering Arnautovic is the only Hammer to find the back of the net this term.
Its already apparent the Austrian’s work rate has dramatically improved since his arrival in London, and as a talismanic figure within the squad, he has the potential to propel Manuel Pellegrini’s side back on track. His journey to the London Stadium might have been unorthodox, but it finally appears Arnautovic has gained the insight and maturity to learn from his previous mishaps; meaning he now resembles the player he was previously expected to become.
To describe Arnautovic’s youth football experience as problematic would be an understatement. Despite undeniable talent, behavioural issues caused him to represent six youth sides during the first decade of his career. Surprisingly though after being characterised by his poor temperament at youth level in Austria, FC Twente were undeterred and in 2006 brought him to the Eredivisie.
Perhaps realising this was a chance he simply had to grasp, the forward began life in the Netherlands emphatically. During the 32 matches he played for Jong FC Twente, the clubs reserves, Arnautovic registered a phenomenal 27 goals.
After his disastrous tenure with England, Steve McClaren escaped the nationwide criticism he was receiving by becoming the manager of Twente. Here the Englishman set about rebuilding his managerial reputation and in the process harnessed Arnautovic’s unique talents.
McClaren’s previous coaching background made him the ideal candidate to tame the Austrians unruly behaviour; with the right treatment, the then 19-year-old winger progressed exponentially as his new side finished fourth in the Eredivisie to secure a Champions League play-off against Arsenal.
Unfortunately for the Austrian, Arsene Wenger’s side prevailed, and FC Twente would drop into the UEFA Cup.
Once again, the Dutch side faced the prospect of significantly better-resourced clubs in a group containing Manchester City, PSG, Schalke 04 and Racing Santander. Undeterred, however, they progressed via determined performances to draw Olympique Marseilles in the first knock out round.
Marseilles Stade Velodrome can be one of Europe’s most intimidating venues during a fixture of such magnitude, although this did nothing to deter the mercurial Arnautovic, who rose to the occasion with a vital away goal.
Hatem Ben Arfa cancelled this out. However, the tense second leg produced penalties after extra-time finished with the scores remaining level at 1-1 on aggregate. Despite converting his spot-kick, Arnautovic was helpless in stopping his side from being eliminated 6-7 on penalties.
Controversy hadn’t entirely eluded the winger yet though. In March 2009 he was accused of racially abusing Ibrahim Kargbo of Willem II. Although, a subsequent inquest into the incident found no evidence against him and the case was dismissed.
Nonetheless, the Austrian’s exploits began to entice genuine European superpowers due to helping guide Twente to a second-place league finish; with 14 goals.
Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan was the chosen destination, initially on loan but with the option to buy.
2009-2010 was to be a disastrous season for Arnautovic; while out on loan he would miss Twente’s championship-winning Eredivisie season, the only in their history, and through injury made just three appearances as part of Inter Milan’s historic Italian treble.
Even on the treatment table he still managed to grab headlines away from the pitch; be it through incidents sharing a room with Mario Balotelli, borrowing Samuel Eto’o’s Bentley only to have it stolen in his possession or turning up late to training one day and three hours early the next.
Understandably Mourinho chose not to make the transfer permanent, proclaiming “He is a fantastic person, but has the attitude of a child”. His manager was right, Arnautovic still had a fair bit of growing up to do.
However, if this were to occur, it would be elsewhere as FC Twente accepted Werder Bremen’s bid for the winger and Arnautovic transferred to the Bundesliga side.
Sadly, his maturation would have to wait; arriving at your first training session with boots embodied ‘2010 Champions League winner’, despite not making a single appearance in the competition, is no way to transition into a new squad seamlessly. Without having even played a game Bremen captain Torsten Frings branded him “arrogant”. There was little evidence to suggest otherwise.
Early on Arnautovic impressed as part of a front three containing former teammate Eljero Elia on the opposing flank, with Peruvian Striker Claudio Pizzaro in between the pair. The Austrian heightened expectation surrounding him with a brace early on in his Bremen career, against 1.FC Koln.
Shortly after, Werder Bremen miraculously managed to come through a scare against Sampdoria, in the Champions League play-off, to secure a place in the group stage of the illustrious competition.
That draw would bring increased importance to Arnautovic who faced a return to both Inter Milan and FC Twente as well as meeting an outstanding Tottenham side, including Gareth Bale, Rafael Van Der Vaart and Luka Modric.
Bremen’s opening games didn’t go as planned; they rescued a point after going 2-0 down against Spurs, and Arnautovic’s return to the San Siro resulted in a 4-0 dismantling.
His return to the Netherlands was to be less disappointing. Twente opened the scoring, however with 10 minutes remaining Arnautovic played a delightful exchange with Claudio Pizzaro. Upon receiving the return pass, the winger rifled the ball into the roof of the net. The result produced a glimmer of hope of progressing.
Although, any optimism rapidly diminished as Twente won the return leg in Bremen with two late goals. Then to compound the misery Tottenham dispatched the Germans 3-0 at White Hart Lane to end any hopes of progressing.
The only redemption came in the form of a 3-0 home victory over Inter in the final match, but it counted for little as Werder Bremen finished bottom of Group A.
Bremen ultimately finished a season with so much promise in a disappointing 13th.
The following campaign offered little solace; Arnautovic damaged his knee ligaments while playing with his dog and his exclusion from the side led to the 2011-12 season culminating in a nine-game winless run during his absence.
After his return from injury, the winger showed the flashes of brilliance that brought him to Germany, a hat-trick against Hoffenheim was the highlight of his tempestuous performances.
However, speeding fines and training ground fights meant when Stoke City offered £2million to take Arnautovic off Werder Bremen’s hands in 2013, they were relieved from the stress such a maverick player can cause.
Instantaneously the Austrian was thrust into most Premier League fans attention through a superb 25 yard free-kick against Manchester United for his first Stoke goal. Sadly, he would leave the field through injury and watch his side fail to retain their advantage from the stand.
A problematic Christmas period followed, nevertheless Arnautovic scored the goal to put Stoke ahead 2-1 ahead in a 3-1 win over West Ham to end their terrible winter run. The Potters late upturn in form meant they finished ninth, their highest ever Premier League finish.
Though, after a poor start to the 2014-15 season Arnautovic was dropped, leading to speculation talks between the player and manager Mark Hughes over playing time were held. It appears this strategy worked, as the winger’s contribution to the side significantly increased. All things considered though a sole Premier League goal that season was a meagre return comparative to what the Austrian was capable of.
It took Arnautovic just 78 minutes of the following campaign to match that total. Stoke’s talisman on that occasion scored a penalty to get his side back into the game, having previously been two goals down against Tottenham. Mame Biram Diouf then completed the comeback and wrestled a point from White Hart Lane with seven minutes remaining.
Though Stoke couldn’t maintain the impetus of the comeback and went winless in their first six Premier League games.
After finally ending this run against Bournemouth; Arnautovic produced a match-winning performance by scoring the decisive goal against Aston Villa. Finally, The Potters had some momentum.
Then came the winner against Champions Chelsea, in the form of an acrobatic scissor kick.
Astonishingly the Austrian then bagged a brace to defeat Manchester City; completing a successful visit to Manchester with an outrageous strike past David De Gea to upset the odds twice in succession.
Two days later Stoke and Everton clashed for what manifested as a modern classic. Stoke’s finest moments included Shaqiri scoring a delicious chip over Tim Howard with a deft touch; Arnautovic then exhibited nerves of steel to win the game in stoppage time by converting the penalty he won.
Shortly after, yet another brace condemned a struggling Aston Villa side to relegation.
Arnautovic’s 11 Premier League goals earnt Stoke 20 points, and this was by far the most influential season of his career.
Inconsistency would come to define the Austrian once again though, as he failed to score again that calendar year.
He didn’t score again in the Premier League until March, but his first of two against Middlesbrough was sublime. Charlie Adam’s lofted pass was attempted more out of hope than expectation; Arnautovic glanced over his shoulder and picked the ball out of the sky, not to mention through the defender’s legs with his first touch. The second touch rounded Victor Valdes in goal. The third found the narrow gap between the two defenders attempting to block on the line.
Then after an underwhelming season the Austrian international cast significant doubt over his future at the Bet365 Stadium after handing in a transfer request; perhaps sensing the impending danger, the club was about to face due to uninspired recruitment.
Once more Arnautovic hardly endeared himself to his new West Ham teammates after his £20 million transfer. A sending off 33 minutes into his second game for an elbow to Southampton’s Jack Stephens rightfully received a dismissal.
Slaven Bilic had pressure piled upon him after a slump in form towards the end of his Hammers tenure; coupled with Arnautovic failing to score under the Croat.
Bilic’s subsequent dismissal led to David Moyes’ appointment, and the Scot had a plan to reinvent the Austrian winger.
Moyes deployed Arnautovic as a striker, perhaps hoping his unique blend of physicality and technique would be better suited to central areas.
The decision by the Scotsman may have been inspired or made out of desperation; either way, it had an instantaneous effect as Arnautovic opened his account for West Ham, once again scoring to defeat Champions Chelsea. Earning his new manager a first victory in the process.
An upturn in form coincided with facing former club Stoke as the entirety of the Bet365 stadium unanimously booed him. This hostile reception brought the very best out of the Austrian who was visibly fired up, however.
His reward for an outstanding performance came via a goal on the 75th minute, twice previously rattling the crossbar. The goal was a masterclass in transitioning speed of play. After receiving the ball on the halfway line, he drove forwards, then almost stopped dead on the edge of the box to draw three Stoke defenders.
The striker then played a pass into Manuel Lanzini and burst through the pack, all the while the Argentine delicately lofted a return pass over the bamboozled defence for Arnautovic to control and slot past Jack Butland, much to the home crowds disdain.
A crucial Boxing Day brace made sure West Ham returned from Bournemouth with a point and stayed narrowly outside the relegation zone in 17th. From this moment onwards they would not drop below this position.
Collecting 11 goals helped to secure 19 points for West Ham, a vital sum in ensuring survival.
Finally, this summer West Ham chairmen David Gold and David Sullivan invested heavily; in an attempt to not only secure the clubs Premier League status but progress from last season’s disappointment.
Despite the recruitment of Premier League winning manager Manuel Pellegrini, this has failed abjectly thus far. The London club sits rooted to the foot of the league yet to gain a single point.
West Ham have only found the back of the net twice, both courtesy of Marko Arnautovic. The forward has experienced poor starts similar to this previously at Stoke, it’s essential if Pellegrini is to change the clubs fortune he must tap into the Austrian’s talismanic nature to draw inspiration for a change of fortunes.
That might be easier said than done but David Moyes arguably extracted the most of any manager throughout Arnautovic’s turbulent career, when asked what his secret was, he merely replied: “let him be Marko”. Pellegrini ought to think about doing the same.