When West Ham United broke their transfer record to secure the signing of Marko Arnautovic in the summer it was widely seen by many supporters as a definitive statement that, after a disappointing debut season in the Olympic Stadium, the club were keen make a significant impact in the Premier League when the new campaign started.
The Austrian winger had been a revered figure in The Potteries and was adored by the Stoke City supporters who relished his swagger, arrogance and character.
Yes, Arnautovic could be a frustrating talent to watch and was prone to the odd moment of madness or a disinterested shrug of the shoulders, but when the chips were down more often than not the attacker could be relied upon to produce a moment of magic with the ball.
His departure from the Bet365 Stadium saw him quickly burn any bridges that he had with the club and its supporters. Arnautovic claimed that he wanted to join a club that were more ambitious whilst Stoke were left disappointed that their star winger, who had just signed a new long-term contract to become the highest paid player in the squad, had chosen to jump ship. In The Potteries he went from hero to zero and was perceived as being a typical modern player – ungrateful and with a distinct absence of morality or loyalty.
Despite the ill-feeling between the player and the club, you would be hard pressed to find a Stoke supporter who was not left downhearted by the Austrian’s departure or who would not take him back in the blink of an eye.
A big fish in a small pond
For Marko Arnautovic, the transfer to West Ham United has seen a rapid decline in his reputation and recognition in the footballing fraternity.
He walked into the Olympic Stadium as a superstar but, in just two short months, the winger has found himself isolated, jeered by his new supporters and playing in a team that is struggling to find any form or consistency under the guidance of a besieged Slaven Bilic. The club-record price tag of £25 million has weighed heavily on his shoulders and The Hammers faithful have simply not taken to, nor understood, the Austrian’s unique character and personality.
There is little doubt that Arnautovic has just simply not performed since relocating at the Olympic Stadium and supporters have quite rightly been critical of his displays on the pitch. He was sent off on his second appearance for The Hammers when he bizarrely and needlessly elbowed Jack Stephens – a decision that has pretty much set the tone for his contribution during the opening months of the campaign.
And his contribution has been severely limited and ineffectual.
On Friday evening Sky Sports pundits Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher were scathing in their assessment of the Austrian’s performance in West Ham’s 3-0 defeat against Brighton and Hove Albion. He was described as being “woeful” and accused of thinking that he “is Cristiano Ronaldo in his own mind … he thinks he is better than he is”. Arnautovic was substituted in the 74th minute of the contest, having been barely involved in the game and was jeered off by sections of his own supporters.
This was undoubtedly not what he had in mind when he joined The Hammers in the summer.
Disinterested and arrogant? Or a misunderstood talent?
The main problem for Marko Arnautovic is that he is no longer a big fish in a small pond, like he was at Stoke City. At West Ham he has found that there is a much greater weight of expectancy from a fan base that relishes the success of their club’s history.
At Stoke, the winger was adopted by the supporters because they recognised an exceptionally talented, yet somewhat flawed, character. After watching season after season of direct football under the guidance of Tony Pulis, which was based on players that had limited ability but an outstanding work ethic, the arrival of Arnautovic as one of Mark Hughes’ first signings in the summer of 2013 came as a pleasant surprise.
For The Potters, the winger was powerful, pacey and was capable of producing moments of outstanding magic when he got on the ball. He was very much the main man at the Bet365 Stadium, outshining even the likes of Bojan Krkic and Xherdan Shaqiri, and his contribution to the team was demonstrated by the fact that he was directly involved in over two-thirds of Stoke’s goals during the 2016/17 season.
The Austrian would often go missing for long periods of games, look disinterested at times and fling his arms around in despair, but the Stoke fans were prepared to give him some leeway because, when push came to shove, the winger would often create or score a goal. His body language was often questionable but there was a recognition that Arnautovic was capable of producing that little bit of magic when it was needed the most.
At West Ham, the supporters are a little less patient and hold much loftier expectations than their counterparts in The Potteries. Arnautovic arrived with a heavy price-tag that, so far, he has failed to justify and with the team struggling for form and consistency fans are looking towards their club-record signing to make an impact and produce something special.
For whatever reason the winger has failed to hit the ground running and his demeanour and price tag have made him an easy, if not entirely innocent, focus of some of the criticism.
The swagger and arrogance that came with his technical brilliance at Stoke has yet to be replicated at the Olympic Stadium. This has left him looking very much like a player with a large ego, who has yet to produce any performances that justify either his self-confidence or transfer fee.
On Friday night the sight of Arnautovic being substituted and jeered off by a section of the West ham supporters will have brought a sly smile to the faces of many observers back in Stoke.
Nonetheless, The Potters have their own issues to contend with and there will be many fans who will be wishing that the Austrian was still wearing red and white stripes – maybe the player will be wishing the same come the end of the season.