West Ham face Stoke this month, which isn’t a fixture that would usually catch the eye. But these days, we have a former Stoke City player on our hands and things are hotting up nicely between him and his former club.
Yes, Marko Arnautovic is speedily becoming a fan favourite having settled nicely into life at the London Stadium under David Moyes, and he’s about to face his old club at his new home stadium. This isn’t the first time Arnie has faced the Potters having visited his old haunt before Christmas, a game during which he faced inevitable jeers from the home crowd.
Marko took it in his stride and used the negativity from the crowd to fuel his hunger to put in a memorable performance and score the Hammers’ second goal of the afternoon. Cue ‘crossed Hammers sign’ directed at the home crowd. Cue smug grins on the faces of West Ham fans.
We love a bit of crossed arms and as a player who was starting to endear himself to us, it only furthered the bond. And then, of course, we start to draw comparisons with other fiery favourites. Paolo Di Canio, anyone? It’s pretty hard to get excited about players in the current football climate. Transfer windows, high player demands and nonsensical transfer fees make it impossible to know what each half-season will deliver. So when the chance comes along to run away with ourselves, we do. And so we should.
Can Arnautovic be as prolific as Di Canio? In five years (118 league appearances), Paolo netted 47 times. We all know though, it was his charismatic ways that left an imprint – to us he could do little wrong. Arnie’s current goal tally stands at nine and he’s also scoring for fun on the International stage, so his form is strong. He’s making good strides to being as creative in front of goal as Di Canio was.
Going back to that afternoon in Stoke, Mark Hughes sourly dished out angry words towards his former forward as he was substituted in the 79th minute. Following the game, Hughes added: ‘I think he should have risen above any criticism or abuse that he had.’
This set the scene nicely for the Hammers to face another of Mark Hughes’ relegation projects this season, Southampton, with tensions high between Arnie and Sparky. That underlying red mist spurred Arnautovic on to put in another memorable performance at the London Stadium against the Saints, one for which he was heartily applauded off the field with the fans on their feet. His man-of-the-match performance was the silver lining to the cloud over current woes.
His reaction to scoring was clearly aimed at Mark Hughes standing on the sidelines. It’s the kind of reaction that as a fan, you feel guiltily pleased about. It’s nice to see a player outwardly displaying passion and hunger when he plays for your team.
Again, the crossed arms were on display and the shouting this time came from Arnautovic towards his former boss. This was the confirmation that the Austrian has the upper hand in this battle. Altogether, he’s made up for his ridiculous sending off against the Saints back in August, for which he had a lot of groveling to do at the time.
Scoring three times in one season against his former clubs with such a thirst to impress bodes well for the clash with Stoke City. Are we to conclude from this season that Marko responds well to criticism? Yes, it seems so. Cast your mind back a few months to when Arnie was displaying the characteristics of someone who wasn’t particularly comfortable and could potentially cause unrest in the dressing room. Moyes called on Arnautovic to be ‘a team player’ and warned that even a man of his talent can’t walk into a starting position without putting in the effort across all aspects of his game.
This public warning did the trick. It was almost as if Arnie was determined to prove everyone wrong, to be at his best and to allow himself to be happy to train and to play. I’m loving watching Arnautovic play, it’s a pure joy. His charisma, his confidence, his style – he’s enjoying himself, and it’s all adding up for Marko to be a Hammers hero. Let’s hope we can keep him for a long time.