Like a former lover who’s jilted you, but shows up at your weakest moment with a dangerous smile and the hopeful suggestion of coming back to you, Marko Arnautovic reportedly returned albeit briefly to the metaphoric door of West Ham and the Hammers’ fanbase.
And like any struggling lonely lover, West Ham – in desperate need of a striker – can’t help but fondly remember the better days when things were stable and there was promise of safety and salvation from an abysmal relegation scrap. This inspired the existential question for Hammer fans – Would we take him back? Could he save us again?
Last summer, West Ham fans waved off the mercenary striker when they had enough of his episodic bouts of selfishness coupled with obscene wage demands and they welcomed in his replacement and hopeful goalscorer from the Bundesliga – Sebastien Haller. Arnautovic went off to play with Chinese Super League club Shanghai SIPG. But just like any change of relationship, the new hasn’t lived up to the old, and what West Ham needed so badly is still found wanting.
To the West Ham fanbase, it felt like a revenge platter of sour grapes, just desserts, or ‘schadenfreude’ – to use a German expression the Austrian striker might understand better – when the Chinese Super League experienced not only a cap on salaries, but also the first football league shutdown at epicenter of the not-yet-but-soon-to-be coronavirus pandemic. In the working class world of the east London club where hard work and devotion is valued over big pay-days and foreign interests, it seemed only right that Marko’s fortunes should burst like the bubbles he left behind.
Fast forward to June 2020 in the extended Premier league season with an injured Haller, a 17th place standing, and no definite goal scoring strategy and the words of the furloughed Austrian striker now gin maker provoke temptation. Arnautovic has stated twice since January that he had hopes for a West Ham return: once in Arthur Masuaku’s instagram story where he cavalierly stated: ‘Tell them that West Ham need me, I come bro no worries’, and another German media outlet suggested Arnautovic wanted a return to West Ham in the January transfer window but that the coronavirus quarantine had halted his travel plans and any possibilities.
This seems like a familiar tone from a similarly dubbed West Ham “snake” in Dimitri Payet, and once again fans question pragmatics over dignity, winning over self respect, and short term safety over long term loss. It also opens up a bigger philosophical question of the current state of the English Premier League: Is the sport based on passion, love and grit of club loyalty of the past, or has it switched over to a pragmatic strategy of merchants, money, and mercenarism?
To compete with the big teams, West Ham have already sold their beloved working class home, ponied up millions to buy the latest transfer crazes, and attached themselves to marking strategies over hometown fealty, leaving the West Ham fanbase feeling soulless. On the one hand the temptation of an Arnautovic return might seem a delicious deliverance: link up play with Lanzini, an actual target man for Anderson and Bowen, and even the dangerous team up in a 4-4-2 could unlock the latent Haller.
West Ham could sharpen their irons and feel the pride of having Arnie threat at the tip of their spear. On the other hand, it could erode the dignity of a club already struggling with identity where rival supporters of mediocre and lower league teams chant: ‘You’re not West Ham anymore’. Would the possibility of a growing goal tally and a strong man at the front be worth the indignity of taking back an adulterous former player – either as an passing thought on the missed January transfer window or the actuality in an upcoming summer transfer window? Or has that ship sailed?
I’ve changed opinions three times during the writing of this article, and I’m left with the outrageous compromise, of a possible loan deal where Arnie’s high salary would be partially covered by SIPG, where West Ham gets a proven goalscorer for less while they find their footing under Moyes or new management, and SIPG offloads some wages. While the Chinese Super League has yet to start back up, and Marko finds himself stranded in Austria, drinking his eponymous newly made gin, the main question I leave you with is: Would you take him back?