West Ham must emerge from the Arnautovic saga with clear eyes and lessons learned

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
January 16, 2019

West Ham’s way out of their current predicament with Marko Arnautovic is tough to accept, but it’s certainly clear enough. Arnautovic must go, he must be sold to the Chinese Super League and his rotting disposition must be removed from the squad as quickly as possible.

It’s almost a standard answer in this situation, but with Arnautovic there’s little doubt of the trouble which could lie ahead. As Stoke supporters are well aware, the Austrian is not an asset when he becomes demotivated and, headstrong as he is, he can actually be thoroughly corrosive. Really then, West Ham have actually been presented with an opportunity. £35m for a player due to turn 30 in April is myopic even by the standards of the Chinese Super League and it offers the English club the chance to get out from underneath a prohibitive contract which will only become more burdensome as the seasons go by.

There’s a broader point here, too. Players like Arnautovic – talented but transient, wedded to contracts rather than collective aims – should really be consigned to West Ham’s past. Given their place in English football’s hierarchy, any progress which is achieved as a product of a single player’s contribution will be fragile. It’s the great danger of team-building-by-talisman: it can be snatched away over night by any wealthier club taking a fleeting fancy.

Encouragingly, there are signs that West Ham already recognise that. To look at their side now is to see something logical and a unit which has been built with singular philosophy in mind. Problems have been addressed, weak areas have been strengthened. Declan Rice’s contribution and worth is growing week by week, Fabian Balbuena and Issa Diop have been among the finest defensive signings they’ve made in a generation, and Lukasz Fabianski certainly looks like one of the best deals of the summer. Further forward, Manuel Pellegrini’s relationship with Samir Nasri looks to have made that deal very smart and Felipe Anderson, whose motivation for moving to Stratford at one point looked very questionable, has obviously bought in to his new surroundings and is performing to a high standard.

The point is that West Ham are no longer rising and falling solely on the strength of a single player’s performances. In fact, as recently as last weekend during the win over Arsenal, they showed themselves to be a surprisingly complete and well-coached team. The 1-0 win was all important, but it’s tone was revealing too. They didn’t just beat Arsenal or overcome them with flair, they comprehensively outplayed them. Pellegrini outcoached Unai Emery. So, while West Ham may have achieved notable victories over members of the “top six” in their new ground before, rarely have they been underwritten by so much control and been quite so satsifying.

Of course, In the middle of that game came Arnautovic’s laboured goodbye. Other than showing just how horribly he’d misjudged the local mood, it also demonstrated how incongruous his attitude seems to be. In the seconds when he left the pitch, he wasn’t thanking the fans, he was inviting them to thank him; in his mind, the privilege of the past eighteen months has belonged to them alone. What an odd moment; how obnoxious.

Within it lay a lesson though – or at least an opportunity to tread a different path going forward. During the Sullivan/Gold era, West Ham’s recruitment has often been characterised by impatience. Their aim appears to have been to seek improvement in quick, temporary bursts and with defective and unreliable stars, rather than via the more stable method of long-term development. With off-the-peg players and not pliable talent which could be adapted for purpose. It was perhaps a habit incubated and encouraged by the stadium situation and the need to immediately construct a team capable of filling 60,000 seats and soothing the residual acrimony, but the results have been underwhelming. And Arnautovic was part of that. He’s been relatively successful and has had some fine games, but he’s indicative of an approach which will now hopefully be abandoned.

Or which perhaps is already. It wasn’t so long ago that David Gold was telling the world that it was impossible to transition academy players into the Premier League. On Saturday and for much of the season, a homegrown talent (Rice) has been one of his club’s most consistent performers and another (Grady Diangana) has proved that he belongs at the top of the game. What a difference; hopefully the penny has now dropped.

Arnautovic’s (seemingly inevitable) exit will also be a blessing. It will be financially rewarding of course, but should also serve as a reference point. As his original transfer from Stoke was being concluded, any scouting report would surely have identified him as a flight risk. As someone whose loyalty would always be for sale and who would disengage at the first hint of a better offer. And yet West Ham pursued the deal anyway. They presumably knew that the point which has now arrived would be in their future and yet hoped – probably – that when that moment came they’d be able to react in the same way and repeat the cycle being over-paying someone just about good enough to fill the gap.

Quite obviously that’s not sustainable. Selling players to the Chinese Super League has become a fantastic way of undoing mistakes – in recent days, Barcelona have just sold Paulinho for £50m – but while West Ham are counting their luck, they should also contemplate how unlikely it is that they will be so fortune again. Ordinarily, Arnautovic’s attitude and age would have forced them to take a loss in this situation. As it is, they’re set to make a profit on a player whose best days may already be behind him. God bless these unnamed clubs for their desperation.

But the lesson survives. Maybe the Dimitri Payet episode was considered unlucky by those inside London Stadium and attributed to the unforeseen cost of dealing with a bad apple. But this situation’s similarities, despite Arnautovic not becoming nearly as militant, prove that there is a certain type of player of whom the club must always be wary. The sort who offer the illusion of improvement, but who actually threaten the integrity of whatever else is being built. The kind who, deep down, think that playing for West Ham is actually beneath them.

And the events of the past week show why: West Ham’s best result – and performance – of the season should still be the sole media focus. Instead, within 24 hours a first-team player was on the Goals On Sunday couch admitting that a teammate wanted to leave and, at the time of writing, club officials are currently in Spain, working against a weak negotiating position in order to sign Maxi Gomez from Celta Vigo as a replacement. It’s unnecessary drama. The cut and thrust of the transfer market is exciting and Gomez is by all accounts a very good player, but the process itself is creating flux at a time when West Ham are clearly benefitting from rare stability. Arnautovic’s ambition and his refusal even to wait until season’s end for his move, has made him a pipe bomb.

That’s not hyperbole, because consider the ripples of effect he may cause: any time players arrive or depart, change becomes inevitable. The players close to Arnautovic in the dressing-room will be impacted. Socially they’ll be unsettled, but maybe they’ll also be encouraged to place calls to their own agents – why not? Halfway through a season the club might sell one of their best players. That’s never a good look. The fallacy is to believe that the risks associated with Arnautovic-types begin and end with their levels of commitment and the potential inconvenience of having to replace them. But it’s reductive. Players like that pass subliminal comment on a club’s direction, dictating the underlying mood and influence those around them, potentially causing season-derailing chaos. As a further consequence, should Gomez actually be signed, that comes with the caveat of his own adjustment, the effect on the players whose position he threatens, and his own adaption to English football. Essentially, West Ham’s team chemistry will potentially have to be rebuilt in the middle of a season and it’s because a player with red flags sprouting from his CV is determined to move to China for more money.

Of course, sometimes these problems are unavoidable and, football being what it now is, there’s really no way for clubs of West Ham’s standing to fireproof themselves entirely. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to take from the eipsode itself; if West Ham are to grow beyond their current position and sustain that improvement, they need to look beyond these agents of change and the trouble they cause, and towards players who see the club as more than just a platform for their next move.

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