In April of 2015, while playing for Stoke City at West Ham, Marko Arnautovic did the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen on a football pitch. The hosts had led 1-0 from very early on. Then, midway through the second half, Arnautovic scored to level matters, but was flagged offside, correctly as the replay showed. Undaunted, as late as the 92nd minute, he scored another equaliser, much more dramatic – but it too was flagged offside, more dubiously.
Arnautovic wasn’t happy. So he trotted over to the assistant referee and got up close to him, showing two fingers, meaning the two times he’d been flagged. The assistant could be clearly seen saying “Go away!” And go away he did.
And three minutes later, in the final minute of injury time, he took a flick-on from a header about 30 yards from goal, just about in the centre of the pitch. You could tell from his body language that he knew exactly what he wanted to do. He went to his right, raced around two defenders, burst into the area, and without looking up, fired an unstoppable cross-shot low just inside the far post for his third equaliser of the match. This one stood. The match finished 1-1. It was his first league goal of the season.
Amazingly, you won’t find it on the internet. Somehow all clips of it have disappeared, which in my view is just as well, since it’s better as legend. But one thing you will find is the video of Arnautovic scoring against Chelsea this past Saturday, then leaping into the stands to celebrate deliriously with the West Ham fans. It was his first league goal of the season then too.
José Mourinho, who managed Arnautovic at Inter, famously described him as “a fantastic person with the attitude of a child”. Not much has changed. Watch him closely during games, particularly when things go wrong. He has at least 46 ways of signalling disappointment, with an ever-shifting repertoire of hand gestures, head shakes and shrugs.
But also watch him applaud his teammates when they send him passes that may have been overhit. And listen to his interviews, which are anything but the I-am-Zlatan boasts you might expect. He sounds humble, just happy to be playing football, just doing his best for the team.
‘Doing his best for the team’ though, is exactly what he’s often been accused of not doing. Stoke City fans loved him, but were well aware he was unreliable when it came time to get stuck in. In the early weeks of this season, West Ham fans saw him up close for the first time, and made him the poster boy for a side that lacked desire, effort and results.
And if you watch the video of West Ham-Chelsea, you’ll see he doesn’t exactly get stuck in there, either. In fact, most of the time he moves languidly around the pitch until the ball gets near him – at which point he accelerates, almost like a snake uncoiling. He’s actually not a bad defender when he can be bothered, but Saturday he was all about waiting for his chance to come.
David Moyes made it easier for him, and deserves great credit for doing so. Under Mark Hughes, Arnautovic usually played left wing, and although he came into the middle often enough to get his share of scoring chances, he often was asked to stay left, providing cutbacks and crosses. Against Chelsea he was positioned on the far left of a 4-5-1, but with instructions to go central and act as a second striker when West Ham had the ball on the right side of the pitch.
That’s why he was where he needed to be when Michail Antonio slipped him the ball in the sixth minute of play. He exchanged passes with Manuel Lanzini, neatly bypassing Andreas Christensen, then bamboozled no less than Cesar Azpilicueta before driving an unsaveable weaker-foot finish past Thibaut Courtois.
It was a first-class goal, and no surprise to anyone acquainted with his abilities. And having broken his duck, what happened next was no surprise to anyone acquainted with his temperament. His glorious leap into the London Stadium stands was his way of bonding with the home supporters, supporters who had barracked him on every available social media platform earlier in the season.
But watch it again. As with the goal he scored against West Ham in 2015, he knows exactly what he wants to do. From the beginning he runs away from his teammates, headed for the stands. He takes the leap purposefully. He roars once, as loudly as possible. But then, ah, he disappears in an ocean of slaps and hugs, and the embraces look every bit as spontaneous as any football romantic would wish.
No matter what he does for the rest of his Hammers career, the fans will remember that moment. And that’s Arnautovic in a nutshell. He’s just as memorable off the pitch as on, and always a feast for the eyes. I don’t expect him ever to equal that goal from 2015, but you saw the goal against Chelsea, and if he gets to play more up front I suspect there’ll be more of that quality. Plus pouts. Plus disbelieving looks. Plus celebrations. Let’s watch together.