Why should West Ham­pay Ar­nau­tovic what he wants? Be­cause he’s worth it

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SOCCER - Michael Walker

If you can re­mem­ber Novem­ber, three days after North­ern Ire­land demon­strated at Lans­downe Road that they are more than the sum of their parts, Aus­tria ar­rived at Wind­sor Park for a Na­tions League game.

Once again Michael O’Neill’s play­ers – fea­tur­ing two from the Pre­mier League – played above them­selves. They were draw­ing 1-1 with the Aus­tri­ans when, with 20 min­utes left, Marko Ar­nau­tovic arose from the dugout, puffed out his chest and strut­ted to the touch­line.

It was a good match at that point, grow­ing in rhythm and tenac­ity. But Ar­nau­tovic took it to an­other level.

He quickly teed up David Alaba with a great chance, had a fight with Gareth McAu­ley, then sup­plied the pass from which Aus­tria scored their in­jury-time win­ner. Then, ob­vi­ously clear in his own mind that his 20 min­utes had al­tered the course of the night, Ar­nau­tovic strode off, shirt re­moved.

He is a player who can do that, change the shape of a game.

There are youth coaches in Vi­enna who were say­ing the same nearly 20 years ago. But it is now, at 29, that Ar­nau­tovic can be de­pended upon to de­liver, then de­liver again. Con­sis­tency has chimed with abil­ity and ex­pe­ri­ence. To­gether it makes Ar­nau­tovic a dan­ger­ous and wanted man.

At 29 he may have at­tained ma­tu­rity; not of the be­nign Trevor Brook­ing claret, but in terms of un­der­stand­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties within. At 29 Ar­nau­tovic looks as if he knows him­self and the game.

Even in an age-con­cerned in­dus­try such as pro­fes­sional foot­ball, at 29 he looks young. He has physique, tech­nique and an aura. He has added strength to his skill and de­ter­mi­na­tion to his strength. He un­der­stands his role in a sys­tem. It is a pow­er­ful com­bi­na­tion.

“He’s a special spark,” Michael O’Neill said of Ar­nau­tovic in Belfast. “He’s got phys­i­cal­ity, pace, tech­ni­cal abil­ity. He’s in­cred­i­ble. He’s a top four player in the Pre­mier League.”

In short, Ar­nau­tovic is worth the fuss and the for­tune. At 29 he is get­ting bet­ter. The prob­lem for West Ham is that he knows it. O’Neill’s top-four re­mark will have rung in the ears of the Aus­trian, and his agent, who is his brother Daniel.

Sub­sti­tuted

Which brings us to where we are. Fast for­ward to last Saturday, and an­other 20-minute Ar­nau­tovic ap­pear­ance. This one came at the be­gin­ning of a match, not its dra­matic end, and the player was not its au­thor.

After 20 min­utes of West Ham’s FA Cup tie at the Lon­don Sta­dium against Birm­ing­ham City, Ar­nau­tovic saw his num­ber come up. He was to be sub­sti­tuted, re­placed, and he was not happy. Man­ager Manuel Pel­le­grini would say the for­ward had a back in­jury, but the pain Ar­nau­tovic was ex­hibit­ing was of em­bar­rass­ment. He made his feel­ings known as he brushed past Pel­le­grini. It was un­com­fort­able.

It is easy to blame the player here, es­pe­cially one not un­fa­mil­iar with petu­lance. This is some­one José Mour­inho de­scribed as “a fantastic per­son with the at­ti­tude of a child” when Ar­nau­tovic was on loan at In­ter Mi­lan.

He shared a flat with Mario Balotelli then. It must have had high ceil­ings.

But Ar­nau­tovic was only 20, and it was a long time ago. By last Saturday he was en­ti­tled to his an­noy­ance. Why was he se­lected to start? If West Ham wanted to pro­tect him for the next match – at home to Arse­nal – why not have him on the bench against Cham­pi­onship op­po­si­tion?

We do not know if a chord snapped, but his brother has been strum­ming away in the back­ground and then on Wed­nes­day: boom.

An of­fer from China ar­rived in the West Ham in-tray. It was £35 mil­lion for West Ham and a strato­spheric salary for Ar­nau­tovic. It set off an alarm within the club be­cause West Ham knew it was the first of­fer for Ar­nau­tovic this month, not the last.

On Thurs­day an­other boom: Ar­nau­tovic ex­pressed “a great desire” to leave for China. No club was spec­i­fied in his state­ment. That seems odd.

But O’Neill’s “top-four” com­ment stands. Ar­nau­tovic could play for any of them, in fact any of the top six.

Bro­ken bone

Chelsea know this. They know Al­varo Mo­rata has five Pre­mier League goals this sea­son in a team which has scored 38. Ar­nau­tovic has seven of 29 West Ham goals in a team that has won eight matches.

And when he was mak­ing his way at FC Twente in the Nether­lands, Ar­nau­tovic was due to join Chelsea in the sum­mer of 2009 from the Dutch club. A bro­ken bone in a foot post­poned that and when he had re­cov­ered the trans­fer had been can­celled. It showed the es­teem in which Ar­nau­tovic was held.

And yet after the In­ter Mi­lan loan fiz­zled out, he joined Werder Bre­men in the Bun­desliga. After three sea­sons there moved to Stoke City and for the mea­gre sum of £2 mil­lion.

It shows Ar­nau­tovic has known side­ways moves and down­wards ap­pre­ci­a­tion as well as praise, and while his wages will have been in­cred­i­ble to most peo­ple, in foot­ball he will have been a mid-ta­ble earner.

His de­vel­op­ment un­der Mark Hughes at Stoke was such that he was sold for £25 mil­lion. It made him West Ham’s record trans­fer. Stoke, mean­while, were rel­e­gated in his ab­sence.

Yet it has been re­ported this week by those close to West Ham that Ar­nau­tovic earns less than Andy Car­roll. If so, you can see why he and his brother would be peeved.

Player of the Year

Lest we for­get, last sea­son – Ar­nau­tovic’s first at the club – was ar­du­ous. By De­cem­ber he had not scored, and West Ham were se­cond bot­tom with 10 points.

Then they beat Chelsea at home. 1-0, Ar­nau­tovic.

It was first of nine goals in 15 matches, and by sea­son’s end, un­der David Moyes, West Ham were 13th. Ar­nau­tovic was named the club’s player of the year. De­clan Rice came se­cond.

This sea­son be­gan with four league de­feats, but West Ham are now sta­ble. They should be ap­proach­ing Arse­nal with con­fi­dence that their main striker can tear at a vul­ner­a­ble vis­it­ing de­fence.

Yet the ghost of Dmitri Payet had sud­denly en­tered the play. Two Jan­uarys ago Payet had his head turned and left ac­ri­mo­niously for Mar­seilles. West Ham could not keep him and the Ham­mers’ fear is that history will re­peat it­self with Ar­nau­tovic.

The club is cor­nered. There is a way out, how­ever, and that is to in­vest in their player, pay him spec­tac­u­larly. Give him £10 mil­lion for three years; £30 mil­lion is what they would prob­a­bly need to spend on a re­place­ment, plus wages.

If West Ham con­sider Ar­nau­tovic essen­tial to their fu­ture, and they say they do, then he is worth it.

Ar­nau­tovic is worth the fuss and the for­tune. At 29, he is get­ting bet­ter. The prob­lem for West Ham is that he knows it

PHO­TO­GRAPH: STEVEN PASTON/PA WIRE

West Ham’s Marko Ar­nau­tovic re­mon­strates with man­ager Manuel Pel­le­grini after be­ing sub­sti­tuted 20 min­utes into last weeken’s FA Cup tie against Birm­ing­ham.

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