West Ham United are having an interesting week.
The bombshell isn’t so much that Arnautović wants to leave; it’s more the timing of it.
The Austria international, who was strongly linked with a summer move to Manchester United, has been a talismanic figure for the Hammers throughout a turbulent last year.
Having initially struggled under Slaven Bilić after his £25million move from Stoke City, the 29-year-old flourished following David Moyes’ decision to deploy him as a centre-forward, ending last season with 11 goals and six assists, a return which saw him being named ‘Hammer of the Year’.
That rich vein of form has continued into the current campaign, with the former Werder Bremen attacker firmly established as Manuel Pellegrini’s first-choice frontman, contributing five goals and one assist already this term.
But players have a tendency to agitate for a move while they’re away on international duty – and Arnautović has done just that.
Ahead of Austria’s upcoming double-header against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Northern Ireland, Arnautović told newspaper Kurier that, at 29, he feels as though he must leave the London Stadium now to pursue his ambition of playing in the Champions League and compete alongside “the best players”.
Danijel, his brother and agent, revealed that Arnautović was “very, very close” to leaving in the summer and, with United frontman Romelu Lukaku struggling for goals, the stage appears set for more Old Trafford links, especially given recent reports indicating that Alexis Sánchez is already plotting escape from Manchester.
But would Arnautović be a viable option for José Mourinho? Contracted to West Ham until 2022, he would likely cost in excess of the £25million the east London club forked up for his services.
Money is not much of an issue for United’s deep-pocketed hierarchy, but there will perhaps be consternation over handing over a significant sum for an injury-prone player set to turn 30 in April. In the summer, reports surfaced suggesting that executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward vetoed Mourinho’s list of defensive transfer target on the basis that some of them – Jérôme Boateng, for example – were “short-term fixes”.
Arnautović may well fall under that unflattering banner but his stats suggest that he would a strong candidate to bolster United’s attacking ranks and provide stiff competition for Lukaku, who has not scored in two months.
This season, the Austrian ranks higher than his Belgian counterpart in several key categories. His 0.55 goals per 90 minutes eclipses Lukaku’s 0.44, while he has been much more shot-happy than the £75million striker with 3.43 per 90 to 2.24.
Arnautović is renowned for his direct, aggressive style and he has been consistently menacing this term with 8.42 touches in the opponent’s penalty area per 90, comfortably surpassing Lukaku’s 5.73. The West Ham favourite also boasts better passing, shooting and long-ball accuracy, while his expected goals (xG) per 90 of 0.52 is marginally higher than Lukaku’s 0.51.
Football Whispers’ Player Persona comparison tool provides a clear picture of how the pair stack up stylistically. While Lukaku dominates aerial play, crossing and dribbling, Arnautović is ahead in goalscoring, on-target shots and chance creation.
Arnautović clearly sees his future elsewhere. Approaching 30, he has not played in the Champions League since 2010. He has also never won a major honour and, at this critical juncture, probably feels as though he’s earned another chance at a “big club”.
While he may not be the world-class marquee signing some United fans dream of, Arnautović is a hard-working, proven Premier League talent whose league tally for 2018 stands at 11, one more than Lukaku.
The race for his signature come January should be very interesting indeed.