After plenty of practice runs, many ending in forgettable failures, the Hammers signed a striker who could put the ball in the back of the net on a regular basis and with it they brought their hoodoo to an end.
It didn’t look likely, however, when the club managed to blunt the usually prolific Javier Hernández. The Little Pea signed in the summer in a deal reported to be in the region of £16million. Though he’s scored seven goals in just 16 starts, it was clear the Hammers weren’t set up to cater to his needs.
The Mexican was not only feeding off scraps, (his xG90 (expected goals per 90) total of 0.31 is his lowest since records began) he was being shoehorned into the starting XI based on reputation alone.
But chaos, which it was at the London Stadium with West Ham in a relegation scrap, presents opportunity. Arnautović, the club’s record signing, grasped his chance with both hands. His move south didn’t get off to the best of starts when he was sent off in just his second start for the team.
It wasn’t the best first impression. In an interview with the Daily Mail in October, the 28-year-old acknowledged he had a lot to do to turn his West Ham career around: “Expectation of me is high and I know people are not happy. I have apologised for the red card, it was stupid. And then I’ve been ill and I can’t change it. So it’s not been great and I know that.
“I hear people saying I came for £27million and have done nothing. I want to show the club they didn’t pay so much money for nothing.”
In his absence, the Hammers pieced together a functional forward line and it appeared as though the Austria international was going to rue the red card. Especially when, in November, new manager David Moyes said the versatile forward had to work harder and be more of a team player or be dropped.
That seemed to focus the one-time Inter Milan forward who has been one of West Ham’s best players this season.
Arnautović is finally fulfilling his potential
The ex-Werder Bremen man is no stranger to having a point to prove. His confidence can be misconstrued as arrogance and it tends to rub people up the wrong way. He played for a number of clubs as a youngster due to behavioural issues but upon finding a home at FC Twente he flourished.
His form in the Eredivisie, as a striker, saw Arnautović courted by some of Europe’s elite clubs. A move to Chelsea in the summer of 2009 fell through because of a broken foot. Lazio pushed for his signature but it was José Mourinho‘s Inter Milan who landed the 6ft 3ins forward, initially on loan.
He struggled under the former Porto boss but eventually won him round, albeit by mistake: “Back in Milan I thought we were training in the morning and I went in just perfect,’ he reflected. ‘There were no cars there. We were actually training in the afternoon that day.
“Mourinho is there with his staff and he stands up and starts applauding and laughing. He said: ‘You are my man. You come here five hours before training. I love you! Here, take my watch’. I still have that watch in my house.”
Rafael Benítez wasn’t sold on the forward and he moved to Werder Bremen. The Bundesliga club used him sparingly in a wide role and, though he did a job there, he failed to rediscover the form he showed in Holland. He moved to Stoke City looking to get his career back on track and showed fleeting moments on brilliance.
However, the overall feeling was he was a solid wide player but wasn’t capable of anything more. His potential wasn’t ever going to be fulfilled.
It might have been by chance, but West Ham found a system, the 3-4-3 shape, to get the best out of the Austrian. It’s the first time since his days at Twente he’s truly been trusted as a striker. Tasked with leading the line, but capable of roaming, he’s thriving in his new role.
The graphic above, which shows his stats for the season, paints the picture of a striker many clubs in the Premier League would want at their disposal.
Only 11 players – of which nine are out-and-out strikers – who have featured in 1,000 minutes or more in the Premier League have a higher xG90 than Arnautović and only seven of those have a higher xA (expected goals assisted) than the West Ham No.7.
Even more impressively, his output is matching his expected numbers. He’s averaging a goal every other game and this in a struggling West Ham side.
Another reason to be positive about him as a forward is down to the post-shot xG stat. This looks at where the effort goes on the goal as opposed to just where the shot is taken from. Arnautović’s post-shot xG stat of 10.02 shows he adds quality to his efforts.
He’s showing intelligent movement in the final third, the sort to create chances on a regular basis. He was the match-of-the-match against Southampton on Saturday after notching two goals. His first was by no means spectacular. After his header was foiled he managed to net the rebound. But, as shown in the picture above, his work off the ball creates the opportunity in the first place.
He fakes to make a move across Jack Stephens, the Saints centre-back reacts, but then drifts to the back post. It’s subtle but it’s significant. As the ball comes in he’s in acres of space, space he created for himself.
If utilised as a striker on a full-time basis in a mid-table team then there’s no reason to suggest the powerful forward couldn’t be a 20-goal-a-season man, especially if he was able to increase the volume of chances he was having per 90 minutes.
He’s averaging a goal every 5.6 shots but only managed 2.7 per 90. The only other time he’s averaged more than 2.2 shots per 90 he finished with 11 goals for Stoke City. There’s evidence there to suggest, as simplistic as it sounds, the more shots he has the the more goals he’ll score.
Present him with more opportunities and his goal tally should rise. In Arnautović, West Ham might have bagged themselves the striker they’ve needed for quite some time without the majority of people realising it. He’s the forward that was promised.