A few years ago, Marko Arnautovic was asked in an interview which coaches had enjoyed the biggest influence on his career, and alongside the Werder Bremen legend Thomas Schaaf and Jose Mourinho, who managed Arnautovic at Inter Milan, there was a more surprising name.
When Steve McClaren arrived at Twente in the summer of 2008, Arnautovic was a wayward young striker on the fringes of the first team, looking for a way out. Over the following year, however, he would strike up an unlikely rapport with a manager whose achievements in Dutch football - Eredivisie runners-up and champions in his first two seasons - remain, in this country at least, curiously underrated.
McClaren threw the teenage Arnautovic into the first team, gave him licence to run riot, was prepared to offer him an arm around the shoulder as well as a rocket up the backside, and was rewarded with 14 goals - a tally that, almost a decade on, Arnautovic is yet to surpass. “Steve started my career, really,” Arnautovic would later say. “He gave me the opportunity to play from the start and show myself. I like him as a man and as a coach.”
The true value of McClaren would only really become apparent over the subsequent years, as Arnautovic wandered around Europe, showing only glimpses of the potential he had displayed at Twente. Until - perhaps - now. As West Ham prepare to host Stoke, the club that brought him to English football five years ago, Arnautovic is one of the Premier League’s in-form players, his nine goals in 14 games a tribute not simply to his own toil but that of another much-maligned British manager: David Moyes.
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When Moyes landed in east London in November, you could barely make him out through the fog of scepticism that greeted his arrival. Yet for all their trials on and off the pitch, victory against Stoke would move them nine points clear of the relegation zone, tantalisingly close to Premier League safety. And his ability to wring the best out of the mercurial Arnautovic - an approach he describes, simply, as “let him be Marko” - is one of the reasons why both men could well emerge from this season with enhanced reputations.
Moyes, for his part, had every reason to be sceptical too. The tales of Arnautovic’s sun-sized ego have been following him around since his youth days, when he would infuriate coaches by walking out of training sessions or throwing bottles out of windows. At Inter, he enraged Mourinho by being late three times in one day. At Werder, he turned up to his first training session with “Champions League Winner 2010” sewn into his boots, even though he had not played a single minute. Later, during a furious dressing room row, coach Klaus Allofs warned him that he was talking himself into a hefty fine. “Take my whole salary,” Arnautovic retorted, “and distribute it to your family.”
Though Arnautovic’s more eye-catching indiscretions are way in the past, Moyes had other reasons to be wary. “I saw him play for Stoke sometimes,” he said. “And I didn’t think he did all the running back defensively. Wait a minute, here. I’m coming to a team in the bottom three. If I’m not going to get all the players running, we’re going to be in difficulty.”
And so the decision by Moyes to plump for a three-man defence was partly inspired by this belief. “We had to find something which meant he wasn’t quite as exposed, having to double up and help the full-back out,” he said. “It’s very hard to play with wing-backs and wingers, so we had to find a way of getting Marko into a different system. Going centre-forward freed him up a little bit.”
Do match-winning players like Arnautovic need that little extra leeway? “Yeah, I think they do,” Moyes replied. “They just need a little bit of legroom, more than others. We give Marko his legroom, but I want him to know that he’s got to do the job. So if you want to stay at the levels you’re playing at, don’t go back to walking around. Don’t go back to looking as if you’re not interested.”
Gradually, Arnautovic has responded. West Ham’s fans, disgruntled at his slow start at the club, have been won over as much by his bullish self-confidence and hard running as much as his goals. Moyes, while delighted with his output, still suspects he may be capable of more input. “He’s a little bit of a Zlatan, inasmuch as the players look to him,” Moyes admitted. “Because he’s getting to an age now where he’s going to have to influence players around him. He’s got a good humour, he’s a character, so I’d like him to put some of that into training at the level he should.”
Othmar Larisch, the Vienna-based scout who discovered Arnautovic, remarked that he had not seen a talent like his in 30 years. Perhaps, finally, that talent is being fulfilled. It is a high-wire act, as it always seems to be with Arnautovic, and time alone will tell if his current spurt can be sustained. But under the careful tutelage of Moyes, the career of one of the Premier League’s most relentlessly interesting players may just have turned its latest corner.