On Saturday lunchtime, Stoke City upended Manchester City at the Britannia Stadium. In spite of the Staffordshire gale, Mark Hughes’ front-four of Bojan, Xherdan Shari, Ibrahim Afellay and Marko Arnautovic combined intricately and effectively to expose the chasms that have developed in the visiting defence during Vincent Kompany’s absence.
2-0 flattered Manuel Pellegrini: his team were out-thought, out-coached, and out-worked and in easier conditions they might well have been truly humbled.
But the story was Stoke. Anchored by pragmatism yet employing a quartet of freewheeling mavericks at the top of their formation, they’re a car with a reliable engine and a platinum finish. If Hughes has been overwhelmingly successful in one aspect of his job, it’s been in preserving the resilient foundations carved by Tony Pulis, and embellishing on them with slightly out of context flourishes.
Bojan and Shaqiri are old news, undeniably effective players that they are, and Afellay – while not having the career expected of him – has been a known commodity for a long time. Arnautovic is the intriguing one, though, and he is the player who English audiences are developing a soft spot for. He scored twice at the weekend, his fourth and fifth of the season, but his literal footballing qualities are only part of his magnetism,
When he moved to England in September 2013, he arrived with a set of personality asterisks in his hand luggage. He was talented but troubled or, in the words of Jose Mourinho – who coached him during his loan season at Inter Milan – “a fantastic person (with) the attitude of a child”. There were incidents: golf cart-silliness, curious injuries, and strange situations with team-mates’ cars. His loan move to Italy should have been the beginning of his climb into the game’s stratosphere, but physical and emotional fragility bounced him back to Earth – and to Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga. He was tainted goods; another entry onto that list of players who, were it not for themselves, could have been anything they wanted.
So, by the time he was unveiled by Stoke, it was just too tempting for the British press to push him towards Mario Balotelli’s ridiculous throne.
By then of course, Balotelli had already established himself as one of the most fiercely boring topics in Premier League history. His antics were over-reported, his talent was seldom seen and yet, still, the picture galleries and the contrived reports of his wackiness kept on coming. The English psyche loves an irregular personality, but draws the line at self-indulgence, repeated idiocy and a refusal to work hard on the pitch. They soured on Balotelli because he was less a footballer and more a content-generating device.
The young Marko Arnautovic clearly shared some of those personality quirks – in a 2013 Telegraph interview with John Percy he confessed that “the German journalists still ring me and ask me to come back because without me their newspapers are empty” – but the balance between his idiosyncrasies and his sporting output has always been healthier than the now departed Balotelli. He’s been productive for Mark Hughes, but has still managed to retain a slightly surly, unpredictable quality which distinguishes him from the homogenous modern player. He’s not a world-beater and he won’t necessarily progress beyond his current level, but there’s still a fascinating energy to him and those scowling glances and burning stares are tempered by the glint of rare ability.
We like that kind of foreign player in this country – and that’s why we tried as hard as we did to warm to Balotelli.
In the Premier League era, English football has periodically been home to a special kind of imported talent: one with the ability to be a difference-maker and a match-winner, but one which is also tainted with entertaining imperfections. Eric Cantona is an obvious example, of course, David Ginola is another, but that list extends to Paolo Di Canio, Faustino Asprilla, Laurent Robert, Georgi Kinkladze and many others. They weren’t all equals as players, but they all had a shared ability to trip over their own feet and, with the exception of Cantona, they would all have risen to a higher level were it not for their various flaws.
Arnautovic doesn’t quite belong in that company. His CV isn’t substantial enough, he doesn’t play for a club who afford him that much visibility, and his Stoke career seems to have coincided with a growth in personal maturity. He is not a menace or a dirty player, but he offers the same promise of something slightly unusual – in a fun, healthy way. He’s a fascinating confluence of natural talent and under-developed game-intelligence who seems to be fighting a constant battle between what he wants to do and how others want him to play.
Who doesn’t love that kind of player?
“New” Stoke are associated with Shakiri and Bojan, because their skill-sets are in such contrast to the formulaic players who preceded them, but Arnautovic is more emblematic of this new era than any of them. He was the first player who arrived post-Pulis who the neutral wanted to watch and the first one who possessed that special, hypnotic ingredient that everyone is drawn to irrespective of their loyalty.
At a different time in history, when football had a richer cast of characters, maybe he would be unremarkable. Now, though, with the game home to a very regular-shaped professional, his rough edges are both more visible and more welcome.