Marko Arnautovic key to prolonging Manuel Pellegrini's West Ham tenure
Sitting in 17th with only four points from six games wasn't what David Gold and Sullivan had in mind at the season's start. The West Ham United owners had managed to lure former Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini to the London Stadium. The Chilean accepted a three-year deal, worth a lucrative £21 million, to leave Chinese side Hebei Fortune. On top of that, the Hammers spent almost £95 million to sign Issa Diop, Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmelenko, Lucas Perez, Lukasz Fabianski, Fabian Balbuena and Carlos Sanchez. The big-money arrivals were complemented with Arsenal's Jack Wilshere and Fulham's Ryan Fredericks, who both joined on free transfers.
West Ham failed to bag a single point in their first four league matches. Last campaign's negative energy was creeping back in. Bookmakers took note, slashing Pellegrini's odds to get the sack. The Hammers' tactician deserved the lion's share of the blame. After receiving heavy backing this past summer, he has so far failed to find the right balance.
In six games, West Ham have lined up using four different formations. They are yet to play as a cohesive unit. Although the Hammers took three points off Everton ten days ago, that 3-1 victory had more to do with Yarmelenko's exquisite finishing than teamwork. Yet, the recent goalless draw against Chelsea indicates there could be better to come.
Despite the negativity surrounding West Ham's early campaign, one player has stood out. Marko Arnautovic continues to show sensational form this calendar year. Only Mohamed Salah, with 24, has been directly involved in more Premier League goals than the Austrian's 16. An unfathomable stat considering some thought Stoke City had overcharged for his services 15 months ago.
With three goals and an assist, Arnautovic has contributed to 80% of the Hammers' season goal tally. Slaven Bilic may have signed him in July last year, but it was David Moyes who unlocked his true potential. The attacker had failed to score when the Croat was at the helm, only to explode into action under the Scot, finding the net 11 times.
Playing as a striker transformed Arnautovic from a laughing stock to fan favourite. Despite West Ham possessing natural frontmen in Perez, Javier Hernandez and Andy Carroll, the Austria international has made the position his own.
Pellegrini has work cut out to improve West Ham's attack. Arnautovic's supporting cast is proving difficult to assemble. Wilshere began the season brightly before his injury curse struck again. This has left the Hammers' boss without his most creative central midfielder. The current pairing, Mark Noble and Declan Rice, is robust yet not inventive. Selling Cheikhou Kouyate to Crystal Palace in August leaves Sanchez as the only other option. While the Colombian is a decent player, he lacks the Senegalese's dynamism and ability to carry the ball forward.
Anderson, the club's record signing, was expected to command West Ham's left-midfield position. His stuttering start isn't ideal. The Brazilian, along with Yarmelenko, faces competition from Robert Snodgrass and the versatile Michail Antonio. More importantly, though, Pellegrini must help gel the defensive pairing of Balbuena and Angelo Ogbonna.
Should the situation not improve, the trigger-happy West Ham board will decide to drop Pellegrini. The 65-year-old's job is, to a great extent, at the feet of Arnautovic.