Tactical analysis: How Marko Arnautovic benefited from moving to a central position

Author: . Published: at 9:11pm

Jack Allan (@WHUFCanalysis)

The Austrian enigma arrived in a controversial move from Stoke City in the summer of the 17/18 season, while there were massive doubts about his price and ability but Arnie was able to silence his critics.

Despite a barren start where he didn’t register a single goal/assist in 10 games, Arnautovic ended up as the team’s top scorer with 11 goals come the end of the season. The praise for his transformation should largely go to David Moyes as his decision to shift the mercurial wide man into a central position completely changed the dynamic of the team.

In this article I take a look at why Marko has been so successful when deployed as a striker using statistics, analysis and tactical images.

The Numbers: The thesis suggesting that Arnautovic improved due to being deployed as a striker is supported by differing stats, which show an improvement in effectiveness for the player.

David Moyes had stated before that in order for the team to stay up, everyone had to be willing to help out with defensive duties, which meant that Arnautovic’s scoring influence would be stifled on the wing. In order to negate that, Moyes moved him into a more central, free role with the freedom to roam the final third of the pitch.

His xG (Expected goals) increased greatly, before Moyes arrived it tallied at 0.3, after the Scotsman arrived it tallied at 1.4. This suggested that he was able to arrive in goal scoring areas more consistently due to his positional change.

A notable improvement from his previous season was his willingness to take on more shots. His Sh90 (Shots per 90 minutes) number from the 2016/17 season, where he was used mostly as a winger by Stoke City was 1.97. This season it was 2.73. Naturally, if you take shots you score goals and Arnautovic had the ability to do that.

The only negative from his positional change from a statistical perspective, were his decreased assist/key pass numbers. His xA (Expected Assists) number fell off massively from the season before it, going from 7.13 in 2016/17 to 4.45 in 17/18. Of course, playing as a striker is very different from being a winger, so Arnautovic simply transformed his game.

His shot map for the season (via Understat.com) prominently suggests two things, his ability to consistently outperform shot xG and his clinical instinct inside the box. Compared to previous seasons, he was taking more shots from inside the box than ever before and getting into better scoring positions from in and around the box. His tendency to take pot shots from outside the box, decreased greatly, as his game focused more and more on goals. Just a completely remarkable transformation.

Tactical Analysis:

From a tactical perspective, Arnautovic offered so much more than goals. For a struggling team battling relegation, he was the perfect front man. With his mix of pace, power and clinical finishing he was suited to a counter attacking team, which is what West Ham were under David Moyes.

By looking at a few cases from league games, I will try to pinpoint exactly what he offers from different perspectives.

The first, is his ability to occupy the half spaces in the build-up phase. His positioning opens up possibilities for vertical progression, which allows the team to break forward quickly into the second phase of play. When he receives the ball in the half space, he is able to either go out wide or cut inside.

In the attacking phase, his occasional occupation of the half space areas helps create overloads down a specific wing, if he gets support from the full backs. This constant movement makes him extremely hard to mark by the centre backs, which adds to his unpredictability factor. Not a conventional forward by any means.

Arnautovic’s pace also helps the team break quickly into a counter attacking situation. His positioning aids for a quick break, and he has the ability to stretch defences. You can see the big gap between the centre backs, as one has been drawn out by the Austrian’s clever movement. When he recieves the ball, there are countless options on what to do, all of which are created by Arnie’s intelligent movement. The perfect counter attacking weapon.


But what for me, is his most important asset is his ability to consistently create space in the 18 yard box, even against a team defending with a compact deep block. You can see in the case above, Arnautovic has created a free shooting angle, by being able to find space in a box f filled with 6 Arsenal players. This move eventually led to a goal, and a large part of the credit should go to Arnie for his incisive movement.


Another example of his clever box movement, this time from crosses. Arnautovic usually takes up a starting position on the fringes of the box, occupying the wide areas, before cutting in when the ball is delivered. This disorientates the marking schemes of the opposition, especially when they deploy a system based on zonal techniques. If the delivery is good, he will get on the end of it.


Another positive from his move to striker, is the partnership he built up with Manu Lanzini, as they were able to link up more. In the final attacking phase, Lanzini’s passing ability meshed perfectly with Arnie’s positional intelligence. You can see in the above case, Arnautovic has just passed to Lanzini, after waiting for the perfect moment. He was able to draw 3 Stoke defenders towards him, opening up space in the danger area. Lanzini is able to chip it into the free space, and Arnautovic finishes it off. Simple, but extremely effective.

Conclusion: David Moyes may have saved us from relegation but moving Marko Arnuatovic to a central position might be just as important in the long term. Without him, I doubt we would have been able to stay up, as his traits perfectly suited the nuances of West Ham’s system under Moyes.

Looking forward, it will be interesting to see how Pellegrini utilises the Austria from a tactical perspective. It’s been documented that he likes Chicharito, which may lead to Arnautovic being shifted out wide. Personally, I’m not a massive fan of that move but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.


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