Divock Origi: Last season was awful but it made me stronger
Published 14/04/2016 | 02:30
For those who believe in fate, this year's Europa League final coincides with a significant anniversary for Liverpool's Divock Origi.
It was in May last year when France's leading sports newspaper, L'Equipe, declared the Belgian striker a member of the "worst team of the year" in Ligue 1. The brutal assessment followed Origi's eight goals in 33 league games in his final year at Lille.
"I hope in the future it will be a nice story to tell," says Origi, in forgiving mood. "At the end of my career it will only make it more special when you can say this happened the year before. It was an awful year, but I'm sure it made me a lot stronger when I came here.
"I was very hungry to succeed. It wasn't easy but the football world can build you up and you can sometimes go down. But when you have a good base you don't have to worry. When you know you have qualities then you know your hard work will bring you far. Even for players younger than me, you never have to give up. When you believe in yourself people can say what they want but when you work hard and you have your head clear then everything is possible."
L'Equipe's verdict had an impact on expectations when the forward finally arrived on Merseyside last July, having spent a season back at Lille on loan. Then aged 20, he was initially presumed to be fourth-choice striker behind Daniel Sturridge, Christian Benteke and Danny Ings.
As with every deal stamped "property of Liverpool's transfer committee", it did not bode well. In early performances he looked raw and tactically naive. In Belgium, questions were asked about the national coach Marc Wilmots's enduring faith in the youngster he had surprisingly taken to the World Cup in Brazil.
As with several Liverpool players, Jurgen Klopp's arrival as manager changed everything. Origi performed admirably in Klopp's first game at Spurs, but he was the club's only fit striker.
Last week's away leg of the quarter-final against Borussia Dortmund - when he was preferred to Daniel Sturridge and scored in a 1-1 draw -demonstrated his transformation from understudy to senior striker.
"When someone shows confidence in you, you want to reward it back," Origi, ahead of tonight's second leg, said. "The manager had a very hard choice to make but what I have learnt is that we are in a group with a lot of talent.
"Beforehand, he just said 'play your game'. Afterwards he just said 'well done'. He knows I have a long way to go. I have to be more consistent.
"To play a game like this is the reason I came. You work hard and if you score for the team, you're glad everything went OK. I am enjoying my football. I feel I am playing well and scoring goals, which is important for a striker. I feel fit. I am working hard in training and enjoying games. I feel good at the club and it is a combination of all these things that is making me perform well."
It is easy to see how Origi has improved, from his shrewder running off the ball to his developing physique.
"Before I came to the club, even with Brendan Rodgers, I played more with my back to the goal. My qualities are more when I move around and use my speed," he said. "At this age, you learn a lot. To be able to work with this manager is a great chance as he knows exactly what he is doing. He has a clear plan. As a player, it is very easy to try and suit his system.
"When you come to the Premier League, you have to be physically strong because it is very fast, physical and intensive. Every day I try to do something on my core or my muscle strength. I have seen some improvements."
Rather than just competing with Sturridge for a starting place, Origi says he is learning from him.
"He's a big player so when I play with him I see a lot of things I can get into my game," he said. "He moves very smart, he comes between the lines and he finishes very well. He is creative so he has a lot of qualities and he makes steps and became a big player so that's my aim, to make the same progress.
"I came here and saw how professional all the players were. I was 19-years old. I only started playing top football when I was 17 and a half. I only have small experience in the first team. Coming here, seeing how the big players worked, it inspired me. I have made steps and am starting to see the difference."
In Belgium, Origi's father, Mike - a former striker at Ghent - is credited with assisting his son's education on and off the field.
Stephane Vande Velde, a Belgian sports journalist with the Rossel media group, said: "He is very mature for his age. He is not a young player who thinks about money or other things that come from being a footballer.
"He and his father have only ever thought of what's best for his career. Five months ago a lot of people thought it was too early for him to be at Liverpool and he might not go to the European Championship. Now they are sure he should go."
Origi never had any doubts about the timing of his decision to move to England. "When Liverpool came, I came to visit here and straight away, I felt part of it," he said. "Everyone knew me, even the video analysts. They knew exactly how I played and my heart just said 'Liverpool'. It is always nice when people believe in you but you have to prove it on the pitch."
When he is next named in a team of the year, then, he hopes it is Uefa rather than L'Equipe recognising him. "You never know," he smiled.