Divock Origi began the season on the fringes having turned down a big-money move to Wolves, but is now carving out a role as Liverpool’s go-to substitute.
Having spent the previous campaign on loan with Wolfsburg, scoring seven and assisting three in 36 games as his side narrowly escaped relegation, Origi’s race seemed to have been run.
It appeared to be a miserable end to the striker’s Anfield career in circumstances that were largely out of his hands.
After taking up a focal role in Jurgen Klopp‘s first two seasons with the Reds, including two goals against Borussia Dortmund on the road to the Europa League final in 2016, the manager’s plans changed.
Liverpool welcomed offers for the Belgian last summer, and accepted a bid worth £22 million from newly promoted Wolves, but Origi rejected a switch to Molineux and, subsequently, the club dismissed a loan offer from Dortmund.
Instead, with Danny Ings leaving, Rhian Brewster still sidelined and no plans for the soon-to-depart Dominic Solanke, Origi stayed to serve as backup to Roberto Firmino.
But it took him until October to make the matchday squad for the first time and November to get his first minutes: 11, to be exact, in the 2-0 defeat to Red Star in the Champions League.
Seventy-two more came in December and they have proved pivotal, with his match-winning cameo against Everton, followed by an assist for the initial equaliser in the 3-1 win at Burnley, catching Klopp’s eye.
Since that victory at Turf Moor, Origi has been omitted from Liverpool’s teamsheet just twice in all competitions, against Man United and Man City in the Premier League, having previously missed the squad 15 out of 19 times.
The 3-1 thrashing of United served as a watershed moment for Xherdan Shaqiri, who came off the bench to score twice and win the game, but now things have changed dramatically.
Similar can be said of Daniel Sturridge, whose stunning strike to seal a 1-1 draw with Chelsea in September saw him bring his average down to a goal every 46.8 minutes and prompt speculation over an extended role on Merseyside.
Among Klopp’s 10 most-used substitutes this season, three have made more appearances off the bench than they have starts: Origi (10), Adam Lallana (10) and Sturridge (17).
Shaqiri is also close, having been introduced midway through the game in 12 of his 26 appearances.
These have been the manager’s impact players, and interestingly, over the past month it was Origi who has been Klopp’s go-to attacker.
Minutes Off the Bench, Month by Month
The above chart shows the stark rise in Klopp’s faith in Origi from the bench, with February prompting an upturn in his minutes.
That month, only Sturridge played more from the aforementioned quartet, while in March, Origi’s airtime as a substitute dwarfed his fellow backups.
Furthermore, assessing each player’s overall minutes by month this season highlights the increasingly prominent role the 23-year-old is playing for Liverpool at a crucial stage of the campaign.
Overall Minutes, Month by Month
The first takeaway from this chart is the drop-off in Shaqiri’s minutes since his season’s peak in December, a period that saw him start against Everton, Burnley, Bournemouth, Newcastle and Arsenal; since then, there have only been three.
And again, Origi’s game time have increased significantly, surpassing both Shaqiri and Sturridge largely due to consecutive starts against Watford and Everton in the league.
Of this quarter, only Lallana featured more than the No. 27 in March, starting against Burnley and Fulham as Klopp navigated the must-win trip to Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
That night at the Allianz Arena, Origi was Liverpool’s first non-enforced substitution, and while the game was effectively won by the time he took over from Firmino, it served as further proof that he has the manager’s trust.
Just as there are certain factors behind his fellow squad players not featuring as often of late—Shaqiri has struggled with a groin injury, Lallana’s own fitness is an ongoing concern and Sturridge’s contract is running down—Origi is arguably ahead on merit.
He has averaged a goal or assist every 101.8 minutes this season, with four direct contributions coming in 407 minutes.
While in James Nalton’s alternative statistics last month, he led the rest of the squad in terms of minutes per goal, assist, ‘second assist’, deflected assist, penalties won and presses leading to a goal, with just 79.
He is, of course, not as consistent as a player like Sadio Mane, but he is making the most of his opportunities and being duly rewarded.
Another benefit of opting for Origi is his versatility, as so far this season he has been deployed on both the right and left wings and as a centre-forward.
Most recently, he has been predominantly tasked with duties on the left-hand side, which led to an excellent goal in the 5-0 win over Watford in February, and he has discussed his success out wide.
“People have maybe seen me more up front in the last couple of years but I totally love it on the wing as well,” he explained.
“I enjoyed linking up with Sadio and Mo but of course they are top players which makes it easier for me and I think it was just about having fun.
“Being an offensive player, I like it when I have space in front of me. That’s always good and I think we turned in a really good performance that night.”
Rather than operating as a striker with his back to goal, as his frame would perhaps dictate at another club, Origi’s pace and direct outlook have been employed up against opposing full-backs.
His height and physicality provide a useful alternative on the wing, too, while his willingness to track back may have given him the edge over Shaqiri.
Whether Origi’s increased game time is any indication towards a long-term future remains to be seen, but it is certainly a question worth asking.
This summer, he will enter the final year of his current contract with the club, and it is likely that the upcoming transfer window is a decisive one for the forward, whether he stays or goes.
Brewster is set for a first-team role when he reaches full fitness, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain‘s return will also boost Klopp’s options out wide, as could Harry Wilson if he is deemed ready after his loan at Derby.
But with Sturridge leaving, and the manager indicating that it won’t be a heavy-spending off-season as he looks to maintain the core of his squad, there could still be a place for Origi.
It may be that his growing prominence is due to a decision from Klopp that he will replace Sturridge, and while his progress slowed as a result of an ankle injury suffered against Everton in 2016, his record is significantly better than the veteran.
Much may depend on Origi’s own ambitions, but if he is content with his role this season it would not be a bad thing for Liverpool.