Divock Origi and Romelu Lukaku: Belgium’s unusual strike duo
His was the largely unknown and unheralded name in Marc Wilmots’s 23-man Belgian squad for the World Cup. His was the name barely put forward to fill the void left by Christian Benteke and operate as the backup to Romelu Lukaku who was expected to lead the line for Belgium. And in this World Cup, he’s put more than a face to the name with a string of excellent displays in service of his country. Divock Origi had started only sixteen games in his career to date before Tuesday’s round of sixteen clash with the United States. It was a stunning vote of confidence from Wilmots to opt for the Lille forward who is the latest Belgian player to have represented les Diables Rouges without ever playing a league game in his own country. Origi, the son of former professional player Mike, made his first official appearance in the friendly against Sweden after he had come on against Luxembourg and won a penalty with a good turn of pace having taken time to find his feet.
He was handed his first start against Tunisia in a match that will be forever remembered for the incredible hailstorm that delayed proceedings. Origi grew into his role with his acceleration causing problems for defenders and his ability to make runs down the channels able to create space for other players. He can improve his link-up play from deep but his display was encouraging. It looked like we had a player who could come on and relieve Lukaku late on in the game. However, the Belgian striking landscape began to change when Lukaku limped off at the end of the Tunisia game having taken a boot to the ankle. The injury turned out not to be too serious but it did raise the prospect of Origi actually having to step in to the big man’s shoes in the tournament proper.
Once Belgium’s hugely anticipated first tournament campaign in twelve years got underway, the foreign critics were not merely disappointed but positively furious that their misinformed hype had backfired on them. However, even seasoned Belgian fans had reason to be underwhelmed with the lacklustre of displays of Lukaku, who was having to shoulder the striking burden at the age of just 21 and with his club future still up in the air. His first touch was poor meaning he found it difficult to bring Belgium’s attacking riches into play and his inability to make the right runs meant that he often (deceptively I must stress) gave the impression of disinterest. Things came to a head against Russia. Lukaku had his second successive poor game and was again taken off. The former Anderlecht striker didn’t take his manager’s hand and openly voiced his displeasure upon taking his place on the bench. He had at least showed he cared but it wasn’t a reaction that endeared him to his boss and the supporters at the time. With de Rode Duivels seemingly unable to breach Russia’s defence, a briefly supercharged Eden Hazard danced his way to the by line and cut the ball back for Origi who with composure beyond his tender years drove the ball high beyond a despairing Igor Akinfeev.
Origi was expected to start against South Korea and was a surprise omission with fellow Lille alumni Kevin Mirallas occupying the central striker role. That didn’t stop the 19-year-old from making his mark. His shot from just outside the box was parried away by the goalkeeper (or as Jan Vertonghen jokes, Origi was greedy and didn’t return the acting captain’s pass!) but Vertonghen followed it up for what turned out to be the winning goal.
The momentum was gathering and the campaign was building – here at BeNeFoot we felt that Origi could no longer be held back and that he had to start against the United States. It was a brave call in spite of the encouraging signs in the group stages but the World Cup flies in and you have to seize the moment as a manager. Origi led the line superbly and almost scored after forty seconds when he was played in by Kevin De Bruyne. He was denied twice more by the imperious Tim Howard in goal but crucially was an excellent outlet for his teammates, occupying the American centrebacks and ensuring the team played much more as one unit as opposed to 9 outfield players and half a striker.
With the scores level after 90 minutes, it was time for Lukaku to come on and finish the job, proving a point in the process. He turned Matt Besler and began rampaging his way towards goal as he did so memorably in Zagreb before Kevin De Bruyne stroked the ball home to finally give a dominant Belgium team the lead. Not content with the one goal, De Bruyne then returned the favour to Lukaku who celebrated his powerful left-footed finish with relief as much as delight. Lukaku went to the camera and spoke into it, uttering the words “Dad, I love you.” His father Roger spoke of his tears when Romelu scored. A pep talk from Lukaku snr, who had to remain at home with back trouble, was needed to give the hungry striker a much-needed boost. Roger told het Nieuwsblad that he had explained to Romelu that he was born as a Belgian and had to give everything for his fatherland, regretting the sharp contrast between the heroic status his son enjoyed after his Zagreb heroics and the equally piercing criticism that has ensued this summer.
Wilmots deserves a great deal of credit for how he has handled both his strikers. Why did he pick Origi and not the more fancied Michy Batshuayi, who has just joined Olympique Marseille or the more experienced Igor De Camargo in the country of his birth? Origi came with glowing reports from Belgian under-19 coach Gert Verheyen. One official from the Belgian FA described him as two-footed, quick and technically much more proficient than Benteke whom he replaced. Wilmots had scouted him three times in France against top opponents and he too liked what he saw.
Origi is not averse to bursting on to the scene. When he made his first-team debut back in February 2013, les Dogues were in trouble, trailing 1-0 away to Troyes. ‘Never fear, Divock is here’ was the story as he headed Dimitri Payet’s far post cross home to salvage his side a point. If you want to read more about Origi’s time at Lille, check this outstanding article from Lille fan and French football expert Andrew Gibney. A move to Liverpool is in the pipeline but the received wisdom is that whatever happens, Origi will still be plying his trade under René Girard for at least one more season. According to Whoscored.com’s statistics, he played mostly on the right last season but sometimes operated through the middle as part of a front two. Marc Coucke, whose company sponsors Lille, expects his compatriot to feature more prominently as a striker during this campaign.
Back to Lukaku and Wilmots called upon his extensive experience of international football to coax the best out his number nine. He explained that at 21, he had not seen a tenth of what Wilmots had gone through in his playing career with Belgium (didn’t play at 1990, hardly played in 94, scored in 98 and starred in 2002) and that come the knockout stages, he would be needed and if he did the business, those same fans who admonised him for his lack of success would be on their hands and knees in sporting worship. After the US game, Wilmots said that “they (the critics) had mentally destroyed him and we had to restore his mental strength. It goes very quickly in football. I had said to him that the answer was to stay positive, to work in training and that his chance would come. This is a good reward for his work.”
Lukaku has taken his young deputy Origi under his wing and their embrace as one replaced the other on Tuesday was an indicator of the good relationship they enjoy within the squad. All things considered, Origi was deeply impressive against the United States and he has the potential to become more clinical in the years to come. He set things up beautifully for Lukaku to come on and exploit the space and the fatigue of the American defenders. They may not line up together on the pitch but Romelu Lukaku and Divock Origi are Belgium’s unusual strike partnership.