From away against Millwall to Liverpool in the last four, Villarreal striker Arnaut Danjuma talks to Pete Hall about his fairytale 12 months
“Was Millwall gone?” he finally replied with a bright smile, thinking he’d remembered.
For a player who prides himself on his attention to detail, Arnaut Danjuma was baffled as to which opponent he was up against a year to the day prior to our Zoom conversation.
We were actually speaking a year after Bournemouth’s 1-0 defeat by Brentford in the Championship, the Cherries had beaten Millwall 4-1 away three days earlier, a game in which their Flying Dutchman had scored again on the left wing.
However, Danjuma could be forgiven for the oversight as he prepared to fly to England to lead Villarreal’s attack in the Champions League semifinals against Liverpool.
“The championship was incredible for me,” says Danjuma I from the Villarreal training base. “A lot of people underestimate the division. It’s a very good league to develop in because you play three games a week against physically and technically strong opponents.
“It taught me a lot and sharpened everything I needed. It made me grow up fast. I’ve had the great privilege of playing for Bournemouth, where I’ve had a very good season and that has prepared me for where I am today. I’m doing exactly the same thing as last season in the Championship, just on a higher platform.”
Danjuma signed for Bournemouth in 2019 when they were still a Premier League club but injuries limited the Netherlands international to just six league starts as Eddie Howe’s side were relegated.
Danjuma remained undeterred and honed his craft on the south coast, scoring 17 goals from left wing in 2020/21 and unanimously winning the club’s Player of the Year award. That convinced Unai Emery he would be the latest former Premier League star to become part of his revolution at Castellon.
Danjuma’s rise from winger to Villarreal’s all-time leading scorer in the Champions League with six goals in less than a year is the stuff of fairy tales. But it’s no coincidence.
“The Premier League was a frustrating time with injuries but it taught me so much about what the top players need to do on and off the pitch,” he continues. “I watch a lot of clips. I talk to the manager a lot, I have my own personal trainer, my own personal nutritionist, my own individual striker coach who I work with every day after training and watch clips for hours. I’ll stick with her after practice [Villarreal] Forward coach Antonio Rodriguez. Everything in my time.
“There are many good players who have never been successful in their careers. And on the contrary, there are many players who don’t have any quality at all but play at the highest level week after week and have won a Champions League or World Cup. you must have everything
“I know I have the quality and the ability to be the very best, but that doesn’t mean I am or will be the best automatically, so I work hard off the pitch too.
“Everything is intentional, it’s no coincidence that I’m in the semi-finals of the Champions League.”
It has helped Danjuma to work with such an innovative manager at Emery, one unfairly ridiculed on these shores, and Liverpool must be wary of a manager who revels in knockout football and has lifted eight trophies in his glittering career.
“You can’t really put into words what Unai means to the club and to me personally,” says Danjuma. “He is the reason why I came to Villarreal.
“He’s one of the reasons I improved my football intelligence to play in multiple positions. And it’s not just me, if you look at what he’s achieved in his career you have to respect him, he’s a thought leader on the pitch.
“KO football is Unai’s thing. He’s so good at analyzing an opponent. And he’s the best tactical manager I’ve met. The knockout rounds of the Champions League give him a chance to do what he’s good at in two games. We believe that we can win the competition with him.”
First, Villarreal will have to get rid of the third most successful team in the competition, starting at Anfield on Wednesday.
However, the club, from a city one-fifth the population of the City of Westminster, has previously been underestimated. Just ask Juventus and Bayern Munich.
It would be a huge shock if Danjuma could continue their European goalscoring adventure and lead Villarreal to their first-ever European Cup final a year after the disappointment of missing out on promotion with Bournemouth.
But this ambitious, versatile striker, who openly admits he has “unfinished business” in the Premier League, will be as prepared as anyone should the opportunity arise.
“You don’t have to be tactically good to know that Liverpool are a great team,” adds Danjuma.
“They have a very good front three and play very well defensively.
“I don’t want to give away anything else I know.
“You will do your homework. You will not underestimate us. And neither should they.”