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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Villarreal star talks Champions League, working for Unai Emery and facing Liverpool

On Sunday afternoon, Arnaut Danjuma sat on his sofa to watch the Merseyside derby. Villarreal didn’t have a game at the weekend due to the Copa del Rey final, so it gave the Dutch winger a perfect opportunity to watch Liverpool, the team he will face Wednesday in their Champions League semifinal, first leg.

To be clear, there was nothing Danjuma didn’t know already about Jurgen Klopp’s team: He’s one of those players who is a football fanatic in his free time as well. He just loves the game — loves playing it, watching it and talking about it, but the main reason he watches is to learn. Learn about his opponents, learn about what other forwards do, learn about how to get better and emulate other forwards. And, in doing so, how to get better himself.

“I watch everything,” he tells ESPN. “I am a fan to start with and because I want to become one of the best in the world, watching a lot of football will improve my skills. Watching can teach you a lot. I also do a lot of analysis on my own games. One hour every day, I watch clips of myself in games or training. I have a personal striker coach, Antonio Rodriguez, working with me. We scrutinise everything together.

“In modern football, it’s not just about your talent. It’s also about football intelligence and the amount of work you put in outside of the pitch. There is so much you can learn by just watching yourself back. And then, you also learn a lot by watching your opponents.”

So on Sunday, his full focus was on Liverpool: how they played, how they set up, their patterns of play, their movement. There’s a lot to be impressed with when it comes to Liverpool this season. However, it’s not the approach that Danjuma or Villarreal are taking.

“The best way of approaching this game is to approach it in the same as we did before,” he said. “We have beaten some European giants along the way already, which is already an achievement and we are all confident in our own ability. We should keep doing what we have been doing and believe in our own strategy.”

The “Yellow Submarine” will have the same mindset they had against Juventus and Bayern Munich in the two previous rounds. In both ties, they shocked everyone, not just by getting through but by the way they did it. Their journey so far in this competition has been exceptional. They finished second in a group with Manchester United, Young Boys and Atalanta, charging their way to the semifinals with huge victories away at Atalanta to qualify for the last-16, in Turin against Juventus to book their place in the quarterfinals, and at home against Bayern to defy all the odds over the two legs, eliminating the Bundesliga champions 2-1 on aggregate.

“Maybe the rest of the world didn’t expect us to get this far, but we have always been confident,” Danjuma said. “Our path to the semis was not easy, which makes it even better, but you don’t beat the teams we have beaten by coincidence, which is a good sign for us before facing Liverpool — another giant and one of the best clubs in the world.”

“We showed against Juve and Bayern that it’s not luck. We have a strategy — a style of play. Juve and Bayern are two totally different teams. Juventus are one of the best defensive teams in the world, while Bayern have some of the best forwards in the world and play very attacking football. For us to be able to beat them showed our quality and strategy. With Liverpool, we know what we will face.”

All weekend, Emery and his players worked on their tactical plan for the first leg at Anfield on Wednesday. Once again, they’ve been meticulous in their preparations: through video analysis and reps on the training pitch, they’ve been preparing what to do with the ball and without the ball, as well as how to try to pinpoint the weaknesses in Liverpool’s defence.

“Emery is special: he’s one of the main reasons why I came to Villarreal,” Danjuma said. “It’s such a privilege to work under him as a coach. He is so open with the players and I am learning so much from him. It is really enjoyable to work with him. He is one of the best. He is different.”

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One of Emery’s biggest achievements with Villarreal so far this season is the versatility he has instilled in his players, which has given them confidence against any opponent.

“One of our main strengths is to be able to execute what the manager wants in an almost perfect way and play in a different way depending on the opponent,” Danjuma said. “[Emery] is such an elite tactical coach to have. If you execute his game plan, you have a great chance of winning regardless of who the opponent is. We have so much in our locker. We can sit back and play on the counter. We can play with the ball and create. We can do everything.”

Their next challenge is arguably their toughest yet in in this competition. Liverpool not only boast Klopp on the touchline, but a lineup rich with talent like Mohamed Salah, Thiago, Sadio Mane and Alisson, as well as the atmosphere of Anfield’s Kop and the club’s undeniable pedigree in Europe as one of just four clubs to win Europe’s top club competition more than five times.

“The two things that amaze me [about Liverpool] are the intense high press — they do that so well — and the high defensive line. As a forward, it is so great to have a high defensive line behind you because it keeps you high up the pitch.”

And then there’s the figure of Virgil Van Dijk. Danjuma plays with him for the Netherlands and knows him well.

“I want to play against the best to prove myself and test myself against the best. That’s why I play this game. Obviously playing against Virg will be special for me because he is my captain in the national team. Defensively, I don’t think it gets any better than him, but I want to rank myself against the best. I think I’ve shown so far in my career that I can cause some damage. I have to keep doing it and be consistent, so I’m looking forward to a game against someone of his profile.”

Is it better to play against a friend and someone you know well — and who knows you well — or not?

“It’s a good question! I don’t know. A striker vs. defender battle is like a game of chess. You have to stay unpredictable.”

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There’s another poignant note for Danjuma as this week marks his first return to England as a player, less than a year after leaving Bournemouth and the Championship for Villarreal.

“England represents great memories for me. It feels like a homecoming,” he said. “I had two amazing years there. It made me more mature, I developed a lot and it took me to where I am right now.

“For me, the Premier League will always be different than the rest of the world. It is the best league, and you want to compete there. The atmosphere in the stadiums are so special too. It was a privilege to play there and always special to come back.”

At 25, this is arguably the biggest game of his career. There will be many more to come, too, whether as a Villarreal player or suiting up somewhere else. After just one season at la Ceramica, he’s attracting interest from the biggest clubs in Europe. Paris Saint-Germain are big fans; Danjuma also impressed Manchester United when he played them this season and was outstanding. He’s still valued highly in England, of course, and in Italy. If he comes up big against Liverpool, expect many more clubs to sit up and take notice.

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