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 the Dutch winger had the perfect opportunity to see Liverpool, the side he will face in Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final first leg.

To be clear, there was nothing Danjuma didn’t already know about Jurgen Klopp’s side: he’s one of those players who is also a football fanatic in his free time. He just loves the game – loves to play it, watch it and talk about it, but the main reason he watches is to learn. Learn about his opponents, see what other forwards are doing, learn how to get better and emulate other forwards. And how to get better yourself.

“I watch everything,” he tells ESPN. “I’ve been a fan since the beginning and because I want to be one of the best in the world, watching a lot of football will improve my skills. You can learn a lot by watching. I also do a lot of analysis on my own games.” I watch videos of myself playing games or training for an hour every day. I have a personal forward coach, Antonio Rodriguez, who works with me. We’ll look at everything together.”

“Modern football isn’t just about your talent. It’s also about football intelligence and the amount of work you put in off the pitch. There’s so much you can learn just by looking after yourself. And then you also learn a lot by observing your opponents.”

So on Sunday he was totally focused on Liverpool: how they played, how they lined up, their playing patterns, their movements. There’s a lot to impress this season when it comes to Liverpool. However, it’s not the approach that Danjuma or Villarreal are taking.

“The best approach to this game is to approach it as before,” he said. “We’ve already beaten some European giants along the way, which is already an achievement and we all have confidence in our own abilities. We should carry on as we have and believe in our own strategy.”

The “Yellow Submarine” will have the same attitude as in the two preliminary rounds against Juventus and Bayern Munich. In both duels they shocked everyone not only by getting through but also by the way they did it. Your journey so far in this competition has been extraordinary. They finished second in a group with Manchester United, Young Boys and Atalanta and stormed into the semi-finals with big victories away at Atalanta to qualify for the last 16, in Turin against Juventus to secure their place in the quarter-finals and at home against Bayern to defy all odds in the two games and eliminate the Bundesliga champions 2-1 on aggregate.

“Maybe the rest of the world didn’t expect us to get this far, but we were always confident,” said Danjuma. “Our journey to the semi-finals wasn’t easy, which makes it even better, but you don’t randomly beat the teams we’ve beaten, which bodes well for us ahead of our encounter with Liverpool – another giants and one of the best clubs in the world.”

“We showed against Juve and Bayern that it’s not luck. We have one strategy – one style of play. Juve and Bayern are two completely different teams. Juventus are one of the best defensive teams in the world, while Bayern have something of that.” best strikers in the world and play very attacking football. The fact that we were able to beat them showed our quality and strategy. With Liverpool we know what to expect.”

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

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

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

“One of our greatest strengths is being able to implement the coach’s wishes almost perfectly and to play differently depending on the opponent,” said Danjuma. “[Emery] is such an elite tactical trainer 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 and design with the ball. We can do everything.”

Your next challenge is probably the toughest in this competition so far. As well as boasting Klopp on the touchline, Liverpool boast a range of talent including Mohamed Salah, Thiago, Sadio Mane and Alisson, as well as the atmosphere of Anfield’s Kop and the club’s undeniable heritage in Europe as one of only four clubs who have won Europe’s top club competition more than five times.

“The two things that fascinate me [about Liverpool] are the intense high pressing – they’re so good at that – and the high defensive line. As a forward it’s great to have a high defensive line behind you because it keeps you high on the pitch.”

And then there’s the character 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 compete with the best. That’s why I’m playing this game. Of course it will be special for me to play against Virg because he’s my captain in the national team. Defensively not.” I think it will be better than him but I want to compete with the best. I think I’ve shown in my career so far that I can cause damage. I have to keep going 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?

“That’s a good question! I don’t know. A fight between a striker and a defender is like a game of chess. You have to be unpredictable.”

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There is another poignant note for Danjuma as this week marks his first return to England as a player less than a year after he left Bournemouth and the Championship for Villarreal.

“England is a great memory for me. It feels like a homecoming,” he said. “I had two great years there. It matured me, I developed a lot and it got me to where I am now.

“For me, the Premier League will always be different from the rest of the world. It’s the best league and that’s where you want to play. The atmosphere in the stadiums is so special too. It’s been a privilege to play there and always.” something special to come back.”

At 25, this is arguably the biggest game of his career. There will be many more to come, whether as a Villarreal player or elsewhere. After just one season at La Ceramica, he’s attracting the attention of the biggest clubs in Europe. Paris Saint-Germain are big fans; Danjuma also impressed Manchester United when he played against them this season and excelled. Of course, he is still very much appreciated in England and in Italy. If he makes it big against Liverpool, expect many more clubs to sit up and take notice.

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