“If we look at what I’ve done this season it’s quite fair and factual to say I’m among the best wingers in the world,” Arnaut Danjuma says after being asked if his ambition is to become one of the greatest players in the world. It is a bold response from the Villarreal attacker and at first it seems his self-belief is about to veer into ill-advised brashness, setting him up for a fall before he faces Bayern Munich in the last eight of the Champions League on Wednesday.
The thing about Danjuma, though, is that is he just straightforward. The numbers side with the Netherlands international, who has 14 goals in 32 appearances for club and country this season, and yet there is no hint of arrogance from the 25-year-old. What comes across instead is Danjuma’s hunger. He thinks deeply about how to take his game to the next level, explaining how the chance to play for Unai Emery played a major role in his decision to join Villarreal last summer, and he knows his development is far from finished.
“To be the best you need to aim for more, and there’s so much I still want to achieve,” the former Bournemouth winger says. “I’ve made mistakes so there’s so much for me to develop. I think I’m in a good place at the moment – 25, at Villarreal, playing in the Champions League. We’ve got a good team and La Liga is an amazing league. But I’m not done yet. It begins with believing in yourself.”
Confidence is not something lacking in Danjuma, whose performances have played a big part in Villarreal’s latest European adventure. He scored twice when Emery’s side reached the knockout stages of the Champions League with a 3-2 away win over Atalanta in December. He was man of the match when Villarreal lost undeservedly to Manchester United at Old Trafford in September and scored a late penalty when the Europa League winners upset the odds against Juventus in the last 16, making light of drawing the first leg 1-1 at home by winning 3-0 in Turin last month.
“I don’t think a lot of people expected it, but we expected it,” Danjuma says. “We’ve got Unai Emery as the captain leading the ship and he always comes up with a masterplan. When you play Juventus in the away leg you know if you don’t concede they will get a bit impatient. We knew an opportunity would present itself. That’s what happened – what Unai predicted.”
Danjuma speaks glowingly about Emery. It was a conversation with the former Arsenal manager that convinced him to sign for Villarreal. Danjuma had excelled in the Championship with Bournemouth, who lost to Brentford in the semi-finals of the playoffs, and he was not short of offers.
“Unai was very clear when he explained how I could learn from him,” he says. “With my mentality of trying to be the best every day I am very eager to make sure I get the most out of my career. I knew working under Unai would give me a boost because I could understand the game better. He is busy with me on a daily basis and I have a lot of conversations with him about how to better myself. He is a strategy mastermind.”
Danjuma studies his game closely and regularly talks to his coaches. “Every manager has their own way of coaching the team and you should respect that as a player,” he says. “But speaking to a manager can really help. What’s the strategy, how do you want me to play in certain situations, where do you think my qualities come out the best? I’m very eager to learn everything about the game.
“There are so many aspects in my game that I’ve improved. A lot of people who watch the game will say: ‘He’s got this ability, he’s got that ability, he scores goals.’ But they don’t see the work in training: the movement I do, the videos I watch.
“I work with the striker coach on a daily basis. He sends me clips of every training session. I look into my movement, the way I run, how I pop the ball off. I look into my shape, where I stand in the formation. After the game we go through it and see there’s a lot of stuff I can do better.”
Danjuma, who was born in Nigeria and moved to the Netherlands when he was four, has come a long way. A year ago he was scoring for Bournemouth in a 2-0 win over Blackburn in the Championship; on Wednesday he will be one of Villarreal’s main threats when they host Bayern in the first leg of their quarter-final. “It’s been quite a journey,” he says. “I really enjoyed my time in the Championship. I think I wouldn’t be the player I am today if I hadn’t gone through it.”
It was not part of the plan. Bournemouth were a Premier League side when they bought Danjuma from Club Brugge in 2019. The winger, who began his career at PSV Eindhoven, had already scored in the Champions League for Brugge. His potential was obvious and he did not think that his first season at Bournemouth would end in relegation.
Yet injuries restricted him, and he had to adjust to the Championship. He did so by scoring 17 goals last season. “Playing in the Championship made me realise how good it is,” he says. “The amount of games, the physicality, the strategy, the formations – there are so many things you can learn from the Championship and I made sure I improved.
“I need to mention the fact that I tried everything I could to go up with the club. I scored in both playoff legs. Unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be, and I had to make that next step in my career.”
Villarreal came calling and before long Danjuma was tormenting United’s Diogo Dalot. “Old Trafford was a bit personal because I’ve always wanted to play there,” Danjuma says. “You just feel the atmosphere. I’ve always been a huge fan of Cristiano Ronaldo, so stepping on to the same pitch as him was a big motivation. He’s always been an idol for me and it’s not necessarily just his play.
“It’s easy to say he’s scored goals. But the thing that stands out is his intelligence. because how many players are able to adapt from what he’s been to what he is now?He was the most enthusiastic player that’s played on the wing and a couple of years later he’s turned into a goal killer. Your intelligence level needs to be of such a high standard to see you need to change your position. It’s insane.”
Wingers have to offer more than assists now. “You want to have goals, goals and goals,” Danjuma says. “At Bournemouth I was the top scorer and I played as a winger. You should be able to play in multiple ways. In La Liga I have played a lot of games as a striker because Unai thinks I can be more than just a winger.”
I tell Danjuma that he sounds extraordinarily dedicated to his craft. “Sounding it is one thing,” he says with a smile. “I hope it shows on the pitch. I just want to look back on my career and feel I’ve achieved the most possible. There’s only one way of achieving that and that’s making sure I get the most out of every day. At the end of my career I’ll see where I am.”