For a club who tend to be quite cautious in the transfer market – rarely pushing fees of €20 million or more – Villarreal’s signing of Arnaut Danjuma last summer was an instant point of curiosity in La Liga.
The fee of around €25 million euros was a significant outlay for the club, who despite their recent success in Europe, still act against the backdrop of a small city and fairly modest muscle in the financial department. The fact that they were paying such a fee for a player coming out of the English second tier seemed to point towards one of two scenarios: either Villarreal had overpaid for a player from an ever-inflated English market, or they were convinced of Danjuma’s ability translating up a number of levels.
In the context of their history, Villarreal’s bet on a 24-year-old from the English second tier did seem unorthodox. His previous history in one of the big European leagues amounted to 14 games for Bournemouth in the Premier League, of which only six were starts. But when a club from a city of just over 50,000 people rises to European glory, they’ve usually got a few calls right along the way.
Danjuma exploded onto the Spanish football scene almost instantly. When he scored away to the reigning champions Atlético de Madrid last August, he had played a little over quarter of an hour in La Liga. And were it not for a comical own goal in the 95th minute by Aissa Mandi, Danjuma would have marched his new side out of the home of the champions with all three points.
The Dutchman didn’t arrive to be a super-sub, though. In the time that has elapsed since his first goal, he has become one of La Liga’s most destructive attacking players, and a fixture within Unai Emery’s offensive plans. On a base level, his 16 goals and four assists in 33 appearances (26 starts) are proof of his production. What’s more, his six goals in 10 games in the Champions League this season mean he’s already the club’s all-time top scorer in the competition.
Tonight Danjuma will line up against Liverpool in the first leg of a Champions League semi-final, where he will likely be the biggest threat Jurgen Klopp and his staff have flagged up in their preparations. At the same time last year, Danjuma’s weekday game had consisted of a home game against Brentford in the Championship.
From the second tier to the last four of Europe’s biggest club competition, here’s how Villarreal propelled the launch of an ascending star.
For those who can recall Danjuma’s previous time in a top-flight competition – admittedly, it didn’t feature much airtime on Match of the Day – you probably remember him as a winger, if little else.
Well, he still is, but not exactly.
It was clear very early on as to what type of player Villarreal wanted Danjuma to be, and it wasn’t just that of a typical winger. Sure, that aspect remains a crucial part of his game and Unai Emery has drawn on it regularly. As we now know with the benefit of hindsight though, their investment in the Dutchman had been with the goal of constructing a specific type of player; one who played like a winger but could morph into a striker at a moment’s notice. The fact that he leads all players for non-penalty expected goals per 90 in La Liga this season (0.65) – among those with 900 minutes played – suggests things are going to plan.
Out of possession, Danjuma has slotted in as one of the front two in Villarreal’s 4-4-2 shape, rather than the wing. While a simple choice in practice, this has had a series of knock-on effects that have potentiated a hybrid striker role. Firstly, it removes him from having to track full backs and keeps him closer to the opposition goal. And secondly, when Villarreal recover the ball, they use Danjuma as an immediate threat in transition to attack the spaces – whether it’s by moving wide to catch out advanced full backs or running off the shoulder of centre backs through the middle. The 25-year-old’s piercing runs without the ball have become a staple of his game.
Of course, the space isn’t always immediately available. As one of La Liga’s higher possession teams, Villarreal’s spells of controlled play allow him to return to his roots as a pure winger – depending on the motion of his teammates. If his left back is already high and wide, he will make movements in the penalty area. If the left flank is vacant, he will drift out wide and look to entice one vs. one opportunities. Villarreal also pack the centre of the pitch with ball-players – often using four orthodox central midfielders to create a box – which permits the freedom of movement higher up. And on Danjuma’s favoured left side, this constant tweaking of his positioning creates the uncertainty in the defensive line he is aiming for.
In an interview with El Pais last month, Danjuma was asked what his greatest value as a player is. “That I am unpredictable,” he replied. “If you can dribble, pass, shoot, play one-twos and move into spaces, the opponents won’t know what to attend to. The question is to sharpen your tools and [then] recognise what the game needs.”
The result of Danjuma’s adaptation at Villarreal has produced one of Europe’s most threatening penalty area players, despite not being an orthodox striker. Through his altered positioning, his winger-like traits and the work done off the pitch with Antonio Rodríguez – the club analyst who specialises in attacking play – he has become a lethal hunter of scoring opportunities.
Among players with at least 1200 minutes played in the big five European leagues this season, only Robert Lewandowski (3.7) and Kylian Mbappé (3.4) have been involved in more sequences of play where their only involvement was in the final shot, on a per 90 basis (3.3 for Danjuma). While capping off attacks at the rate of a striker, Danjuma’s wider presence in the penalty area also cuts the figure of a number nine, albeit in theory alone. His average of 8.3 touches in the opposition box per 90 is ahead of Robert Lewandowski, Karim Benzema and Erling Haaland.
In a team that possesses creative talents like Gerard Moreno, Giovanni Lo Celso and Dani Parejo – plus two strong attacking full backs on the left side in Alfonso Pedraza and Pervis Estupiñán – Danjuma is empowered to be a primary scoring threat. Villarreal funnel chances into the Dutchman through this coupling of one of Spain’s most fluid attacking units and one of the sharpest movers behind opposition defences.
The winger aspect of Danjuma’s identity is never far away, however. Villarreal don’t always need to create for him – he is highly capable of fashioning shots on his own too. In the same pool of players in the big five European leagues this season, he ranks seventh for carries that lead to a shot (per 90) and is just outside of the top 10 for the percentage of his total carries that end in shots. In other words, when Danjuma takes off on a run, he’s looking to do damage.
Despite missing a chunk of the winter period with an ankle injury, the fact is: when Danjuma has been on the pitch, he has been Villarreal’s sharpest edge. In fact, his involvement in terms of scoring opportunities – as a proportion of his team’s production – is one of the most notable in Europe this term. He has accounted for 33% of Villarreal’s shots in La Liga during his on-field minutes; the highest share of any player for his team in the big five European leagues this season (min. 900 minutes played). Similarly, he is one of only five players to have been responsible for over 40% of his team’s non-penalty expected goals total when on the pitch, along with Victor Osimhen, Hugo Ekitike, Mattia Destro and Patrik Schick.
Given the number of ways in which Danjuma affects the game, it’s little wonder that he has become the central force of Villarreal’s threat in the penalty area. But for that, Unai Emery and his coaching staff also deserve credit. They have accommodated his talent while maintaining an effective team structure and expanded the methods with which Danjuma can channel his attributes.
“At the club we have an analyst for attackers, Antonio Rodríguez, and we spend half an hour every day to go over matches,” Danjuma told El Pais in January. “I try to have sensations, to know where to move in every situation, depending on if the ball is with the right back, the left back or a midfielder… if I know what my teammate is going to do, I’ll be ahead of my marker, because he doesn’t know. I try to win games before I play them.”
Villarreal are of course the biggest underdog in the upcoming Champions League semi-finals. Up against a Liverpool team gunning for the quadruple, the Yellow Submarine will be facing a battle simply to stay afloat. Make no mistake, however. In the ultra-fine margins of the knockout stages in Europe’s elite competition, where ties can swing in a flash, they have already got passed Juventus and Bayern Munich. Liverpool’s staff will be very aware of the threat that can catch them cold.
Look out for the Flying Dutchman.
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