The transfer of Danielle van de Donk to Lyon was confirmed this week after the Dutch midfielder had spent six years with the Gunners, winning an FA Cup, a Continental Cup and a WSL title. Daan was also a member of the Dutch side that won the 2017 European Championships on home soil and reached the 2019 World Cup Final.
Van de Donk leaves for seven-time Champions League winners Lyon. Aged 29, she feels ready for a new challenge in a new country. ‘DvD’, as she is affectionately known, sat down with Arseblog News to discuss her time at the club and her decision to leave. “I came to Arsenal and there were all these legends of the game and I was still a little shit,” she tells us.
van de Donk joined Arsenal from Swedish club Gothenburg in November 2015. A few months ahead of her arrival, international teammates Sari van Veenendaal and Dominique Janssen had already joined the club. DvD says her decision was not really influenced by the presence of a mini-Dutch colony at London Colney.
“I didn’t really want to stay at Gothenburg and Arsenal came in for me. They were the only club that came in but even though it was my only choice, it was the best choice. When I flew to London to check everything out Arsenal took great care of me and they really wanted to sell the place to me, which they did.
“Sari and Dom were there a few months before me. We knew each other from the national team but we didn’t really know each other well because we’re all quite different and we didn’t speak much. Now of course we have this great friendship and when we meet up with the national team, we go for a coffee just the three of us and we have a friendship for life. But when I joined I didn’t really speak to them about it.”
In Daan’s first season, Arsenal won the FA Cup at Wembley, beating Chelsea 1-0 in the final. It’s a day van de Donk remembers very fondly, “I was on the bench that day because Kelly Smith started and I can’t really complain about that! I was enjoying the atmosphere on the bench because there were so many people there and when I got the chance to come on I just really enjoyed it.”
Though she admits she found instruction difficult to follow with Arsenal in a slender 1-0 lead with 16 minutes remaining. “I really wanted to score a goal so I was ready to go for it but everyone was slowing down but I was running around because I wanted to score. My teammates were saying to me, ‘we just want to win the game, you need to chill!”
— Amy 🏴 (@amysverse_) April 16, 2020
Pedro Losa was in charge when van de Donk signed. It was a transitional time for the club when the squad was very large with talented players but the roster lacked balance. Daan admits it was tough to acclimatise on the pitch, initially, “Sometimes I was on the bench, sometimes I was playing as a striker and sometimes in midfield and I didn’t always know where I was supposed to be. But I’m so happy Pedro brought me to Arsenal because I came into this great team with great names.
“In training, the standards were so high and I was still just a little shit so I had to grow up. They were happy to have fun and have a joke but when it was time to be serious, they were really serious; they knew the line between fun and seriousness. I would look at them and think, ‘Ok, if they are being serious now, I have to be serious!’ Now I am older, I try to do the same thing with the young players in the national team.”
danielle van de donk, i’m not gonna say anything 🥵 pic.twitter.com/nZbVn1xEHS
— #44 (@touchpinoe) October 13, 2019
In the summer of 2017, Arsenal signed van de Donk’s international teammate Vivianne Miedema. At the time, the English press and supporters probably didn’t recognise the enormity of this signing. Van de Donk did, however, “She is the best striker I’ve ever played with. I remember when she came into the national team, I was young but she was even younger. We had a good team but we really needed a striker and she just started scoring goals straight away.
“She is what every team needs. She is a finisher but she is a great player, she is about five steps ahead of everyone else because she reads the game so well. I was really pleased we signed her and we were unlucky that she was injured a lot in her first season but she more than made up for that since. Maybe people in England were unaware of how good she was but everyone found out quickly.”
— Barclays FA Women's Super League (@BarclaysFAWSL) December 8, 2019
DvD admits that she felt a little bit lost in the Arsenal team towards the end of Pedro Losa’s time in charge and the Spaniard resigned in October 2017 after a slow start to the season. “There was something wrong for me, yes. I had been away from home for a long time and I wasn’t really allowed to go back home (after the Euros in 2017) and we had a bit of a disagreement about it.”
The situation changed quickly when Joe Montemurro was appointed in November 2017. “Joe is such a lovely, personable man and he always said, ‘family comes first, if you need to go home, go.’ That made things easier for me and I felt refreshed. He just made me feel happy on the pitch again.” Van de Donk scored 11 goals and notched six assists from 18 starts in the 2018-19 season as Arsenal swept to the league title.
— Goal (@goal) June 22, 2021
Jordan Nobbs and Kim Little were injured in the middle of that campaign, which made van de Donk’s role as an attacking midfielder even more crucial. She insists she didn’t feel any additional pressure though, “I never feel pressure, really. We had a lot of injuries that season and we had to carry on but I was just loving the way we played that season, I think it’s the best season of football I have ever played. It was just undeniable that we were going to win that title with the start we had.”
In the following season, with Nobbs back in the team and Jill Roord signed from Bayern Munich in the summer of 2019, van de Donk moved into a wide attacking role, albeit with a lot of freedom to roam in-field. “It was quite different,” Daan admits, “I know it sounds like heaven because I had all this freedom but I was so used to playing as a 10 and had done it for most of my career.
“It was more difficult when you don’t play your own position because you have to think a lot more and you don’t feel as free. But I had all of Joe’s trust and I think I played quite well. When I talk with Joe, he always tells me that’s my best position- I still think it’s at number 10 though!” The 2019-20 season was cancelled and decided on points per game due to the coronavirus pandemic as women’s football was shut down for five months.
Drama at the end!
Danielle van de Donk with a late winner to break Man Utd hearts 😲 pic.twitter.com/A6oXzizYD7
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) September 16, 2019
DvD picked up an ankle injury on international duty just before lockdown restrictions were implemented across the planet. The Dutchwoman says the injury impacted her performances as the 2020-21 season got underway. “The ankle injury was way worse than everyone thought, myself included.
“It took me so, so long to recover from it because it happened just before the restrictions so I didn’t have proper rehab with the staff because Colney was closed- everywhere was. I had to do everything myself and I did all the exercises I was sent and everything but it’s not the same when there isn’t someone there pushing you and telling you ‘trust your ankle, even if it hurts, push through the feeling.’
“It took me a long time for my foot to feel normal and it took a long time to come back to the level I know I am capable of. I lost a bit of confidence in the ankle and I felt a bit insecure on the pitch. Then I was put on the bench and that was a real wake-up call. I told myself, ‘you need to step up now and get back to your level.’ I did, I trained so well and left that insecurity behind.”
She dismisses the idea that playing in a slightly deeper role in the first half of the season had an impact on her form, “It wasn’t that, it was that my head was not in the right space. I needed to trust myself and have no doubts and just start going for it again.” Van de Donk’s contract expired in June and she says she was pretty sure she would leave Arsenal at the end of the campaign during last season.
“In all honesty I was ready for a new challenge, I was ready to step up and go somewhere else. I want to go to the next level and I didn’t really feel I could get there anymore at Arsenal. I want to win the Champions League and Lyon came in and I thought about it for a long, long time. I have been here for six years and it’s been my home and my family and I’ve found it so hard to leave.”
Now 29, van de Donk says she feels she has a better chance of winning the Champions League with Lyon than Arsenal- which stands to reason given their record in the competition. “I think when we won the title in 2019, that was our chance to really push on and make the squad bigger and better. I don’t think we did enough with that opportunity. Lyon are coming into a transition too but I know 100% they are going to invest to become the best team in the world again. I don’t want to be disrespectful to Arsenal because I am so thankful for everything they did for me but I think Lyon is that next level.”
— Barclays FA Women's Super League (@BarclaysFAWSL) April 28, 2019
I ask Daan what her abiding memory of her time at Arsenal will be. “I loved being voted the players’ player of the season the year we won the league, that is one of the best accolades you can get when your own teammates recognise you in that way. But the thing I really remember is the way the fans sing all of their songs and Maria [Petri, legendary Arsenal fan] starts them off and everyone follows.
“The crowd just felt different at Arsenal, they were always so nice and so kind it was just a really nice atmosphere during the games, they were always so supportive and I loved when they sang my song. You don’t always get that in women’s football.” With 142 Arsenal appearances, no overseas player has represented Arsenal more often and few, regardless of nationality, have represented Arsenal with such distinction.
A popular player and a popular character among the Meadow Park faithful, Danielle van de Donk left her mark- as many of her opponents would no doubt tell you…