With Matteo Guendouzi heading to Marseille and the future of Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira, Joe Willock, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Mohamed Elneny uncertain, Arsenal had to refresh their midfield options this summer.
Before the much-needed signing in this area, the club signed a deal with Anderlecht midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonga. But who is the Belgian, what does he bring to Arsenal and why does it cost 17.5 million euros?
Anderlecht are by far the most successful club in Belgium ahead of rivals Les Trois Grands, Club Brugge and Standard Liège. But their recent struggles came at a terrible time as they linked significant debt to the exit from European football and COVID-19 which hit their finances. Since then, a major restructuring has begun with changes at board level, older players and the return of the prodigal son Vincent Kompany as head coach – a newfound trust in the youth.
The focus of this change was Albert Sambi Lokonga, who put on the captain’s armband at the age of 21 after leading the entire Anderlecht team for several minutes last season. The midfielder is no stranger to senior football having made his first breakthrough in 2018/19 before a serious knee injury hampered his progress and sidelined him for seven months. But he returned stronger and quickly established himself as an indispensable part of the Brussels team.
What Lokonga immediately notices is its tailor-made suitability for modern football. He has the mobility and athleticism to compete in key areas, with technical quality and courage to facilitate ball development. Anderlecht often use a 4-3-3 formation under Kompany, in which the midfielder falls low and dictates the game, as he was previously the more attack-oriented member of the pivot (besides a more defensive option).
Traditionally, low-lying midfielders are usually one of two types: destroyers or pacemakers. Lokonga is undoubtedly the latter and what will be music to the ears of Arsenal fans is his ability to move the ball forward. Compared to other Pro League midfielders last season, the 21-year-old sat in the 93rd percentile for accurate passes into the last third and progressive passes (Wyscout Data) and the 94th percentile for accurate passage passes – defined by Opta as “walking between lines to find teammates”.
During their dismal run between October and Boxing Day last season, the Gunners struggled to build themselves up from the depths with Thomas Partey injured and Granit Xhaka largely ineffective. But Lokonga can provide a much-needed tonic for this problem – its main idea is to always go forward. When opportunities arise (on both legs), he prefers the ambitious passes, which involve greater risk but greater reward when breaking deep lines of defense. His pass selection is intelligent, his technique is clean and his proactivity gives Anderlecht’s game speed.
The Belgian is not only an impressive distributor, but also an ambitious ball carrier, which in turn is proven by data – he sits in the 92nd percentile for successful dribbling and in the 93rd. What becomes clear when looking at Lokonga is his willingness to get the ball in accept any situation, and despite its large frame shows great agility when turning markers with body fints or shoulder drops. He’s wonderfully agile and constant scanning – an extremely valuable skill in midfielders – allows him to mentally photograph the pitch, which of course helps his smooth movements and timing.
However, you have to work defensively. Lokonga is energetic and dynamic which makes him useful in urgent situations and his ability to cut fast lanes stands out; The 21-year-old averaged 2 interceptions per 90 in the Pro League last season, placing him in the 89th percentile among midfielders, which is encouraging and surprising for a possession-based team.
But the Belgian needs to sharpen his wild puppy energy in English football. His eagerness to win the ball back leads him to play – either on challenges or based on where the ball might fall – which can become expensive as a deep midfielder. His dueling technique could also improve as he approaches 1v1 situations at breakneck speed and without balance and leaves little room for readjustments. Sambi is also guilty of holding the ball too long sometimes.
“If you look at its age and quality, it definitely stands out for me,” said Kompany when asked about Lokonga in February.
“We have high demands on young players, but Sambi loves to take responsibility and that’s why we entrust him with such an important role as captain.”
This natural mix of leadership and skills sheds light on why Lokonga is such a sought-after prospect. The midfielder welcomed a greater responsibility at Anderlecht and grew with the armband before his achievements were rewarded with a call to the Belgian senior team in March. Roberto Martínez even included him in his preliminary 26-man squad for the European Championship after he had impressed in training – but he failed at the final cut.
Today is one of the greatest talents in @ProLeagueBE –
Albert Sambi Lokonga (21)
Pretty good defensively
Elite Ball Progressor – one of the few who can pass the ball forward and carry both!
Really good long pass game from deep midfield (5.18 long passes / 90, 60.3% accuracy) pic.twitter.com/v0vuydGAj3
-SMukherjee (@DrMukherjeeS) May 26, 2021
Having played in various positions for his youth club, some Arsenal fans are struggling with his versatility as they are unsure whether he is in the form of Xhaka, Partey or ready to fill in the absence of Dani Ceballos. His well-rounded skills will no doubt have pleased Mikel Arteta and the Arsenal hierarchy, but arguably his best position is freedom as number eight; where he can connect the game, facilitate it, move the ball and advance the ball. He seemed absolutely comfortable in a deeper role for Anderlecht, but playing that role in England as opposed to Belgium will bring other challenges and put unnecessary weight on your shoulders. The leap from the Pro League to the Premier League could resemble an advanced origami that has just mastered the paper airplane.
Lokonga – much like Nuno Tavares’ signing – is not coming and is expected to single-handedly change Arsenal. But what he’s going to do is increase the number of those teams, add depth and a lot of excitement for the future.
There is a legitimate distrust of Arsenal fans of the club hierarchy, but that commitment suggests intelligent scouting and sensible squad planning. Lokonga is one of the most sought-after young midfielders in Europe who certainly has the raw materials to do well in north London.