When you hear that Arsenal FC legend and current Belgium national team assistant coach Thierry Henry took it upon himself to act as a scout and personally recommend a relatively unknown young midfielder to his darling club Arsenal, you sit up because it’s obvious there must be something special about the acquisition target.
This is the story of 21-year-old former Anderlecht captain Albert Sambi Lokonga. Lokonga joined Arsenal on July 19th on a long-term contract believed to be a five-year deal. It must have been a whirlwind few months for him as he was included in Belgium’s stand-by list of players for the just-concluded Euro 2020 Championship.
On signing for Arsenal, Lokonga was asked about how he intends to cope with the EPL’s fast-paced style of play: “Yeah, it’s a big step, but I feel confident because we have to. In the football world, you have to feel confident about yourself, but I’m looking to play in this league and I can’t wait to start the league.”
Those words reveal a young man who projects the utmost confidence in his abilities, and it is these qualities that got him to where he is right now. So let’s track back and examine his background to see just how that happened.
Albert Sambi Lokonga was born on 22 October 1999 in Belgium. He joined Anderlecht’s youth academy in 2010 at the age of 10, progressing through the ranks there and signing his first professional contract with the club in 2017 at age 17. He went on to make his professional debut for Anderlecht in a 1-nil win over K.A.S Eupen on 22 December 2017.
Lokonga scored his first senior goal in a 1-1 draw against K.A.S Eupen on September 27th 2020. At the end of his stay at Anderlecht, he had had made 69 appearances, amassing a total of 5,172 minutes, scoring three goals and adding seven assists.
Style of Play
I call him Thomas Partey 2.0. Lokonga is a hard-working and very physical midfielder. He has a robust style of play and an awesome ability to glide past players, which has earned him comparisons to former Arsenal midfielder Abou Diaby and Man City legend Yaya Toure. He covers a lot of ground just like Partey, and he can retain possession under pressure.
Anderlecht manager Vincent Kompany adopted a 4-3-3 formation, Lokonga tasked with the role of playing at the base of the midfield. He often dropped between the two center-backs to receive the ball and help transition to attacks with line breaking passes. He averaged 64 passes per 90 minutes in the 2020-21 campaign, which is impressive given the kind of season Anderlecht had. He can play precise long or short balls, which might come in handy at Arsenal as David Luiz is no longer in the back line to provide long range passing. Lokonga is currently averaging 5.18 long passes/90 for a 60.3 accuracy, splendid for a 21-year-old. He also notched an impressive 0.9 key passes per game which is commendable for a player at the base of midfield.
Lokonga is also a huge defensive presence as he covers a lot of ground due to his athleticism. Just like Partey, he is adept at anticipating danger and snuffing it out before it even begins. Examining his performance and positioning shows that he does a great job of covering for the right-back whenever he overlaps, just as Granit Xhaka helps out the adventurous Kieran Tierney. Throughout the 2020-21 campaign, Lokonga averaged 1.8 interceptions per game, a record bettered by only five players in the Belgian pro-league. He also registered 1.6 tackles per game in the league last season, which is more than any Arsenal midfielder averaged last term.
The young Belgian is also adept with the ball at his feet. He averaged 0.9 dribbles per game last season, a feat that stands behind only Bukayo Saka, Nicholas Pepe and Partey in the current Arsenal squad. All this points to Lokonga as a well-rounded midfielder equipped with the qualities required to become one of the best.
How Will He Fit In At Arsenal?
“I can play both. I can play as a six, and I can play like a box to box, but yeah, people say I’m better in the six position.”
These were Sambi Lokonga’s words when asked his favorite position. His response promises ability to play multiple positions and adapt to different formations.
Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta employs two defensive midfielders, positions that Partey and Xhaka filled last season. Xhaka’s highly anticipated departure to Roma might just present the perfect opportunity for Lokonga to claim a starting place in the team. He could line up in a double pivot role next to Partey, which would create a formidable partnership. Their physical presence, tenacity, ability to sense and snuff out dangers before they develop and also advance the ball or play line-breaking passes would make them a formidable pair.
In his first appearance for Arsenal against Milwall, he replaced Mohammed Elneny to play in the double pivot next to Partey, and the two both looked comfortable. They helped Arsenal stay in control of the game (albeit against a weak opponent) and also send the ball forward by either making forward runs or playing progressive passes.
In the event of a Partey injury, Lokonga can also deputize for him as a single No. 6; it would just be a repeat of the role in which he impressed at Anderlecht.
Priced at £5m, Sambi might be a reasonable pick to have on the bench. His stats show a level of productivity that is increasing as he matures. Much speculation has Arteta easing Lokonga in due to his youth, but I do not agree. In the past two seasons, Arteta has shown that he isn’t afraid to take a punt on young players he believes ready. This is evident in the number of games Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka played last season, as both displaced more experienced players like Willian and Pepe to the bench.
Xhaka’s expected move to Roma, coupled with Arsenal’s inability to get another replacement would put Sambi in a straight race versus Elneny to start next to Partey at the base of the Gunners midfield. By January, during Partey and Elneny’ expected absence for the Africa Cup of Nations, Lokonga should see consistent playing time.
It might be better to pick an assured starter like Partey at the beginning of the season as they are both priced at £5m. This would give managers a few weeks to monitor Lokonga and make more informed decisions as time goes on.
In Fantrax, his preseason price is the default $7.00 of all new-boys, three dollars more than Partey. Lokonga has no track record in Fantrax that we can use to weigh his value at that price point, but we can probably expect him to earn similarly to Partey, who averaged 3.5 ppg last season. If that holds true, then his introductory price is badly inflated; wait for the first price recalc.
Did you enjoy the profile of the Gunners new recruit? If yes, please check out our features on:
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- Romain Perraud
- Francisco Trincao
- Patson Daka
- Junior Firpo
- Jadon Sancho
- Emiliano Buendia
- Billy Gilmour
What do you know of Lokonga? Do you think he will improve the Gunner’s midfield? Will you pick him your FPL team? Please share in the comments below.