Albert Sambi Lokonga has been linked with a move to Arsenal for sometime now, but not many know WHO he is and WHAT he represents when he wears that arm-band for Anderlecht. We will dig deep into Sambi and explore what he brings to Arsenal.
Over 10,000 professional footballers ply their trade around the world year in and year out, but out of them, there are very few players who catch your eye and who make you feel like they hold the key to produce something extraordinary, something close to genius.
In the last 10 years, Belgium, albeit under the radar, has produced some of the best talents in world football. May it be Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, and Kevin de Bruyne or the younger generation of Maarten Vandevoordt, Marco Kana, and Jeremy Doku, Belgium has been the hub of young and exciting talent in Europe.
The latest name to burst onto the scene is 21-year-old RSC Anderlecht captain Albert Sambi Lokonga, who if presented with the opportunity to play at a bigger club, could become one of the biggest names in world football soon. To the player’s delight, clubs like Manchester City, Barcelona, and PSG were interested in the player a year ago, but it seems like Arsenal might be closing in on signing the player this summer.
A lot more on that later, but first, let us take a look at the player who has garnered considerable attention from several top clubs in Europe, and for whom Arsenal are tirelessly negotiating a deal right down to the nitty-gritty.
Early progression through the ranks of Anderlecht:
An out-and-out Anderlecht product, Albert Sambi Lokonga was the coming-of-age player after Belgian’s golden generation. While Lukaku, De Bruyne, and Hazard lit up the 2014 World Cup, Lokonga was hoping he could do the same for his country someday, while this was also the year when he joined the U-16 team of the Anderlecht youth academy.
He had a lot of panache in his game and it was becoming difficult for the coaches in the youth set up to understand how a player so young has matured in so many areas of the game. The quick movement, the finesse in his passing, and his pace showed that he was ready to be promoted to the U-17 team.
To his delight, Lokonga did not stay long in that team either as the coaches felt that he was ready to play in the U-19 team at the tender age of 16. The Belgian was moving from strength to strength as his performances displayed incredible intensity, consistency, and the aforementioned maturity, something Anderlecht had not witnessed for a long time.
In a year, Lokonga joined the U-21 team, and this is where his career took off. Rene Weiler, who was head coach of the U-21 set up at the time, was impressed with how easily Lokonga adjusted to the step-up of the U-21 team, mind you, this was a player who had just turned 18 and was one of the youngest players in the side at the time. His suave nature of going past people and beating them with ease was something people only saw before in former Belgian player Moussa Dembele, who was known for being built like a brick but could glide past people like a gazelle.
Senior team call-up:
Soon, Lokonga joined the senior team of the club and has not looked back since. While Lokonga did not manage to make more than 20 appearances in his first two seasons with the club, it only got worse when he suffered a horrific cruciate ligament rupture towards the end of 2018. It took several tests, rehabilitation programs, and fitness games for Lokonga to get back to full fitness, but by August 2019, the Belgian was ready to go, and he was hungry to impress.
Ex-Anderlecht legend Vincent Kompany had just taken over the reins at the club in a player-coach capacity, and big things were expected given that he had joined the club on the back of retaining the Premier League in England, captaining Manchester City to glory. Kompany was provided with the task of getting Anderlecht back to the top of the Jupiler Pro League table, but he had to do so by blooding in the young players rather than buying players from other clubs.
In stepped Albert Sambi Lokonga, then the torchbearer of the youth revolution at the club. Kompany was impressed by Lokonga’s game on and off the ball, and his understanding of space, something the Manchester City legend was previously coached by Pep Guardiola. Thus, Lokonga went on to make 26 appearances in all competitions that season, a number nobody expected him to touch after his horrific injury. Kompany had found himself a player who would provide enough protection to his back four, but somebody who could also progress the ball up the pitch when needed and with sheer ease.
However, Lokonga’s main position was still not set in the team as he would often float around in the midfield as a box-to-box player in a 3-man midfield rather than playing to his strengths as a deep-lying ball progessor.
In the 2020/21 season, Lokonga flourished with flying numbers, as he made 37 appearances in all competitions while he also chipped in with 3 goals and 2 assists to his name and captaining the side for a major part of the season.
Thus, let us look at what he did well and how he became an integral part of the Anderlecht setup this season.
Albert Sambi Lokonga Playing style:
There are several attributes to Lokonga’s game, thus it would be wise to break them down into categories.
A) Passing style:
A boy raised on modern football and the techniques that come along with it, Lokonga always preferred keeping the ball on the ground rather than hitting it long or playing passes over the defenders. Control the ball, pass it, and make space for your teammates– Lokonga understood this way of football, and this is how he has always preferred playing the game. The Belgian is a strong believer in passing the ball around with a purpose, and thus, he was averaging 65 passes per 90 minutes this season, 15 more than last season. What had changed was the trajectory of his passes, as Lokonga was now in the Top 10 list of players in the Jupiler Pro League of most forward passes.
While a lot of the Anderlecht players focused on moving the ball from one side to the other, Lokonga focused on getting the short passes right, as he was more often than not caught in tight spaces and his only alternatives would be to employ a two-touch system or to dribble past opponents. The Belgian had a firm understanding of the game, and thus he also placed a lot of emphasis on receiving passes as well.
Due to his trim stature and low centre of gravity, Lokonga always made himself a passing option for the two central defenders, the two full-backs as well as the two other central midfielders apart from himself. He would always have a cursory glance above his shoulder to see whether the opposition player is about to press on him to ensure his next move once he receives the ball.
It is these little things that make Lokonga better than most this season and his focus on perfecting a particular style or method.
B) Defensive contribution:
Although not renowned for his defensive contributions, Lokonga was averaging 2 interceptions per 90 minutes this season, a number very impressive when you look at how he was played in the 3 man midfield.
The deeper of the 3 men, Lokonga’s main duties were to protect the backline and act as a pressing figure when the opposition had the ball in Anderlecht’s half. While Lokonga is not the best interceptor of the ball, he has a tendency to stay on his man and to not let go of him, which eventually leads the opposition into making a mistake– a mistake Lokonga showed that he is very capable of capitalizing on.
It is also important to note that the other two central midfielders in the team are ball winners themselves, thus, Lokonga’s numbers were never going to soar in that department as there was very little defending to do in the first place. This, however, should not portray a good or bad image of his defensive qualities, but his statistic of 2 successful tackles in 90 minutes is an encouraging number, something he will surely better season by season if the opportunity presents itself.
C) Ball progressor and contributions in the final third:
A lot of what Lokonga does with the ball involves him going past people with his quick movement on the ball, while his movement off the ball also deserves some credit for it.
Unlike most deep-lying playmakers, Lokonga does not fall between the two centre-backs to create a 3 man backline. He creates a triangle between the two centre-backs to lure the opposition midfielder into a challenge. As mentioned before, his stance when receiving the pass enables him to move past defenders with more ease than most players.
If two players are pressing the centre-backs, Lokonga positions himself in a triangle between the two to receive the pass, but at the same time, he keeps a check on the opposition player behind him and the direction he is coming from. As soon as Lokonga receives the pass, he takes one touch in the opposite direction and bursts ahead with pace, moving past the first player effortlessly.
In tight spaces, Lokongo places his body in a sideways position so that he can put his body between him and the ball as soon as he receives a pass or if he chooses to progress with the ball. It is all about awareness and knowing how to position your body, and Lokonga has mastered this art beautifully.
One of his drawbacks, however, has been to pick the perfect pass once he has dribbled the ball till the final third. While he never misplaces his pass, he needs to find the thread-in-a-needle pass to unlock opposition defences to give meaning to his relentless ball progression. However, with the right training and players who complement his style, it will not be long before he develops this aspect of his game as well.
Now, let us take a look at why Arsenal needs Lokonga and what can he bring to the team.
A dire need for central midfielders:
With Dani Ceballos returning to his parent club in Real Madrid and Granit Xhaka close to sealing a move to Roma, Arsenal’s need for central midfielders has only intensified. Although they did need intelligent midfielders even before the aforementioned players decided to leave, they did not want to buy a player who they could not provide guaranteed game-time.
Thus, Arsenal have eyed several midfielders across Europe, including Guido Rodriguez at Real Betis, Yves Bissouma at Brighton & Hove Albion, and Sander Berge at Sheffield United, and while they might still buy one player out of the three mentioned here, none of them can provide what Sambi Lokonga can, at a relatively cheaper fee. (£ 17.5 million).
Lokonga could facilitate the way Mikel Arteta wants to play the game:
Arsenal desperately need a player who can progress the ball from back to front and also pay equal attention to the defensive side of the game, somebody like Lokonga.
High octane football and dynamism are what Mikel Arteta encourages, but sadly, he does not have the players to do so. Lokonga could go a long way in activating this strategy of the Spaniard. The Gunners do not have a risk-taker who is confident of beating people with relative ease, and this is something the 21-year-old could inject with his presence. Lokonga has the fire, desire, and hunger in him, to raise the level of the game at the club while he is also a demanding leader. Every time he donned the captain’s armband at Anderlecht, he demanded a certain level of intensity into the game when he felt that the team is not performing to its best capabilities.
Good players make decent contributions to the team, but great players raise the level of the players around them. Most teams in world football are not studded with star players, but they have just a couple of players who take them to the next level. Although Lokonga is still a learner and not one of the marquee players in Europe, he is exactly what Arsenal needs right now – somebody who can up his game in a matter of moments and create that burst of energy that boosts others around him.
Arsenal lacked possession of the ball last season, and whenever they would win the ball back, they did not have a person who could go past players and raise the morale of the team.
Solving the midfield conundrum:
Arsenal operated in a 4-2-3-1 formation towards the end of the season, however, they would revert to a 4-5-1 formation without the ball, something that happened a lot against the big teams. Regardless, Granit Xhaka or Mohamed Elneny would sit in a double pivot alongside Thomas Partey in the central midfield role, but this did not work out as they had no pressing figure besides Partey who could win the ball back.
Lokonga, on the other hand, if not the best interceptor, is a great tackler of the ball and has the capability of ensuring that nobody goes past him. Moreover, his pace and strength make it practically impossible for opposition players to shrug him off, making him a nuisance for the opposite team. Arsenal lacks a trouble-maker, a person who can be in the face of the opposition all the time and frustrate them into making mistakes.
However, the best thing Lokonga will be bringing with him is a calm head and the ability to pass the ball or maneuver himself out of tight spaces. The Belgian is somebody who voluntarily lures the opposition to press him because he knows he has the ability to come out of that position and then eventually outnumber the other team in the final third. Santi Cazorla was a great ball progressor, while Jack Wilshere could also run past people with ease. The problem with both players was consistency and recurring injuries.
Lokonga’s sensational performances even after a ligament injury were evidence enough of how quickly he recovers from knocks and his ability to pick the pace up immediately.
Arsenal, who are also planning on bringing Houssem Aouar to the Emirates need to understand the importance of a player like Lokonga in their ranks. Aouar, Partey, and Lokonga can form one of the best midfield trios in the Premier League next season simply because the trident complements each other perfectly.
While Partey has the build of winning aerial duels and intercepting the ball, Lokonga can progress the ball up the pitch and help the team pass the ball out of danger. To add to this, Houssem Aouar is one the best playmakers in world football currently, and his contributions in the final third will be pleasing to the Arsenal eye.
A lot of what Sambi Lokonga can provide depends on his confidence in transforming his performances in the Jupiler Pro League to quite possibly the best league in the world. However, if the past is any evidence, there is no ceiling for how players from the ‘lesser’ leagues can perform in the Premier League. N’Golo Kante used to play in the second division of French football before Leicester picked him up, while the majority of the Portuguese players at Wolves have only gotten better after their transfers to the Premier League. Lokonga, in comparison, still has considerable minutes of professional football under his belt while he has also captained his side at the age of 21.
He is a future star in the making, and while Arsenal have missed out on such players in recent years, Albert Sambi Lokonga could become the first step in re-invigorating Arsenal’s glory days, something the Gunners faithful deserve to live again after their undying support for the club over the years.