Albert Sambi Lokonga: Arsenal Transfer Target Analysis
Albert Sambi Lokonga first gained notoriety at 17 years of age when he earned his first call up to Anderlecht’s first team. That year, the 2017-2018 season, saw him make 7 total appearances for his club, 5 of which were in league play.
The Belgian is a byproduct of his home club’s academy and since his first appearance has earned 69 appearances as a proto-typical box-to-box midfielder. With Arsenal looking to improve their midfield the up and coming prospect has been linked to the Gunners, with many outlets saying the announcement of the deal could be at any time.
In a recent interview in Belgium, current Anderlecht Manager Vincent Kompany highlighted all the reasons why the Gunners should sign one of his rising stars:
“With his qualities at his age, he stands out for me,”
“Will Sambi win his duels? Is he improving his defensive work? You ask yourself these questions as a coach. Well, I’ve seen him make a lot of progress in that area.”
“Who knows, Sambi may even make the national selection for the European Championship. It would give him a chance to secure a top transfer in the long term – hopefully not too early.”
Tactical Analysis – Offensive Characteristics
One of the key elements of Mikel Arteta’s attacking style is the long diagonal switch to the wing players. He has used both midfielders and center backs for this key play in his set up. So it’s important that any player coming into the deep part of Arsenal’s midfield possess the ability to ping the ball out to the wide players.
Immediately when you watch Lokonga play, you can see an amazing ability to switch the ball effectively. Whether he’s sitting way deep in the midfield or pushed up as is his case often when Anderlecht attack, he gets good power on the ball and can loft it from touchline to touchline.
But just saying Sambi is able to make diagonal passes is limiting his offensive potential.
Looking at his shooting skills, he isn’t one to shy away from taking a shot on goal if he is given the time and space. When reviewing film of his shots, it’s surprising he doesn’t have more goals, especially from outside the 18. He’s good at getting the ball out of his feet and shooting with power. Added to the power of his shots, is some excellent movement on the ball that makes it hard for a goalkeeper to handle.
Additionally, his passing range is varied. He has excellent vision and is adept at putting passes either on the ground or through the air into space for his teammates to latch on to. One of the key things that sticks out to watch him with the ball at his feet is his patience, letting play develop and not forcing these key passes.
With he ball at this feet he’s not afraid to drive into space to move play out of the defensive third. He’s got a decent change of pace that he uses effectively to break away from attackers. There are moments when he tends to overrun the ball, ala Pepe, but it does not appear as chaotic as the current Arsenal’s winger’s running with the ball . There are also times when his patience on the ball sees him hold on to the ball too long and get caught behind resulting in either getting fouled or a turnover.
He’s also noticeably strong on the ball, with a good base and balance when he is forced to but his body between the ball and the defender. He’s very good at keeping his feet and feeling the defender on him before dribbling or passing out of trouble.
Overall, his offensive profile would fit in with Arsenal nicely. There is something similar to his play to Thomas Partey except for his penchant for playing in a more advanced role. It remains to be seen whether he’d come in to partner with Partey or work as a long term deputy with an eye towards replacing the Ghanian midfielder.
Tactical Analysis – Defensive Characteristics
I’m going to get the biggest issue I have found with Lokonga out of the way first, its his defensive recoveries. I spent a lot of time looking at his defensive positioning in the midfield. Arteta has been very deliberate with the structure in front of the back four and its important that any midfielder come in provide the stability and protection our defensive set up requires.
The problem isn’t that Lokonga is in bad positions, its that his recovery runs to get into position are slow, which was surprising given his ability to break away from a defender when he has the ball at his feet. He covers a lot of ground with his long legs but its slow moving to get there and given the pace of the league he could enter in to, that could hurt Arsenal in transition.
In 1v1 situations you see the picture of young player still learning how to use his physicality as a strength rather than a detriment. I love that he is physical in his defending posture but its how he uses it right now that can get him into trouble. Specifically, it comes across haphazard at times and it gets Sambi into foul trouble. Sometimes in his own final third. The great thing is this trait and his recovery runs is that are both fixable through proper coaching.
One of the positives of his defending is a similar attribute in the analysis of his attacking, is his patience. He uses this ability to keep his feet and not go in too rashly. When he does tackle, he’s usually in good position to get a foot to the ball first and win it. When he does this high up the pitch it typically results in a quick transition with Anderlecht in on goal.
31 one times in the Jupiler Pro League Aderlecht lined up in 4-2-3-1. In that position, Sambi lined up typically alongside Republic of Ireland midfielder, Josh Cullen. 32% of his time was played on the right side of central midfielder double pivot working in box-to-box role even though many sites will classify him as a defensive midfielder.
Its clear from his play that Kompany likes to use his intelligence and vision in a more attacking, advanced role while Cullen sits back and provides cover.
When you look at the data around Lokonga, it aligns very closely to what you see in the video analysis of his offensive and defensive play. Attacking wise he’s very solid with key passes and getting the ball deep in the final third. He’s also not afraid to take a shot from open play.
In possession he carries play forward very well making progressive, smart passes when on the ball. He’s got a solid passing success rate. It’s not excellent but it’s in line with what you’d expect of a youngster still developing.
Defending wise his tackling while is not brilliant, but he is strong recovering possession while being incredibly difficult to beat off the dribble. His patience is linked to an excellent ability to read play and passing lanes well.
When he is on the ball most of dribbles and carries are focused on getting into the channels and half spaces between the midfield and back line. Anderlecht generally deployed in a 4-2-3-1 in something like 85-90% of their matches last season. Normally an 8/10 hybrid was ahead of him in the triangle and he’d be deployed next to a deeper option, Verschaeren is a very mobile 8/10 so Lokonga could drive play in the spaces that Verschaeren would help to open with his off-ball qualities.
Perhaps the intention of Arteta is to use Lokonga in a similar manner to how he deployed Ceballos, having him pick the ball up and drive forward bypassing the press with progressive passing. Also as a means to press and win the ball high up the pitch to use his passing ability in transition. The problem however is that if you get by him it could be an issue since we don’t utilize a typical DM.
Overall, when you look at both the video analysis and data analysis together you get the picture of player who is a very good box-to-box prospect. He’s perhaps not ready to be a regular starter in the Premier League, but based on everything analyzed, he’s a prospect that surely will continue to grow