Sambi Lokonga scout report: Is the Anderlecht academy product the solution to Arteta’s midfield struggles?
There’s been a lot of controversy around Arsenal’s transfer strategy. They have been judged for selling some of their best players but also signing new additions that wouldn’t necessarily bring what’s needed to the team. And that, being followed by an inconsistent performance has always been very disappointing for their fanbase.
This summer the Gunners are quite active on the transfer market and it looks like they are trying to fill in the gaps in each line. The team’s technical director Edu and the manager Mikel Arteta have teamed up in bringing young talents with big potential in aim to develop them into the first team players that the Londoners need to get back to winning ways.
The team already made an important move by signing the left-back Nuno Tavares and by securing Emile Smith-Rowe’s long-term signature, giving him the famous No. 10 jersey. This double-sided commitment proves that Arteta is likely to rely on Smith-Rowe and trust him in the attacking midfield position.
This summer’s second signing is Albert Sambi Lokonga, a midfielder who they brought from the Belgian side Anderlecht. While Arsenal have struggles in different areas, it seemed like the midfield is the most problematic line failing to provide threat up front and making mistakes defensively too. That’s why Sambi Lokonga’s signing was a move in the right direction, especially with Granit Xhaka being rumoured to depart and join the Serie A side, Roma.
What are Arsenal missing in midfield?
Looking at the Gunners’ 2020/21 season their inefficiency in front of the goal really stands out. While the first to be blamed have been their attackers, Arteta’s problems have been deeper than that.
His depth in the midfield positions is not up to standard and the players he can rely on have rather similar profiles. That doesn’t give him the needed versatility and confidence in possession. Arsenal were struggling not with converting chances into goals but more with creating chances at all. In possession, there were often gaps between the midfield line and forward line, especially in the absence of Emile Smith-Rowe in the attacking midfield position. The Londoners’ actions in possession were narrow and their positioning off the ball wasn’t helping in breaking through the oppositions’ pressing structures.
The team struggled to break through the press and were often stuck in the central areas, unable to open the passing lanes and progress the ball efficiently. Thomas Partey’s ability to split his responsibilities between defence and attack was frequently tested and there wasn’t a box to box player to help with ball progression and always seek a way to break pressure.
To employ his possession-based style of play, Arteta’s needs someone who’s confident on the ball and can keep the tempo in possession while constantly looking for open spaces to initiate ball movement. He also needs a good dribbler who can work well under pressure when with the ball.
How can Lokonga support the team in possession?
Starting from the Anderlecht academy, Lokonga’s successful development gave him the chance to become a regular starter in the first team at a young age. Now, at 21, he has already built his own style of play with a distinguished flair to ball progression. Playing both as a defensive midfielder and a centre midfielder has allowed him to develop great qualities that support the team in advancing the ball and breaking through pressing structures both with his movement on and off the ball.
While his defensive midfield position would suggest greater involvement in the defensive actions, it is in fact his actions in possession that draw attention. In each of both positions, Lokonga has a more box to box role in which he constantly moves all over the field, using his positioning to offer quality passing options to his teammates, while his spatial awareness and anticipation skills help him in providing well-measured passes that help the team in retaining possession and moving forward.
His awareness is extremely valuable as he is always well informed on his teammates’ positioning and on the opposite players’ movement. This is beneficial in situations when the opponents are intensely pressing and blocking the lanes. A smart off the ball movement and positioning is indeed what Arsenal were missing last season. The team were failing in placing well between the oppositions’ lines which is something that he can improve.
While at first glance, Lokogna has a similar profile to Partey in terms of technical abilities and even data, the 21-year-old could bring more confidence to Arsenal’s actions in possession, while Partey is way more successful in his defensive contribution. The new arrival could combine well with more creative players upfront and complement their movement. What also sets him apart from Partey is his concentration levels.
He reads the game well which allows him to move smartly off the ball and leads to strong decision-making on it. This allows the team to retain possession and move the ball both laterally and forward which respectively releases pressure. His movement could fit well if Arteta wants to implement positional play, a style that he knows from up close from his time as an assistant manager of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. This will help the team to bypass the pressing structures and penetrate defences.
His high mobility gives him an advantage on the ball and makes him a great ball carrier who can dribble with the ball and take on his markers. His progressive runs often set the team up to great goalscoring opportunities and with his growing confidence towards riskier passes, he could develop into a great contributor to the actions in the final third. His role though is to drop deeper to either provide a passing option to the backline or to open the passing lanes by inviting pressure and dragging players with him as the below sequence shows.
When it comes to his actions in the final third, he has the tendency to stay outside the box. This way he supports his attacking teammates’ movement by allowing them to advance off the ball and have a numerical advantage, while they still have an additional passing option as shown below.
His defensive contribution is far less impressive than his actions in possession but that doesn’t mean he’s inefficient in defence. At Anderlecht, Lokonga has done what he was asked for, which was to support the more defensive-oriented teammates with less risky defensive solutions.
He uses his physique to recover possession and would rather use his positioning and body to defend, rather than dive into challenges that could result in conceding dangerous chances. That’s possible thanks to his anticipation skills which allow him to have good timing and react quickly to the opposition’s movement. That reduces the risk of unmeasured actions and better defensive stability.
His 63.1% success rate in defensive duels combined with his ability to dribble his way out of pressure whenever he gains back possession make him decent support during transitions. Having a player with a better defensive organisation like Partey next to him could lead to a good partnership as combining their strengths could result in quick turnovers and improved attacking actions for the team.
It will be interesting what role has Arteta prepared for the young midfielder as it looks like that the manager is trying to create a press resistant team that could focus on ball possession and positional play and relies on preparation through analysis too. Signing a player like Lokonga was an important step towards better space exploitation and a more creative and versatile team movement.
The pressure is on the Spaniard to define the players’ roles well and help them improve their build-up play. He should be careful not to put too much pressure and expectations on the Premier League newbie but integrate him well so he gets the needed support. While his performance will be important it is equally as important to surround him with players that have a similar understanding of the game and that want the ball and take advantage of his movement.