By Aaron Catterson-Reid
Arsenal have finalised the signing of Albert Sambi Lokonga from Anderlecht on a long-term deal.
The Gunners' new midfielder joined Anderlecht's youth team in 2014, making his way through the ranks before he was handed his first-team debut in December 2017 as an 18-year-old.
Since then, Lokonga has improved drastically, quickly becoming a regular for the Pro League outfit and establishing himself as one of Belgium's most talented young midfielders. Thecentral midfielder featured a total of 78 times for Vincent Kompany's side before being unveiled as an Arsenal player.
Similar to Thomas Partey, Lokonga is an extremely well-rounded midfielder and is more than capable at both ends of the pitch.
One of his most standout attributes is no doubt his defensive nous, possessing a rare blend of footballing intelligence, strong tackling and the ability to utilise his physical qualities to win the ball back for his team.
His ability to read the game is a standout strength, often snuffing out danger and cutting out passes between the lines. Throughout the 2020/21 campaign, he averaged 1.8 interceptions per game, something that could be bettered by just five midfielders in the Pro League, out of players to play a minimum of 1,000 minutes in the division.
Furthermore, Lokonga is also an accomplished tackler, registering 1.6 tackles per game in the league, more than any Arsenal midfielder managed last term, incredibly impressive considering he is still just 21 years old.
His 183cm frame permits him to come out on top of most defensive duels, often making use of his notable upper body strength to shrug opposition players off the ball in the middle of the park, something that will serve him well in the fast-paced environment of the Premier League.
Lokonga also possesses a number of eye-catching qualities with the ball at his feet. He has drawn comparisons to former Arsenal star Abou Diaby due to his graceful dribbling style and ability to glide past opposition players with poise, something that will make the Gunners a better team in transition.
His score of 0.9 dribbles per game was only bettered by three current Arsenal players - with Nicolas Pepe, Bukayo Saka and Partey the only members of the squad to score better in this department last year.
The Belgium Under-21 international consistently demonstrates press resistance in the build-up phase, frequently calling for the ball to feet. He registered 64 passes per 90 minutes in the 2020/21 campaign and he doesn't just pass sideways either, regularly providing line-breaking passes to help progress the ball for his side.
In fact, he notched 0.9 key passes per game last season, further illustrating how well-rounded he is.
Lokonga offers the kind of versatility that Mikel Arteta values highly in a midfielder, having been deployed as a central midfielder in a midfield pivot, as well as in a deeper holding role in a 4-3-3.
In possession, he can tuck in as a makeshift full back, similar to the role Granit Xhaka has played in under Arteta's stewardship, which will allow Scottish left-back Kieran Tierney to roam forward and offer support for the Gunners' frontmen.
The Belgian could slot into a midfield pivot alongside Partey, a formidable duo that combines a strong physical presence with an ability to
dominate the ball and progress the ball up the pitch both through line-breaking passing, as well as direct dribbling
A Partey-Lokonga partnership could be the perfect formula for big games next season considering they can offer a rare balance of defensive solidity, energy in midfield and balance that will allow the likes of Emile Smith Rowe the chance to roam further forward.
Lokonga could also be utilised and the base of a midfield, anchoring a 4-1-4-1 side that Arteta tinkered with towards the latter stages of last season.
The talented youngster possesses the ability to drop deep when Arsenal play out from the back and receive the ball with his back to play. The composure he will offer to the middle of the park should mean he can fit into the Gunners' current philosophy of playing the ball out from the back with ease.
His former boss, Vincent Kompany, has waxed lyrical about Lokonga in the past and believes he will become a top-class player in the near future. “With his qualities at his age, he stands out for me,” he said. “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."
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