As the speculation continues about when and if Xhaka departs for Rome, and consequently whether Arsenal will sign a senior partner for Thomas Partey, the central midfielder we have signed, is quietly impressing. Albert ‘Sambi’ Lokonga, was and perhaps is, thought to be a squad addition, to give us strength in depth and certainly a previous interview in this column with a Belgian expert suggested similar. What is certain is that with Xkaka wanting away, Torreira unfavoured and wanting away, Ceballos departed, Guendouzi out of the picture and Willock’s future still shrouded in uncertainly. Arsenal do need reinforcements.
Of course, we know Chambers can fill in in front of the back four, as he did so ably at Fulham, but Arteta has not used him there, so we might face Brentford, with only Partey, Elneny, our new man Sambi and perhaps Maitland-Niles, although again Arteta has not shown faith in the England international in that position. Many of the Arsenal faithful, will and indeed are screaming negligence but in truth the club are doing what we often complain they do not do, which is to hold out for a proper fee for Granit Xhaka. It is this impasse with Roma that may be causing a delay in signing a first-choice defensive midfield partner for Partey, to enable the Ghanaian to be properly unleashed on the Premier League. Something we did not truly witness last term and something his early pre-season fitness and form suggest we certainly will in 2021/22.
However, while the media continue to link us to Locatelli, Bissouma and Zakaria, one suspects a certain Belgian is rubbing his hands at the prospect of edging out Elneny and starting the Premier League campaign alongside Partey. We saw glimpses of the partnership against Millwall and yesterday in the early second period versus Watford, and whilst we should be cognisant of the level of opposition, there was much to admire in Lokonga’s play and indeed his instant chemistry with his senior partner.
The Belgian U21 star was arguably only kept out of the Euros by a remarkable recovery from injury of Axel Witsel, but the latter, now the wrong side of 30 is Belgium’s past and Sambi Lokonga their future. Kompany and Arteta have long discussed the player and Thierry Henry has also praised the talented midfielder, so are we right to assume he will be content as an understudy? The script might be that Sambi will be Arsenal’s 2021 Edu, ready to step seamlessly into the team is Partey of another senior player is injured or needs a rest, but the player himself will undoubtedly have loftier ambitions. At the end of the day, you do not captain Anderlecht at 21 unless you have a certain maturity and leadership qualities. (A bit like a 21-year-old Kieran Tierney!)
He has an assured first touch, quick feet, reads the game well and has a breadth of short- and longer-range passing, with a high pass completion ratio. In addition, last season in the Belgian top-flight he showed superb interception and tackle figures which bodes well for the defensive midfield role. The main concern may will be his young age, but the reality is that he is 22 in October and has 2 full seasons for Anderlecht under his belt. In the last 2 seasons he has played 56 league matches, only 2 less than Bukayo Saka, over the same period for Arsenal.
It is easy to be worried that Arsenal might rely too heavily on their young stars, but it is only last season we were all screaming for Martinelli at 19, after a long-term injury to be played more, when the senior, experienced players were under-performing. Smith-Rowe at 20, with virtually no top-level experience, came into the team and changed the direction of our campaign. Sambi does have more senior football under his belt and will undoubtedly be full of confidence and aiming to impress early doors.
It was only 2 years ago we were fielding Guendouzi week in week out at 18 and if we are honest, many were quietly optimistic that we had a star on our hands. Sambi may be another false dawn, but something tells me he won’t be and whoever Arsenal manage to recruit for the centre of the park, it is unlikely to be in time for Brentford on the 13th. This being the case our newest midfield signing is competing with Mo Elneny to kick off our season, and my money says if he gets a run, he might be difficult to dislodge.
And of course the whole piece without mentioning the exciting Miguel Azeez, who you may have heard about first right here, who might just have stamped Ainsley’s exit ticket….
Passionate fifty-something Arsenal supporter who has been making the journey to N5 regularly since the early 1980s – although his first game was in 1976. Always passionate when talking about The Arsenal, Dave decided to send a guest blog to Gunnersphere in the summer of 2011 and has not stopped writing about the Gunners since.
He set up his own site – 1 Nil Down 2 One Up – in February 2012, which he moved on in 2016 to concentrate on freelance writing and building Gunners Town, which he launched with Paul in 2014.
The objective of GT was to be new and fresh and to give a platform for likeminded passionate Arsenal fans wishing to write about their team. Dave still of course, writes for the site himself and advises the ever-changing writing crew.