From youth team to captain of the first team, Albert Sambi Lokonga has enjoyed a rapid rise

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There may come a time, in Albert Sambi Lokonga’s first season as an Arsenal player, when it looks like he is not doing very much at all. Lokonga is a calm sort of midfielder, a thinker rather than a bustler, and in his short career there have been moments when his relaxed approach has been mistaken for something more problematic. 

It would be an error, though, for any Arsenal fans to underestimate Lokonga on the basis of his body language. The club’s new signing does not need to sprint around the pitch, throwing off challenges and speeding past opponents, to make an impact on a match. He is a passer, a schemer and a reader of the game, and the Belgian is also a natural leader on and off the pitch.

After weeks of negotiations, Lokonga’s confirmation as an Arsenal player on Monday will have come as a relief to the club’s coaching staff and supporters. The squad overhaul of 2021 is officially underway, and Lokonga’s arrival from Anderlecht represents a key moment in the much-needed revamp of Mikel Arteta’s midfield.

The fee of around £15 million, plus add-ons, is a significant investment for a team in Arsenal’s challenging financial circumstances. It is also necessary: Matteo Guendouzi and Dani Ceballos have gone, Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka are likely to be going and Joe Willock could be following them out the door.

Arsenal need bodies, and they need players they can build around in the future. At the age of 21, Lokonga emphatically ticks that box. He has already captained his club, showing maturity beyond his years under the management of Vincent Kompany, and is seen by many in Belgium as a future star of the national team.

At Anderlecht, there is sadness at Lokonga’s departure but pride in the player he has become. He joined the club when he was just 10 years old, working his way up through the ranks before emerging as one of the key pillars of the first team. He was initially a more advanced midfielder in the youth teams, playing higher up the pitch, before his eventual reinvention as a deep-lying playmaker.

Albert Sambi Lokonga is young but his backstory is why this 'special' talent can shine at Arsenal

Credit: ANDERLECHT

“He was always a special guy,” says Jean Kindermans, the head of Anderlecht’s renowned academy, which has also produced the likes of Youri Tielemans, Romelu Lukaku and Leander Dendoncker in recent years. “Sambi is versatile, with excellent technical skills and very good passing, short and long. He is not an explosive guy but he can solve problems with his instincts and his intelligence, and he has a very good mentality. 

“Sambi is a very elegant player. His elegance is sometimes perceived as laziness but, believe me, he has good decision-making, he reads the game, he can make the final pass and he can score goals.

“He is not a guy who screams at others or is very excitable on the pitch, and sometimes people think that he is not concerned or concentrated. But he is a perfectionist. He wants to learn, he wants to play well.”

For Arsenal’s supporters, it is Lokonga’s leadership ability that should be the most exciting element of this signing. This is a squad that is desperately short of strong characters, and the problem will be made even worse if Xhaka leaves for Roma as expected. Lokonga has shown himself to be a player who exudes authority and, while no one will expect him to become a member of the leadership group straight away, in time he will surely take responsibility in north London. 

Despite Lokonga’s age, it was to him that Kompany turned last season following a long-term injury to captain Hendrik Van Crombrugge. “Sambi was not the guy in the dressing room giving big speeches,” says Kindermans. “He was talking with his feet. And when our captain had an injury, it was natural that the next skipper would be Sambi. Kompany is not looking at age or experience. He is looking at qualities.”

Lokonga soon had his first test with the armband: sorting out an on-pitch squabble between two team-mates, Lukas Nmecha and Michel Vlapp, over who should take a penalty against Genk. “Sambi solved that well,” said Kompany afterwards. “That is why he is captain. He always takes responsibility.”

To wear the armband at a club of Anderlecht’s stature is naturally an honour for a young Belgian player, but it also brings added scrutiny. Lokonga found himself at the centre of controversy last season, when he covered up a league-issued rainbow armband (in support of the LGBTQ+ community) with Anderlecht’s usual white armband. 

There was anger from the league, prompting Lokonga and Anderlecht to swiftly explain that it was due to superstition that he wore the usual armband, rather than because of any personal beliefs. To prove the point, Lokonga promised to wear the rainbow armband visibly in the following match. He also felt compelled to issue a statement insisting he is against all forms of discrimination.

Even though he plays the game so smoothly, it would be a mistake to assume that Lokonga’s journey from talented boy to first-team captain was entirely straightforward. There were difficulties along the way. He tore the cruciate ligaments in his knee in 2018 and he was a late developer physically, leading to moments of frustration and introspection in his teenage years.

“He matured late,” says Kindermans. “At the age of 16 or 17 he was on the bench of the youth team. I had him in my office, trying to give him motivation and telling him that sometimes you have to wait a little bit for your maturity, until you become a man. When I see his body today, his height and strength, it is not the player we had three or four seasons ago.”

Away from the pitch, Lokonga is deeply religious (he prays “several times a day”, he has said, and reads the bible every night) and has a close relationship with his brother, Paul-Jose M’Poku. Also a footballer, M’Poku made a similar journey from Belgium to north London, joining Tottenham Hotspur when he was just 16. 

There is an acceptance, in hindsight, that M’Poku moved to England too early in his career. Lokonga has therefore been able to learn from his brother’s mistakes, picking what he believes to be the right moment to leave Belgium and embrace a new challenge. 

It is a reflection of Arsenal’s shifting transfer policy that they have targeted a player like Lokonga, who is far from the finished product but clearly has enormous potential. He may not be a world-class player yet, but Arsenal and Anderlecht evidently have reason to believe he will be soon.

“Sambi has to take the next step in his career and Arsenal is one of the clubs in the Premier League who can offer him this possibility,” says Kindermans, who believes that Lokonga could one day be as dominant in midfield as the likes of Patrick Vieira or Yaya Toure. “Once he reaches the age of 24 or 25, he will maybe reach a new level. If he receives some trust from the coach and the supporters, he will very soon develop into a big player.”