Tag Archives: Arsenal

Did Arsenal make a mistake replacing former prodigy with Albert Sambi Lokonga

His has a tough old time of it since joining Arsenal has Albert Sambi Lokonga.

Is he a 6? Is he an 8? What we do know for sure is he has not exactly sparkled when playing in either position.

And he has come under further pressure due to the form of the man he replaced.

No, not Matteo Guendouzi but Joe Willock.

Willock was one of our own. A Hale End graduate and someone that played 78 games for us before leaving to Newcastle.

The majority of those 78 games were off the bench as he struggled to nail down a position at Arsenal.

A loan deal to Newcastle saw him find his feet, scoring 8 goals in 14 games as he was key to their survival. That led the Geordies to spend £25million on him in 2021.

At the time, every agreed it was a good deal for everyone.

Arsenal got a huge chunk of cash for a bit-part player who many questioned if he had the ability to consistently ply for us. Newcastle got a player who immediately became one of their top 2 or 3 performers. And Willock, then aged 22, would be able to kick on his career with regular football.

In Willock’s place, we signed Albert Sambi Lokonga for £17.2m

Both players born in 1999, Willock just 2 months older. It looked great business for Arsenal.

Lokonga was seemingly more advanced in his career compared to Willock, and Arsenal made around £8m profit across the two deals.

Ironically, Lokonga had played the same amount of games for Anderlecht as Willock did Arsenal (78). But unlike Willock, many of those came from the start rather than off the bench.

Lokonga captained Anderlecht for most of his final season, and his form saw him get a call up to the Belgium national team prior to joining us. Shortly after signing for Arsenal he would win his first (and only) international cap.

He came with the glowing endorsement of former manager Vincent Kompany, who said he reminded him of Yaya Toure.

In the 18 months since, he has stagnated and certainly not got close to being the “new Yaya Toure”.

But is it his fault?

We have seen it often with young players. In and out of the team, continually playing in different positions, it is tough to progress.

And this was infact why Willock left us.

Willock would play defensive midfield one week, then not be seen for 2 or 3 weeks, and then return in attacking midfield. The next game he would be on the bench and come in with 5 minutes to go in an attempt to run down the clock.

It was only with regular football at Newcastle that he kicked on. And I do wonder if their positions were reversed – Lokonga playing regularly at Newcastle and Willock a bit-pry player at Arsenal – would their form and progression be reversed?

When Willock left, Arsenal were not really playing a formation that suited him.

In 2020/21, we mainly played 4231, with 2 defensive midfielders and a “10”. Willock was always naturally an 8.

With us now transitioning to 4141 with 2 8s, you have to think that Willock might have excelled had he stayed at Arsenal.

He would’ve seen more consistent game time covering both Xhaka and Odegaard, and his progression would not have been as stunted as previously.

Unlike many, I am not writing off Lokonga.

There is a player in there and if he gets the consistent game time, he could explode.

He has the pace and power to be a top midfielder. He also has an exceptional range of passing. He just needs that game time and I am not sure whether Arsenal can give him it.

Some might call for him to have a loan deal, but at 23 that chance has probably gone.

With Charlie Patino performing well at Blackpool, and a new defensive midfield recruit to join in January, I wouldn’t be surprised if the club cash in on Lokonga. And it would be equally unsurprising if he kicks on following a departure like Willock did.

Final thought on this piece: It was Willock’s decision to go. He wanted to leave us to kick on his career. He didn’t want to be a bit part player despite us being his boyhood club. And we need to respect that.

Whilst some might now think replacing Willock with Lokonga was a bad move, the Englishman leaving was not our choice. And we would have been wrong to force him to stay against his will.

Hopefully in the second half of the season we see Lokonga play more in his natural 8 position. If he does kick on over the next 6 months he could save us a lot of money when it comes to signing a back up (and eventual replacement) for Xhaka.

But Lokonga v Willock. It’s an interesting debate.

Note: all the weird little Arsenal-incels will jump over Willock and Lokonga as examples of Arteta being unable to develop young players.. Ignoring Saka. And Martinelli. And Saliba. And the fact we have the youngest squad in the league.

Keenos

Arteta double striker dilema

Earlier this week, we discussed Arsenal’s options in improving the forward line.

I concluded that it made zero sense to sign a new striker, and that we would be best off signing a winger that can play up top. There are plenty of wingers that can do this.

If we go for a winger who can also cover up front, another question is then raised. Eddie Nketiah or Folarin Balogun as the back-up striker?

12 months ago, I was firmly in the “Nketiah’s time is up” camp.

His form towards the end of last season secured him a new contract and a chance to cement himself as Gabriel Jesus’s long term understudy. But was it the right decision?

Nketiah is yet to start for Arsenal in the league, and failed to score in any of his 142 minutes.

It is perhaps unfair on Nketiah to say that Arteta does not trust him.

As a result of our good form, Nketiah has been more of a “time wasting” substitution to see out the game, rather than being sent on to “grab a goal”:

Aston Villa – Arsenal 2-1 up – Nketiah a 88th minute sub
Bournemouth – 2-0 – 75th minute
Leicester City – 4-2 – 84th
Crystal Palace – 2-0 – 83rd
Brentford – 3-0 – 78th
Nottingham Forest – 5-0 – 75th
Leeds United – 1-0 – 82nd
Liverpool – 3-2 – 90+1
Tottenham – 3-1 – 80th
Wolves – 2-0 – 90+1

In the 3 games where Arsenal were not leading going into the closing stages, Nketiah was bought on much earlier.

1-nil down against Fulham, Nketiah was bought on in the 61st minuted. 2-1 down against Manchester United it was the 74th and 1-1 against Southampton it was the 71st.

In all 3 of those games, he was the first attacking sub we made (in the case of Manchester United, he was part of a trio bought on including Emile Smith Rowe and Fabio Vieira). That shows that when Arteta needs a goal, Nketiah is the first man he turns too.

Nketiah has played every minute in the Europa League – although strangely shifted out wide when Jesus has also started.

He has 2 goals in 6 appearances in Europe as well as 1 in 1 in the League Cup. that leaves him with a goal every 150 minutes in the league. Although as discussed, he comes on to see out a game where we are already winning and are not showing much attacking intent.

The question for Arteta is whether he will trust Nketiah enough during the second half of the season to play him ahead of Gabriel Jesus in the league.

There will be league games where Jesus needs a break, or is out of form. Does Arteta rotate his front-men, or continue to flog the Brazilian? And I am not sure of the answer.

Florian Balogun, meanwhile, has been “next in line” for a few years.

18 months ago I wrote a blog about how he was “too good for the U23 but not yet good enough for the first team“.

He could have done with being loaned out for the entire of last season. Instead he went on loan to Middlesbrough for the second half of the season. He was less than inspiring.

With Nketiah’s new deal, a decision was made this summer to loan the 21-year-old out to Reims. Following Nketiah’s new contract, it was felt it loan move to put him in the shop window, rather than to help his development.

He has come on leaps and bounds in France, showing the raw talent we knew he had.

8 goals in 14 games (12 starts) only Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, Jonathan David, Alexandre Lacazette and Lorient’s Terem Moffi have scored more. Not a bad list of forwards ahead of you!

Balogun is clearly a magnificent natural goal scorer, but does he have enough to the rest of his game to displace Nketiah going into 2022/23?

3 of his 8 goals have come from the penalty spot, and he has just 1 assists this season. He is averaging a goal every 135 minutes (against Nketiah 1 in 150), although this has been for a mid-table team. He has scored half of Reims goals.

I have not watched enough of him to see if his build up play has improved – it is an area of the game Nketiah has dramatically improved on in the last 12 months.

Any Jesus cover not only has to replace Jesus’s goals, but also his assists, mobility and work rate.

Nex summer, only one of Nketiah or Balogun will be at Arsenal – we have seen with how little game time Nketiah has had that you do not need a 3rd striker. And that other striker choice will probably come from a midfielder who can play up top.

We are very much a “Man City-lite” right now, and for most of Pep’s time in the North-West, he has only had 2 strikers (Aguero & Jesus, Haaland & Alvarez). Liverpool have been the same for a long time (Firminho & Jota, now Nunez an option), whilst

Tottenham have always struggled to fill the “2nd striker position” behing Kane and now utilise wingers (Richarlison, Son), as their alternative options. Chelsea do not really have a striker of any note.

So I guess next year the question is simple.

Nketiah or Balogun?

Keenos

Jesus to rise again in April

Sorry, I couldn’t stop myself with the headline.

It is more likely that Gabriel Jesus will be back in March, but this year Easter is in April and sometimes a good headline for a bit of fun is more important than the truth!

Reports are that he will be out for around 3 months. Not sure on the accuracy as he probably has not made it back to Arsenal yet.

I imagine he will fly to Dubai at some point this week to meet up with the Arsenal medical staff. A decision will then be made whether he needs immediate treatment, or can return to Qatar to remain with the Brazil squad.

Depending on the length of his injury will influence Mikel Arteta and Edu’s thinking. So what are the title chasers options?

Eddie Nketiah

Following a good end to last season, Eddie was given a big new contract.

5 goals in 7 games (although only scored in 3 of them), was enough to convince the powers that be that Nketiah still had a future at Arsenal.

During that period, he also showed an improved work rate and ball holding ability. Two things Arteta demands of his forward.

But under different circumstances, would Eddie have been offered that new contract?

With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang dumped in January, Arsenal’s two other strikers were also coming to the end of their contracts.

Arsenal could not afford to be strikerless, so a contract had to be offered to either Alexandre Lacazette or Eddie Nketiah. In the end the Englishman signed.

Was the new contract just a result of circumstances? Arsenal would not have wanted to go hunting for 2 new strikers in the summer and Nketiah was the cheaper option of the two.

Nketiah stepped up in the closing stages of last season. Can he do the same in the middle of this?

New striker

In recent weeks, we have discussed whether we should be targeting a new striker or winger in January. Prior to the Jesus move, many agreed that it was a winger we had to focus on.

Jesus’s injury may have led some to change their mind and that we should now prioritise a striker.

Edu showed last winter that he has a long term transfer strategy and is unwilling to make short term moves. But top of the league at Christmas, he might have to show a more flexible approach and do what is best for the next 6 months.

The issue Edu and his team face is “what decent strikers are available in January?”

There is a dearth of top strikers out there, and anyone decent would probably be unlikely to move. It would also take a while for a striker from abroad to acclimatise to the Premier League, and by the time they get their feet Jesus could return.

Another option could be that we ensure we get the winger we need, which could free up Gabriel Martinelli to play up top.

Gabriel Martinelli

For a long time, I thought Martinelli’s future could lie playing down the middle rather than on the wing. He played much of his debut season for us as a central striker, scoring 10 goals.

He certainly has the attributes to replace Jesus. Martinelli is a fantastic finisher, shows good movement in the box and has fantastic work rate.

If Martinelli moved centrally, Arsenal could look at the returning Emile Smith Rowe to play left wing.

The England youngster has missed most of this season injured, but contributed 11 goals last season from the left hand side.

Smith Rowe would then be backed up by the planned winger we were targeting to sign in January.

Mykhailo Mudryk is the name on everyone’s lips.

Signing the Ukrainian and the return of Smith Rowe would leave us with the dual choice of Nketiah and Martinelli down the middle whilst not taking too much of a risk out wide.

Recall Balogun

Some will call for Folarin Balogun to be recalled from his loan spell in France. The youngster has been in fantastic form for Reims, scoring 8 goals in 15 games.

However, reports are Arsenal did not include a recall clause in the loan deal. That means he will remain in France for the duration of the season.


Personally, I would keep with our existing January plans and utilise Martinelli down the middle.

Keenos