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.