Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Sambi On Ice

When Mohamed Elneny tore his hamstring in the final week of the summer transfer window, with Thomas Partey already injured, Arsenal’s reaction was instructive for Albert Sambi Lokonga. They spent deadline day pursuing Aston Villa midfielder Douglas Luiz. Chasing a Kia Joorabchian client on deadline day is about as clear a signal as you can get that Arsenal are sailing somewhere close to panic mode.

Elneny returned inside two months and Thomas Partey was playing again within three weeks of the deadline passing. There are some caveats, of course. Elneny recovered ahead of schedule and Partey’s fitness always feels like it is made of crystal. Nonetheless, Arteta did not want to entertain the prospect of Sambi Lokonga playing in the deeper midfield role on anything like a semi-prolonged basis. This is, partly, because a decision was clearly made during the spring that the ‘Partey role’ was not best suited to Sambi’s qualities.

After a pair of defeats to Brighton and Southampton in April, Arteta took Sambi out of the firing line and installed Mohamed Elneny into that deeper role. The Egyptian’s performances were enough to earn him a one-year contract extension. The thinking was clear, Elneny was to be Partey’s back-up and Sambi Lokonga’s skills were considered more fitting for Granit Xhaka’s current role.

The problem is, for Sambi, that there is even more traffic ahead of him in that position. Fabio Vieira certainly seems like a preferred alternative, maybe even Emile Smith Rowe too when fit. It is difficult to imagine that Arsenal’s next big purchase in the market won’t be a midfielder with Partey and Xhaka both entering their 30s. It is also worth remembering that, at the time Sambi signed, Xhaka looked set to join Roma. That he eventually stayed meant another obstruction to first-team minutes.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a path to that role for the Belgian. He played there in the recent Europa League match against FC Zurich and, to my mind, had a very mixed evening. I think the issue for Sambi is one of identity. I am not sure anyone really knows what he is yet. In Arteta’s system, where there are nearly always five players ahead of the ball and five players behind it, he hasn’t carved out a niche.

To me, he doesn’t look especially like he wants to be behind or ahead of the ball. He wants to be on it and to follow it and it makes me wonder whether he is, or can be, a fit for Arteta’s positional style of play. His performances in the deeper role have been unspectacular, if not disastrous. The issue for him there is that any comparison with Partey is going to be unfavourable.

Sambi is quite good at making interceptions in midfield, which is one of Partey’s key strengths, knowing when to leap out of his bunker to gobble up loose balls. Partey averages 1.28 interceptions per 90 (via FBRef) with Sambi on 1.07. However, Partey makes 2.22 tackles per 90 with Sambi on 0.80. He doesn’t have the presence Partey has in that role and that stands to reason, really, not many midfielders in the Premier League do.

Again, understandably, I think Sambi looks a little reserved when he plays in the deeper role. He understands the amount of responsibility he undertakes as the lone midfield pivot and I think it leads to him being ultra-cautious. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Belgian’s confidence hasn’t dipped during his time in North London too.

The All or Nothing documentary from last season caught footage of a moon-faced exchange between Sambi and Eddie Nketiah. Nketiah demanded to know why Sambi’s effusiveness around London Colney had dropped off so much to which Lokonga replied, “I smile when I am playing.” Nketiah’s rejoinder, “you think you’re the only one not playing?” looked worse for Lokonga given the way Eddie eventually came into the team and made a difference.

That snippet was also unfortunate for Lokonga because it’s probably gone some way to shaping opinions of him within the fan base. While Nketiah certainly did break into the team and make a difference, his performances were being stacked up against the absolutely impoverished forward play of Alex Lacazette, as opposed to the crucial pillar that is Thomas Partey.

Earlier this season, I spoke to Arsenal Women boss Jonas Eidevall over his decision to immediately loan out 19-year-old summer signing Gio Queiroz to Everton. “She is a young player but she is used to playing a lot of first-team football. She played a lot in Spain. I didn’t want her to take a step back from the stage she is at in her career right now in not playing regular minutes.”

It made me think of Sambi and how difficult ana adjustment it must have been for him to go from the captain of Anderlecht, one of their most important players and someone who was making the Belgium squad, to a player on the fringes at a club like Arsenal. The sense of brooding does not just extend to that canteen interchange with Nketiah.

In October, he was critical of Belgium coach Roberto Martinez, “Maybe Martinez doesn’t believe in my qualities or he doesn’t like my style. But I’d rather he communicate that clearly. I would have accepted his decision without hesitation.” His chances of making their World Cup squad were slim anyway but, out of frustration, he rather set fire to the olive branch.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that it’s probably not going to happen for Sambi at Arsenal. I think the club will spend big on a midfielder in the summer (maybe even January) and that will smooth his departure. With no more Europa League group stage or League Cup fixtures, I think the club could probably afford to loan him out in January and fatten him up for a summer sale.

That doesn’t have to mean that he has been a bad signing though. He has helped Arsenal to protect Partey in less important competitions and that is really what Europa League rotation is about. It’s not really about development or even giving game time to squad players- that’s a purely secondary benefit. The foremost reason for that rotation is to protect the dads rather than nurture the sons.

It feels as though Sambi has now entered a catch 22 at Arsenal where he needs regular minutes to flourish and, realistically, he just isn’t going to get that in North London. Hopefully his age and profile will mean that the club don’t take much of a hit on a sale fee, it was a low-cost gamble that hasn’t really had any dramatic consequences.

That’s the advantage of buying young, you can move on quickly. However, younger players also tend to need the rhythm of games and can’t really get that in these shadow roles, as the likes of Emi Martinez and Joe Willock have concluded in recent seasons (and both brought in good money for Arsenal). An experienced campaigner like Elneny is far more suited to an occasional brief but they tend to cost more in the market and have a bigger downside when moves don’t work out.

Everyone would have known upon signing that Sambi would need time to adapt and grow at Arsenal. While Partey is still there, Arsenal don’t really need Sambi to be much more than a back-up. The question is then whether Arteta thinks there are enough raw ingredients to coach him into a more positional style of play, as he was prepared to do with Martinelli, for example.

The tea leaves suggest that isn’t going to happen. When Aubameyang was exiled, Arteta trusted Martinelli to undertake the left-forward role and didn’t make another signing to reinforce the forward line. When Partey and Elneny had medium-term injuries, Arsenal tried to sign another midfielder and I think that tells us everything we need to know.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator– And like my page on Facebook

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