Anderlecht have rejected Arsenal’s £12.9M opening bid for midfielder Sambi Lokonga, per ESPN. The 21-year old Belgian international (he’s on the Euro 2020 standby list) is expected to leave Anderlecht this summer for a bigger club, and the Gunners face competition for his signature from a handful of other teams in Europe. The Athletic reports that Anderlecht value Lokonga just north of £17M and that there’s a deal to be made between the clubs should the Gunners really want to add the midfielder.
Lokonga has come back well from an ACL injury suffered in December 2018 and has made himself a mainstay for his club, making 37 appearances in all competitions this year. I think the transfer coverage of the last few days is a bit misleading: it keeps mentioning Lokonga alongside Ødegaard, Houssem Aouar, and Nabil Fekir, but he’s more of an #8 than a #10.
Admittedly, I haven’t seen much of him, so I’m basing my analysis on stats and other reports. He receives near-universal praise as a progressive dribbler and high marks for his progressive passing, but there are questions about his defensive abilities. Not that he’s incapable of defending, but that he’s mostly featured in a role where regaining possession and breaking up play was not his primary responsibility. That reads to me more as a Thomas Partey backup and eventual replacement than ready-made playing partner for opening day.
That’s not to say Arsenal shouldn’t move for him. Thomas Partey has struggled to stay healthy, and even if he stayed healthy the entire season, he isn’t going to play all 38 Premier League matches and in the FA and Carabao cups. Arsenal need central midfield depth, especially with Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira, and Matteo Guendouzi available for sale and Dani Ceballos back at Real Madrid.
At 21, Lokonga fits the age profile for a rebuilding Arsenal squad. It’s better to strengthen roster depth before it gets tested / runs thin rather than as a desperation response to realizing you’ve got a problem on the horizon. A move like this reminds me of Leicester City buying Kelechi Iheanacho. They signed him in 2017 to some raised eyebrows because they had Jamie Vardy challenging for the Premier League Golden Boot every year. But Iheanacho was a promising young talent available at a reasonable price. Now, with Vardy perhaps starting to slow down, they’ve got a prime-age striker who scored 12 goals in 25 PL appearances ready to step in.
It’d also be a smart piece of business for Arsenal because simply put, the club doesn’t have the money to buy multiple “in their prime” players in any single window right now. My feeling is that the club can maybe make a “big” signing in the £40-50M range, a handful of smaller £10-20M deals, and pick up one or two players on free transfers. And even that is probably a stretch. Right now, the best way for Arsenal to find themselves with a stocked roster of international / world-class talent is to speculate on younger players and promote guys from the academy, to develop stars rather than buying them.