Albert Sambi Lokonga will spend the rest of the season on loan at Crystal Palace. The Belgian midfielder has made 15 appearances for Arsenal this season but his performances have been rather tame. He has shown flashes of why the Gunners spent £15M to buy him from Anderlecht in July of 2021 but hasn’t developed the consistency that you would have hoped to see. His on-ball play is solid, but he needs to improve his movement without the ball and his defensive awareness.
Arsenal rejected a £7M bid for Lokonga from Monaco earlier in the window. And the loan to Palace is dry — no option or obligation to buy. That tells me one of two things: either the club still believes in his talent and think he could become a useful player or they don’t want to sell him right now but would be open to doing so in the future. Or some secret, third thing that I’m not aware of.
Whichever it may be, I’m going to trust Arsenal’s decision. Some players develop slower than others. Lokonga is just 23. He still has time to develop. Yes, there are younger players excelling in the same position elsewhere, but playing in the center of the park isn’t easy. I can’t think of a better place for Sambi to learn how to be a central midfielder than at the knee of Patrick Vieira. Vieira has shown a willingness to trust young players and has demonstrated success with Conor Gallagher in a similar role. The Francophone connection with Vieira can’t hurt, either.
Perhaps new scenery and a different voice is all Sambi needs to get back moving in the right direction. Things seemed to be heading the wrong way at Arsenal. There were rumors that he wasn’t happy with his playing time. You could see the disappointment in his body language after the Manchester City match. It’s safe to say he was frustrated with the way this season was going for him in North London.
That is categorically not to say that he has an attitude problem or is anywhere close to beyond salvage. Sometimes the best thing for club and player is to change things up for a spell. Give him half a season of meaningful minutes and a chance to rebuild his confidence, and he might return to Arsenal in the summer a changed young man.
I don’t think his time in North London is necessarily over, but if it is, a successful loan spell would go a long way towards rebuilding his value and attractiveness as a transfer target. As that Monaco bid indicates, right now his value is pretty low. Lokonga is a young, talented player that has lost his way a bit but could easily get back on track. That’s why you buy promising young players. Even when they don’t work out, you’re likely not going to lose money and should make a small profit.
My gut tells me he gets another shot at Arsenal. The club needs a long-term replacement for Granit Xhaka at left #8. There was talk before the season that Sambi’s skillset would be well-suited to that role. He still could be the guy in that spot. He hasn’t helped his case with his middling performances this season, but the passing skills are there. We’ll have a much better idea after he (hopefully) plays a bunch for Crystal Palace.