Should Sambi Lokonga Start Arsenal’s First League Game at Brentford?
By Rob Worthington (Deputy Editor)
After an impressive debut outing for Albert Sambi Lokonga against Millwall followed by an equally assured performance against Premier League opposition in the form of Watford, understandable clamour is surrounding Arsenal’s newest starlet.
What appears to have impressed Arsenal fans the most is Lokonga’s confidence. The young midfielder is consistently prepared to take on an opponent to beat the press in front of him, something just one Arsenal player was regularly praised for last season - Thomas Partey.
It’s clear Arsenal have added some much needed quality in depth to their midfield through the acquisition of Lokonga. It was indeed required. The drop off in quality in the engine room when either one of Thomas Partey or Granit Xhaka were unavailable was just too stark last campaign.
However, it’s important to carry on looking at Lokonga from the perspective of which we looked at him when he initially signed for Arsenal. Of course, the Anderlecht captaincy is an impressive aspect of his CV evidencing his maturity despite his youth, but he is just 21 and the step up from the Belgium Pro League to the Premier League is huge.
So, should Sambi Lokonga start for Arsenal against Brentford in just under a fortnight?
The answer is dependent on a number of variables really. Firstly, whether Granit Xhaka still an Arsenal player on the 13th August. Second, if Xhaka leaves, whether he is replaced prior to the Brentford game. And finally, how Lokonga performs during the remainder of pre-season.
The next two matches will give Arsenal fans an accurate indicator of Lokonga’s level. Facing two strong Premier League sides, albeit in pre-season games, will be representative of two of the toughest tests Lokonga has faced in his career thus far.
Chelsea on Sunday will pose various challenges for Lokonga. The West London side’s quality in the engine room is obvious, so Lokonga will have to avoid succumbing to any fear which comes alongside facing high quality opposition.
Then, against Spurs a week later, Arsenal will likely have a lot more of the ball than their defensively-oriented north London rivals, so Lokonga will have to show he can be effective in a side of which dominates possession against opponents of high quality.
They’ll be two very different tests for the youngster, but they’ll also be very informative tests. If he passes them to a sufficient extent, it’d be unreasonable to suggest that he wouldn’t thereafter be in contention to start against Brentford.
Nevertheless, it Arsenal do manage to acquire a new first-choice partner for Thomas Partey, the conversation changes somewhat. Lokonga would no longer just be competing with the likes of Elneny and Azeez. If a potential new signing was fit and ready, they would most probably start against Brentford.
Yet, a new first-choice midfield signing hasn’t walked through the doors of the Arsenal Training Centre so far this Summer, so Lokonga has to keep doing his thing. At the moment, a starting role which looked destined to be granted to Mo Elneny for the first Premier League game of the new campaign is in Lokonga’s reach.
While Brentford come up as a strong newly-promoted side, the Bees could be the perfect full Premier League debut opposition for Arsenal’s most recent midfield recruit. It’s not as if a start for Lokonga would be akin to Arteta throwing him into a lion’s den.
Therefore, if Arsenal don’t sign a replacement for Granit Xhaka prior to their opening day fixture and Lokonga doesn’t damage his reputation in the Mind Series games against Spurs and Chelsea, the Belgian should indeed start Arsenal’s first league game of the season at the Brentford Community Stadium.