• Scouted Football

Breakthrough: Albert Sambi Lokonga

In part one of a small Scouted Football series, Llew Davies picks out a player who had a breakthrough 2019/2020 season. First up is 20-year-old RSC Anderlecht midfielder, Albert Sambi Lokonga.

Last year, RSC Anderlecht endured their worst season in generations. Slumping to a sixth-place finish meant the club missed out on European football – in any of its forms – for the first time in a remarkable 56 years, and long-standing debts stacked up to near €100 million. Things were the worst they had been in a lifetime; the club had tumbled into a trough. It was inevitable that such unprecedented turmoil prompted wide-scale change.


In their darkest period in living memory, the club turned to a club legend: Vincent Kompany. Having helped Manchester City to another Premier League title as club captain, albeit in a limited squad role, Kompany returned to his boyhood club as a novel player-manager. It was a high-profile move that caught the attention of almost everyone, and it immediately spelled significant change. Over 30 senior players left the club last summer – a clear-out which featured the departure of regular starters, as well as failed transfers that had come to represent the incompetent management of the club over recent years – and a cohort of Kompany confedants came in. While the player-manager’s reputation enabled the signing of Samir Nasri and Nacer Chadli, Kompany made a concerted effort to re-align the club to its famed youth academy once again – a conscious decision which injected a sense of identity back into an ailing club.


Things haven’t gone particularly well since the Return of the Prince. Kompany stepped back from his role as player-manager early in the season following a poor start, with another prominent figure of Anderlecht’s past, Frank Vercauteren, returning for a second spell as head coach. Frank Arnesen, their Director of Football, was sacked. Unhappy ultras protested outside of club offices. There’s even been a change of ownership – and all that happened before the Pro League season was curtailed by COVID–19, with Anderlecht sat eighth in the table at the point of cancellation.


One thing that had endured was the renewed faith in youth. Anderlecht used more players born in 1999 or later (14) than any other club in the 2019/20 Pro League season. Only Cercle Brugge – now owned and run by AS Monaco – had a higher percentage of league minutes completed by players aged 21-or-under. Eight homegrown players accumulated over 1,000 total league minutes for Anderlecht this season. One of them lead the entire squad for minutes played. It was Albert Sambi Lokonga,


THE BREAKTHROUGH


Lokonga isn’t a newcomer to Anderlecht’s first-team setting. He made a handful of league appearances in the 2017/18 season while still a prominent member of their UEFA Youth League team, and he did similar the following season before a cruciate ligament injury kneecapped his campaign, destroying a promising run of starts and setting him back to square one. Having recovered to play just shy of 2,000 minutes before the Pro League’s pandemic-induced cancellation, we now have a solid season of data and video samples to assess Lokonga and his skillset.


His responsibilities have shifted slightly throughout the season – no surprise given that he’s featured for three different coaches – but Lokonga has predominantly played as a deeper number eight in midfield positions, acting as the practically ever-present partner to Peter Žulj, and also Edo Kayembe or Sieben Dewaele on occasion. With that in mind, I’ve decided to plot his data set against deeper Pro League midfielders in the following visualisations using metrics which I consider to be important for players of their positions.

Immediately, we can decipher that Lokonga profiles as an above-average midfielder in the Pro League across many of these metrics yet drops significantly short in another important aspect.


The data suggests that his passing is competent. He ranks around the 80th percentile on average, with a couple of exceptions, in most of the passing metrics, which highlights his functional ball-playing ability. Attempting almost 50 passes per 90 minutes at a completion rate of 87.8% makes him one of the more active and secure passers among Pro League midfielders. In terms of progressive passing – see final third passes and progressive passes, mainly – he doesn’t compare as well, suggesting that his pass selection is shorter, less expansive, and ultimately safer.


He ranks among the best in his position in terms of dribbling and ball-carrying – an assessment which will be further enhanced when contextualised by video analysis later. Attempting 3.1 dribbles and completing 2.1 progressive runs per 90 puts him comfortably in the 90th percentile for both metrics, highlighting Lokonga as a midfielder who carries the ball regularly, quite often pushing possession up the pitch in the process. It’s also backed up by the following graph, where Lokonga’s outputs are plotted against a much broader data set of midfielders across the top-five European leagues.

As visualised above, Lokonga sits quite comfortably above the median for both dribbles and progressive runs when compared to top five league midfielders, even edging the upper-right quadrant of high-volume ball-carries and dribblers. Houssem Aouar is a gold standard in both metrics, as per Wyscout, while Angelo Fulgini, Renato Sanches, Manuel Locatelli, and the excellent Tanguy Ndombélé impress too. Jean-Ricner Bellegarde also catches the eye; he’s another young midfielder who has had a promising season in Ligue 1 having joined RC Strasbourg from RC Lens last summer, and his skillset is not dissimilar to Lokonga’s.


The significant caveat that underpins this is a rather simple one: Belgium’s Pro League is at least a click beneath the competition level of Ligue 1 for instance, and a couple of clicks beneath the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, and Serie A. That makes it difficult and irresponsible to project his data profile against players from such leagues with any sort of certainty, but projecting whether a player playing in a lesser league will translate his skillset to a higher level is an age-old problem that clubs have always had to solve. That’s where a recruitment process which combines data assessments with detailed video analysis comes into its own.


Onto the elephant in the room, or the graph: his defensive output, which noticeably lingers beneath the Pro League median. One reason for that is Anderlecht’s defensive style; they don’t press as much as others in the league, nor do they defend as intently in deeper positions. Moreover, his midfield partners – Žulj and Deawele in particular – tend to assume more ball-winning responsibilities. Partly by virtue of team style and his team-mates, Lokonga has less defending to do, fewer defensive duels to compete, and that manifests in the data – yet that shouldn’t dismiss his ability or upside as a defender.


Data profiles sketch the skillset of a player. Video analysis will enable us to review and reassess that sketch, and hopefully to make it a little more detailed.


LOKONGA, THE PLAYER


Anderlecht have cycled through three different coaches this season: Kompany initially, followed by Simon Davies on an interim basis, before Vercauteren returned to the club. Despite that, Lokonga played a relatively similar role for much of the season in a relatively similar shape and system. There were subtle differences between each, but he predominantly played on the right side of Anderlecht’s midfield, with a more defensive partner beside him and a creative player operating between lines ahead.


What immediately catches the eye when watching Lokonga are his fundamental technical skills, which are of a very capable level, particularly when receiving possession. He scans space regularly, checking his shoulders with quick glances to assess the positioning and intent of opponents, and is good at using the information gathered to inform his next decision. While not excellent, he’s adept at adjusting his body orientation to suit the scenario too; he utilises his scanning – as well as nimble agility and coordinated footwork – to open his shoulders and hips outward, in turn establishing more secure passing channels and creating greater options for his next action. His first touch can be inconsistent, heavy, which draws pressure and commits him to challenges just to secure possession, but such instances are rare enough for it not to be a game-breaking flaw. More important is that Lokonga’s demonstrably keen to receive the ball in most situations, undeterred by any misgivings about his touch, and the fundamentals often enable him to do so with composure, speed, and security.


LOKONGA, THE PASSER


The data suggests that Lokonga is an active and secure passer in Anderlecht’s midfield but doesn’t add any outstanding value in terms of progression and forward passing. Therefore, an obvious question arises: what does Lokonga do as a passer, what do his passes add to his team? The ultimate answer is continuity and tempo. Those are the benefits of Lokonga, the passer.


One way in which he adds continuity, for example, is his willingness to receive possession and, crucially, his ability to do so. He constantly moves in midfield, adjusting his position relative to team-mates, opponents and the ball; he slides laterally onto the blindside of opponents, fills spaces between opposition lines and drops deeper toward his own defenders to create accessible passing angles. His solid technical fundamentals – scanning, body orientation – then enable him to receive and release the ball with speed, typically with a short but quick pass to an open team-mate in a better position.


Lokonga’s technical execution is best over shorter distances and in smaller spaces, and he seems to appreciate his limitations. His short passing is clean and crisp, as he punches precise, side-foot passes into team-mates or releases runners into space with a deft through ball toward the wings. In contrast, he ranks in the 10th percentile for attempted long passes per 90 and long pass completion rate among Pro League players, an indictment of a poor passing technique that sends inaccurate passes into spaces that are easy for opponents to defend – he only completes 45% of his 2.5 long passes per 90. He doesn’t seem comfortable executing passes over range from deeper positions, and subsequently tends to pick safer, simpler, shorter passing options.


That said, his pass selection diversified as the season – the first of his senior career, remember – developed. He showed an increased willingness to attempt more difficult passes, and the data backs that up: he attempted 1.1 through balls per 90 in the first half of the season compared to 2.5 across his eight appearances since the turn of the year, a significant uptick.

The clip above showcases that development. Having dropped to receive a pass from Žulj and turned neatly away from pressure as he so often does, he lifts his vision and opens his body. Now facing play and assessing his options, he picks a tough pass to execute: a ball that must travel through two bodies, and across his own, into Michel Vlap. He executes it well, with decent weight and accuracy, and the pass enables Vlap to carry the ball into the final third. Moreover, as the initial attack breaks down, Lokonga has already assumed an intelligent supporting position to offer a secure option to reset play. His decision to pick that pass – rather than the simpler option that left-sided centre-back, Elias Cobbaut, presented just out of shot – is a sign of progression. It’s a promising sequence that is increasingly prominent in Lokonga’s pass selection and performances.


His perpetuity as a passing option offers his team-mates a solid platform to build upon, a quick pressure release, a wall to bounce off, an accessible link between different zones of the pitch – that’s what Lokonga adds as a passer. His appreciation of space and operational speed is good, his simplicity and fluency impressive. His high-tempo pass-and-move style breaks pressure and penetrates defensive lines in its own way. They’re traits which basic data cannot interpret, serving to emphasise why video analysis is absolutely essential in any recruitment process.


LOKONGA, THE DRIBBLER


Like with his passing, video analysis also reveals the details of Lokonga, the dribbler. Ranking within the 90th percentile for dribbles and progressive runs per 90 among Pro League midfielder, he’s obviously more than capable of moving with the ball at his feet – but the data only provides a superficial understanding, it can’t highlight the subtleties of his style, nor the value of his actions.


Robust athleticism underpins almost everything Lokonga does – his stamina enables him to be a constant passing option, agility and balance allows him to manipulate his body, lanky strides cover bigger spaces quickly, and his sharp accelerations give him an valuable intensity in smaller spaces and from standing starts. Those physical qualities coalesce to form a dynamic athletic profile in every phase of play, but especially when he dribbles with the ball.

Perhaps the most valuable upside of his dribbling is press resistance: Lokonga is very good at identifying and beating pressure. His role in build-up phases means he often drops from higher positions toward his own defenders to create a passing option. Subsequently, he’s an easy player to press as he travels toward the ball with his back to play – a vulnerable situation to be in, and often a pressing trigger for teams. The following sequence against KAA Gent is typical of how Lokonga deals with and exploits pressure:

In the first frame, we see a regular situation in Anderlecht’s build-up phase: Derrick Luckassen is in possession of the ball and assessing his options, while Lokonga is already commenced his movement into a deeper position.

A couple of seconds later, Gent have already initiated their press: Luckassen is pressured by Anderson Niangbo while Jonathan David has started his movement toward Anderlecht’s other centre-back, Marco Kana, in anticipation of a lateral pass. Being the only accessible player with any sort of time or space, Lokonga becomes crucial – having already dropped deep, checked his right shoulder, and set his feet, he asks for the ball.

With the ball in transit, two things are important: Lokonga quickly scans over his right shoulder again, while his opponent, Elisha Owusu, is yet to react to the pass with the intensity shown by Niangbo and David in the initial pressure. Nevertheless, Lokonga remains in a vulnerable position with his back to Owusu and no obvious available passing option.

Having received the ball with a firm touch in a closed but upright posture, the pressure comes – Owusu has reacted to Luckassen’s pass and is now accelerating toward Lokonga, who doesn’t have any clear passing options available to him.

With Owusu closing in at speed, Lokonga pushes a sharp second touch out to his right, plants and burst off his left leg, and accelerates. Owusu can’t adjust, overruns both man and ball, and is stranded as Lokonga attacks the space behind him with positive touches and sleek strides. Here’s the same sequence in full speed:

While Owusu’s rash and reactive defending plays its own part, Lokonga’s technical fundamentals, awareness, composure, and athleticism are all very impressive. It also explains his impressive output in terms of progressive runs – once he beats pressure in direct duels, he’s adept at exploiting the space vacated by the bypassed opponent with long strides and big touches, like in the example above. This sequence isn’t a unique occurrence either, he executes similar actions in the majority of his Pro League appearances. His dribbles are not confined to him beating pressure in deeper zones either, he uses his dribbling ability to beat players in open spaces too. The clips below are just a handful of different examples:

Where the 20-year-old can improve is how he follows his press-beating actions. Some of the above clips show him moving the ball onto wider attackers with simpler passes, which is fine, but he lacks the confidence to attempt decisive, penetrative passes that open up for him when travelling forward with the ball. It often leads to situations where he fails to release the ball – similar to the scenario in the initial clip against Gent – and has to rely on bundling a pass out of his feet or winning a foul to retain possession, both of which kill momentum and fail to take advantage of any defensive disruption or numerical overloads his dribbling/ball-carrying creates. I would like to see him attempt passes like this – an incomplete through ball against Waasland-Beveren – more often:

That sequence – the movement to receive, the sleek burst to breeze past pressure, the positive pass which dissects two defenders and almost releases the runner through on goal – demonstrates his exciting potential as a progressive, press-beating midfielder.


LOKONGA, THE DEFENDER


We’ve already determined that his defensive output is significantly beneath the Pro League par for midfielders, and we’ve already established that Anderlecht’s style and his team-mates skillsets are likely factors in his below-average numbers. Those metrics aren’t entirely reflective of the reality, though.


When watching Lokonga, one of the most noticeable facets of his skillset is his mobility; as mentioned regarding his dribbling, his sharp accelerations and long strides enable him to cover ground quickly with the ball. It also allows him to gobble up space without the ball, and it’s his mobility – combined with his lanky legs and wily frame – which is the basis for his better defensive traits and the base from which he is well-placed to develop into a positive defensive presence.


Take these clips as solid examples of how Lokonga utilises his dynamic mobility and rangy physique to is advantage, using the former to match opponents’ movements and the latter to lever his body between player and ball to regain possession:

Not only is that method effective, it’s also efficient: he doesn’t commit to an action which would take him out of the game if unsuccessful, and it often leads to him coming away with the ball at his feet. It also exhibits good anticipation and composure, something which is present in his defensive work. He seems to have a decent understanding of when to time his interventions in such scenarios.


That’s the good, but there’s also a lot of bad that needs addressing. While his mobility provides him considerable advantages, he needs to learn how to control it, to coordinate it. Too often he approaches the ball with too much haste; his footwork becomes clumsy and posture poor as a result. By compressing space too quickly, he cedes any control over the situation he had – a simple touch, pass, or movement is far more likely to take him out of the game, when he then relies on sticking out a late leg to impact the ball or fell his opponent. A more measured approach – gradually slowing down and widening his base as he approaches the ball – would enable him to coordinate his footwork, react and adjust to the opponent’s touches, movements, decisions with more time and greater effectiveness.


The promising perspective is there are sufficient examples of him doing exactly that to suggest he can become a more measured defender in such situations, with more coaching and more minutes. That sentiment can be extended to his overall defensive ability. Once you take stock of his basic attributes, there’s no reason why Lokonga can’t become a positive presence in defensive phases, especially in a defensive system which encourages tenacious, front-foot defending.

When Lokonga brings every aspect of his skillset together, he's a very impressive player – the clip above is the perfect example. He has legs to cover space quickly, skill to win possession back cleanly, awareness and burst to beat pressure, and the quality to play decisive passes. As he grows and develops, he should knit those skills together with greater consistency.


THE FOLLOWTHROUGH


It’s been a promising first full season in senior football for Albert Sambi Lokonga. He played more minutes than any of his outfield team-mates, started and finished 20 consecutive Pro League games from September through March, and made his under-21 international debut for Belgium too. Not only was it his first complete season of professional competition, it was also his first since recovering from the serious knee injury he suffered 18 months ago.


Anderlecht finished in their lowest league position for decades, but their back-to-basics, youth-oriented approach – which the vaunted return of Kompany was clearly intended to catalyse – has reset the club. In many ways, Lokonga was the on-pitch personification of that reset; he set the standard for an exciting group of homegrown academy products. With the club languishing in debts of nine-figure sums, the successful integration of players like Yari Verschaeren, Jérémy Doku, Marco Kana and Killian Sardella should ultimately replenish the bank balance when big clubs come calling.


Given the financial ruin COVID–19 has wrecked on football clubs throughout Europe, debt-ridden Anderlecht are likely to be relatively amenable sellers this summer. With that in mind, what next for Lokonga? Another year in Belgium could be beneficial, but I would suggest that he’s outgrown this Anderlecht side. An inter-league transfer to a Pro League team competing in Europe shouldn’t be completely ruled out, but it seems almost impossible in the current climate. The Eredivisie provides an interesting option: PSV Eindhoven. Roger Schmidt will be their coach next season, and Lokonga’s dynamic skillset and natural tendencies would be a functional fit in the German’s extremely intense style.


In all likelihood, one of the top-five European leagues will be the next step up in Lokonga’s burgeoning career. There are a few established pathways that could see him make that step soon – Serie A clubs, Atalanta in particular, are always attentive to the Benelux market; smaller Premier League teams have also bought from Belgium with varying levels of success. A specific move that interests me most is LOSC Lille in Ligue 1.


Under sporting director Luís Campos, LOSC have been one of the most intelligent buyers in European football. They’ve consistently found value in a range of underappreciated markets and have been the go-to destination for many high-level products of Paris Saint-Germain’s academy. One such player is Boubakary Soumaré. He has also had a breakthrough year in Ligue 1 this season and has been the subject of enormous bids upwards of €50 million according to reliable reports.


When he leaves, perhaps this summer, I would propose Lokonga as a fitting replacement. Soumaré’s skillset is similar to Lokonga: his up-tempo passing provides continuity rather than progression, he escapes tight spaces with nifty dribbling and carries into space well, and he utilises high-level mobility to gobble up ground and mop up loose balls, a functional balance to the combative, ball-winning abilities of Benjamin André. It’s a similarity which is corroborated by smarterscout’s player comparison tool:

Data benchmark: Ligue 1

Ligue 1 also represents a manageable step up in competition level. Whilst a physical league, Lokonga has the athletic potential to hold his own against bigger, quicker, stronger opponents. He defintiely needs to fill out a little bit, but that should come in time as his body evolves. I think his technical skillset would translate well to the broken phases of play that tend to punctuate games in France’s top-flight as well. Christophe Galtier’s LOSC team were one of the more prolific pressing teams in Ligue 1 last season too, especially in the attacking and midfield thirds, another factor which suits Lokonga.


In summary, Albert Sambi Lokonga is an interesting young player who has had an impressive breakthrough season. His dynamic skillset – with significant room to improve, granted – can translate to a higher level. Mobile, press-beating midfielders are a sought-after commodity in modern football, and the progression he made as his first senior season developed was remarkable. With coaching and experience in a stable environment, he has the potential to play for one of the better teams in one of Europe’s elite-level leagues. I believe Lokonga would represent good value for clubs who are adept at player development. Moreover, whoever helps him fulfill his potential would make a significant profit.

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