Albert Sambi Lokonga returns to Anfield with point to prove – and will be central to Arsenal’s hopes

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A return to Anfield will not trigger happy memories for Mikel Arteta and his Arsenal players, who were thrashed 4-0 there in November, and least of all for Albert Sambi Lokonga. It was against Liverpool that Lokonga suffered the most gruelling night of his Arsenal career, when he was blown away by the intensity of the home side’s pressing and then unceremoniously hooked by his manager.

Ahead of Thursday’s League Cup semi-final, as he takes a deep breath and braces his body for more, the Belgian will no doubt feel he has a point to prove. With Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny at the Africa Cup of Nations, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles now on loan at Roma, Lokonga will be the only senior central midfielder at Arteta’s disposal if Granit Xhaka is not deemed fit enough to play following a recent period of Covid-enforced isolation.

Such a scenario is hardly ideal for a player like Lokonga, 22 years old and still adapting to the demands of English football. The lack of senior figures alongside him certainly did not help on Sunday, when he was partnered by 18-year-old Charlie Patino and was unable to take control of the game against Nottingham Forest.

When Arsenal and Arteta were planning out Lokonga’s development at the club, following his £15 million move from Anderlecht in the summer, this will not have been how they envisaged it. Lokonga was supposed to be guided slowly into the Arsenal team, eased in alongside players like Partey and Xhaka. Instead, on Sunday (and potentially again on Thursday night) it was Lokonga who was tasked with guiding Patino.

The fear for Arteta, and no doubt for Lokonga himself, is that there might be more uncomfortable matches ahead, starting at Anfield on Thursday. But there is a reason why Arsenal invested so heavily in this young midfielder, and there have been plenty of signs this season to suggest he could soon become a crucial cog in the team.

Look beyond the Liverpool and Forest defeats, and Lokonga has already produced an impressive body of work in an Arsenal shirt. He has started nine Premier League matches this season, performing admirably in most of those. His passing range has been helpful against deep-lying opposition, he is defensively aware and he has never shied away from taking the ball under pressure.

“Since he has joined he has done much more than anybody expected,” said Arteta. “He has played many more games at a really high level than anybody expected, and now he has a great opportunity to keep playing.”

Behind the scenes, Lokonga — known at Arsenal as Sambi — is a popular figure. Described by those who know him as a “natural leader”, he has shown maturity beyond his years ever since his breakthrough at Anderlecht, the team he joined when he was 10 and captained for much of last season. Vincent Kompany, his former manager in Belgium, provided Arteta with a glowing endorsement of Lokonga’s talent and has said that the midfielder could be the “new Yaya Toure”.

When Arsenal lost at Brentford on the opening night of the campaign, it was Lokonga who stepped forward to conduct the live post-match interview with the television reporters. It is understood that he has regularly volunteered for such duties, showing a willingness to take responsibility which has largely been missing from the Arsenal dressing room in recent seasons.

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