How Arsenal loanee Folarin Balogun would fit with USMNT after breakout season

For 13 years, Arsenal’s Folarin Balogun was in the public eye. The New York City-born forward’s family immigrated to England when he was two, joining the Gunners’ academy at the age of eight. For more than a decade, he developed by studying Arsenal strikers such as Robin van Persie, Olivier Giroud and Pierre. -Emerick Aubameyang.

This season has been his breakthrough, as he scored 10 goals while on loan at French Ligue 1 side Reims during the first half of the season. That’s good enough to be the club’s top goalscorer and open up more discussion about where his international future might lie, as Balogun is eligible to represent England, the United States and Nigeria.

And while Arsenal have yet to sign him as a replacement for the injured Gabriel Jesus, his fiery form has opened up a potentially lucrative transfer market for teams in need of a goalscorer.

What has made Balogu so successful in France, and how might he fit into a U.S. national team program in desperate need of a forward (should he pick the U.S.)? Let’s dive in.


Player profile

At the end of the 2019–20 season, the then 19-year-old Balogun had yet to register a single club appearance for Arsenal, although he had represented England and the United States in their national youth teams, notably (respectively) in UEFA European Under-17 Championship 2018 and the Václav Ježek (U-18) Youth Tournament.

The 2020-21 campaign gave his career a breakthrough of sorts: Balogun opened his Arsenal goalscoring account during the Europa League group stage before securing a winter loan move to Middlesbrough for a more regular game. Playing under Chris Wilder at Boro, Balogun scored three goals and added three assists in 18 Championship games.

Upon his return, Arsenal felt that a year with Stade de Reims could accelerate his development curve in Ligue 1, as it was for William Saliba at the other end of the pitch.

As it turns out, it has been a dream move for all parties. Talking to Athletics Last month, Balogun said former Arsenal teammates Alexander Lacazette and Nicolas Pépé suggested he try his hand at the French first division for more frequent involvement in a physical league.

“(Pepé) just said stay positive, keep working hard and then he said maybe think about a loan in the French league, ‘I’m sure you can do well in this league if you apply yourself,'” Balogun said in. December, “He set me a challenge to score 10 goals in the league and said, ‘If you do that, you’ve made progress.’

As it turns out, Pépe’s “challenge” didn’t seem too big. The striker scored his 10th Ligue 1 goal of the season with a brace against Rennes in Reims’ return to action after the World Cup. He did so despite managing just 19 touches, his fewest in a league start since late August. He missed the team’s next game on January 2 with a reported hamstring problemwith Reims drawing 1-1 on an away day in Lille.

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So what changed?

In all likelihood, Balogun may not have been set up for success in his previous loan spell. Being asked to lead the line for a team in a promotion battle is no small task for a player’s first extended involvement. In an established Ligue 1 team, Balogun has been able to express himself more.

Statistics 2021-22* 2022-23**

Shooting/90 (% on mark)

2.2 (54.2%)

3.11 (46.5%)

xG/90 (npxG/90)

0.32

0.64

Goals/90

0.27

0.72

Touch in the pen area/90

3.85

4.34

Offside/90

0.37

0.87

Progressive runs/90

0.46

1.37

* With Middlesbrough (EFL Championship)
** With Reims (Ligue 1)
Data via Wyscout

While shots were hard to come by with Boro, he was consistent in putting them on frame. He also finished his chances close to his expected rate, albeit with a rather poor serve. It all pales in comparison to what he has achieved in the first half of the Ligue 1 campaign. Even removing his 3-3 record from the penalty spot, Balogun has managed 0.48 expected penalty goals per 90 when factoring in extra time.

He has also been given more license to play a progressive role, scoring an extra touch in the box over two games, being caught offside at a similar clip – showing greater license to break back line, which isn’t a bad thing – and adding almost a full extra progressive run per game. These aren’t just significant improvements in his championship production. It’s the kind of profile that turns a striker from a mainstay of the loan army into a coveted young striker.

Here are Balogun’s percentage figures in the table below compared to positional peers in the Men’s Big 5, Champions League and Europa League over the past 365 days. Balogun has played 1,160 eligible minutes in that span.

Statistics # for 90 minutes percent

Goals without penalty

0.54

86

npxG

0.52

87

Total shots

3.1

78

npxG + expected assists

0.63

78

Creative shooting actions

2.25

39

Progressive passes

1.63

70

Progressive passes taken

8.53

95

The dribbles ended

1.09

71

Data via fbref dot com

If there is one area for improvement, it would be in his aerial game. Listed at 5-foot-10 (1.55 meters), Balogun hasn’t been able to get on the end of headers with Reims, whether the balls fly from set pieces or the run of play. Smarterscout data rates players from zero to 99 depending on how often they perform a certain action. It also tells us how effective they are at it compared to others in their position.

However, he did well when taking opponents with the ball at his feet, while also taking part in Reims’ front line press. While we love to see an all-round ball, the number of true goal-strikers is dwindling with each passing year.

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Balogun seems to project nicely into a more modern archetype – even when considering the difference in quality between Ligue 1 and the Premier League, as smarterscout’s data on his pie chart.


The international future

Representing England and the USA in the youth ranks and holding Nigerian law, Balogun said Ligue 1 website in November that he would make a decision on who he would represent soon. While recent years have seen high-pressure decisions made by the likes of Sergiño Dest, Yunus Musah, Gaga Slonina and Malik Tillman among others, Balogun is unfazed by the speculation.

“I don’t have a problem with it,” Balogun said. “It is the role of the media to ask these kinds of questions and I accept that. I will make a decision soon and that decision will not depend on what the media or people think, but on what is best for me. We will talk about it quietly with my family.”

He spoke positively about his experience in the US in the same interview.

“Yes, when I was 17, the US federation offered me a friendly tour to the Czech Republic in the summer,” Balogun said. “I had played for England at the U-17 Euro a few months ago, but after talking to my family I decided to go. And we won the tournament! It was a good experience because I saw a different way of playing and other methods. I’m still in touch with some of the people I met there.”

While his family considers his options in private, the rest of us in the public arena can bear the burden of analyzing his options. England’s stable forward ahead of the 2026 World Cup is a good starter, as Harry Kane will be 32 and Marcus Rashford just 28. There is no clear cut in the ranks of younger options beyond Balogun (who is currently 21 ), the likes of Villa’s Aston Cameron Archer, Leeds’ Joe Gelhardt and Tottenham’s Dane Scarlett are yet to settle at club level.

Nigeria have arguably the deepest squad of the three nations, with Napoli ace Victor Osimhen leading a group that includes Ademola Lookman, Samuel Chukwueze, Kelechi Iheanacho and Terem Moffi, who also has 10 goals in the ongoing Ligue 1 season with Lorient.

But for the U.S., no position has been a weaker point over the past five years than forward. Throughout the Gregg Berhalter era, the team has opted to play its forwards in a more withdrawn role, asking them to play in build-up phases and create chances for their wings as well as themselves.

While Jesús Ferreira was the main option all summer in a deep-lying role, he struggled in his only World Cup involvement, a start against the Netherlands in the round of 16. Josh Sargent looked much better alongside Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah but failed to factor into his scoring chances before missing the knockout defeat through injury. Haji Wright came in more as a pure goal-scoring option, but struggled to impress in the tournament after an excellent debut against Wales.

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All three represented a different approach to the position; the three fought. In Balogun, the program would find its white whale: someone who could be a bona fide power forward and an upgrade over the current options.

Balogun vs USA 2022 World Cup Strikers 2022-23*

Balogun against the USA attack at the 2022 World Cup

Balogun Ferreira Sargent Wright

Shooting/90 (% on mark)

3.11 (46.5%)

2.58 (49.4%)

2.08 (56.3%)

2.37 (35.9%)

xG/90

0.64

0.4

0.31

0.42

Touch in the pen area/90

4.34

3.48

4.15

3.65

Forward passes/90 (% correct)

3.4 (57.4%)

6.27 (53.7%)

3.37 (61.5%)

1.76 (69%)

Dribbles/90 (% success)

2.96 (53.7%)

1.48 (49%)

3.16 (52.1%)

4.56 (52%)

Air Duel (% won)

2.53 (20%)

1.04 (19.4%)

5.58 (38.8%)

5.6 (41.3%)

Recoveries in opp ½

2.46

2.87

4.11

1.89

Data via Wyscout
* All data for 2022-23 league action, except for Ferreira, who uses the full 2022 MLS season

Not only has Balogun fired more shots per 90, but he has done so at a respectable rate of putting shots on frame. Even his non-penalty xG of 0.52 would be tops in this class, to say nothing of his 0.64 factoring on three converted free kicks.

The rest of the stats help to show how he’s played for Reims, even if you don’t watch Ligue 1. Forward pass numbers help illustrate the difference between Ferreira – a deep-lying forward if ever there was one – and Wright, more very much a classic main target up front. On that spectrum, Balogun is nearly identical to Sargent, as reinforced by the number of dribbles he attempts. Unlike the Norwich striker, however, Balogun has yet to show much ability in the air, while factoring less into the frontline defence.

However, based on numbers alone, Balogun would represent a better goalscoring threat than the current stable of American forwards, without sacrificing many of the factors that helped Sargent (and, in qualifying, Ricardo Pepi) become ideal options between Pulisic, Weah and the rest. wing options.

While January may not see Balogu change clubs, his loan spell in France has really taken his game to another level. Whether he joins Musah and Tillman in leading the USA to the 2026 World Cup or becomes one of the program’s biggest blunders like Neven Subotić or Giuseppe Rossi remains to be seen.

However he tends, it’s clear he’s finally got his career high on track – whether he’s in Mikel Arteta’s plans for Arsenal moving forward or not.

(Photo: Gareth Copley/Getty Images)



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