The Balogun conundrum | How Arsenal could navigate Hale End’s shining star at Reims

Balogun’s rapid rise in Ligue 1 at Stade de Reims has exceeded even the loftiest expectations as the 21-year-old currently tops the goal charts during a phenomenal loan spell in France, but how that may or may not translate to Arsenal remains a growing talking point for the Premier League leaders

The delicate balance of squad building is often wrought with peril. Many clubs have gotten it wrong over the years; from stockpiling top talent and an inability to keep them all happy to banking on youth production to carry the day over the long haul, and everything in between. But those that can strike a happy marriage in a senior setup will inevitably go on to achieve on the pitch, and for the first time in quite a while, Arsenal is on the very precipice of finding the very balance necessary to push the club to heights not seen since the Invincibles.

One such part of that success under beloved manager Mikel Arteta and technical director Edu Gaspar has been a commitment to a youth-led revolution in north London after Arsenal has kept faith in the continued rapid development of Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, Martin Ødegaard, Eddie Nketiah, and William Saliba as the fulcrum in the youngest side in the Premier League with which the club is now leading the race to major honors in England.

In that same vein, the question of what is to come for Hale End graduate Folarin Balogun has been catapulted to the very front of the collective consciousness surrounding the Emirates after the 21-year-old New York City-born striker has shone brightly at former French giants Stade de Reims during a loan spell across the Channel in Ligue 1.

After bagging a hat-trick last night against FC Lorient, Balogun has usurped French star Kylian Mbappé for the top spot in the goal chart this season, while also putting himself in the top-five goalscorers across all of Europe’s top-five leagues.

Under young tactician Will Still, Balogun has performed similarly to that of former Reims academy breakout talent Hugo Ekitike, who now plies his trade for Paris Saint-Germain after a big money move in the summer on the back of his 10 league goals during the 2021-22 campaign. But Balo has taken to another level, and with his goals constituting 53% of Les rouges et blancs’ total goal return in the league, it is clear that he is capable of operating under the pressure that comes from leading the line every week in one of the continent’s top competitions.

But what will that mean for Arsenal, or more importantly, the player himself? Given the notion that, should Balogun look to return to London Colney in the summer and contend for a place in Arteta’s team, it no doubt provides the Spaniard with incredible depth in the forward line, but the additional - and valid - concern that the youngster may want far more minutes that he possibly would be afforded.

On paper, Arteta would be able to boast Gabriel Jesus, Eddie Nketiah, and Balogun as his options through the middle in the number 9 role, with Gabriel Martinelli, Leandro Trossard, Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka, Fábio Vieira, Reiss Nelson, and Marquinhos serve up the depth on either flank.

Naturally, there is no initial guidance pertaining to whether or not Arsenal will look to keep the likes of Nelson and Marquinhos on the books, with the former likely to be shifted in a summer sale, while the latter could perhaps work his way into the fold contingent to how his loan spell at Norwich pans out for the remainder of the current 2022-23 Championship season.

The reality remains, however, that even with Champions League football, it may be hard for the Gunners to keep all three central strikers happy with enough minutes given Arteta’s utilization of a one-striker system, to say nothing of the fact that Jesus could certainly be moved out wide to facilitate, that then offers other potential residual issues for other members of the squad. This does not even consider the fact that Trossard is capable of deputizing in the 9 role, which is one of the chief reasons why the club pulled the trigger on his January capture from Brighton.

Moreover, questions on whether or not Balogun would offer the same - or more - in Arteta’s system to force his way ahead of Nketiah, or Jesus (or both) certainly remain unanswered at the time, but a comparison of both via Squawka’s data matrix shows, at least on the surface, that the current senior duo is ahead of the 21-year-old in terms of overall contribution in all phases of play.

There is certainly contextualizing that is necessary here as well. For all of Reims’ credible success under Still as one of the hardest sides to beat in the French top flight this season, they are a far cry from what Arteta demands on the tactics board at Arsenal both at a macro and micro level across team instructions as well as individual tasking.

With that in mind, it is hard to gauge whether or not the data on Balogun would increase, decrease, or remain at a relative constant if he did get his chance in the English capital, but what we can deduce at the very least is that he puts chances away; though some of that comes down to the fact that Reims do not look to source goals from multiple players, and rather, focus play primary in the mold of looking to get Balogun on the end of service.

Removing the context, sometimes, you just have to accept that a player is talented and comes with a high ceiling, and it is your due diligence to do your best to make it work from a squad-building perspective. However, the other side of the coin is very much that big clubs often sell top young talent as you simply cannot always make room to keep everyone. There are both sides to the argument at hand here, and the fanbase was sure to have its say when it comes to what the future may bring for one of the most gifted players to immerge from Hale End in recent memory.

Fanbase forum

There is no telling which direction Arsenal may take when it comes to Balogun, but there is certainly no denying that the position the club finds itself in is a healthy one. An ability to integrate the striker into the senior setup is most assuredly a real possibility moving forward as early as the 2023-24 campaign, but other viable avenues cannot be discounted.

In a possible repeat of what Arsenal manufactured with William Saliba’s second loan spell in France at Olympique de Marseille, the manner in which the French international center-back rose to another level while at the Orange Velodrome benefitted the club in a way that now finds the youngster as a key piece of the XI under Arteta. However, with the Gunners expected to splash considerable financial resources in the summer in multiple pursuits for midfield reinforcements in the vein of Moisés Caicedo and Declan Rice opens up the door for a big-money sale to help Arsenal secure greater depth in quality.

Many will not want to see Balogun depart before really getting his chance at the Emirates, but Arsenal has certainly struggled to extract big fees for any of the talents that have come through the academy, with Alex Iwobi offering up the only real example of success on that front.

With that in mind, a Twitter poll and subsequent opinions surveyed across some sections of the fanbase tapped into the collective thinking surrounding what the future may hold for Balogun, and the findings were not all that surprising.

At the time of writing (with the poll still open to be voted on), over 80% of those who participated wanted Arsenal to keep Balogum in some capacity; either sending him out on a second loan à la Saliba’s trajectory or integrating the young striker into the squad on a full-time basis. I also receive some more in-depth thoughts from a number of Arsenal supporters to offer some contextualized insight and a myriad of talking points that are hard to ignore, beginning with friend and 101 colleague Ben Browning.

“It’s a really nice conundrum for the club to have in their hands because we’re talking about a guy that is still only 21 and is smashing it a major league on minimal service. But we aren’t talking about a Mudryk/Caicedo/Fernández type deal, where the player is a first-choice option and is a crown jewel of our side.

If Arsenal does want to sell, it will likely be at a lower fee than that. £60m or so perhaps to a fellow PL club, slightly less to a club around Europe depending on movement elsewhere. Of course, there is nothing stopping Arsenal from keeping the player. He’s still only 21 and under contract until 2025, but it would leave him, Nketiah, and Jesus all vying for minutes in Arsenal’s frontline.

There’s also the argument, as there was with Joe Willock, that his value only decreases by coming back to be an Arsenal squad player, and that the following summer, with 12 months left on his deal and out of the spotlight, he’d be worth significantly less. (see: Anthony Gordon)”

Jon from the popular 3Ø5Cast also weighed in; “I think it’s great that Balogun is doing so well. Arteta told him to ‘develop as a man’ before his loan and he’s clearly done that. The question now is, would he be willing to be a second or third choice? I think he has a good reason to push for more, and I don’t think we’re in the position to offer him that. Everyone fights for their spot here at Arsenal. Worse comes to worst, we get a good fee. Best comes to best, we have hungry young talent all trying to be starters. It’s a good problem to have.”

Additional context was provided by The Gooners Podcast co-hosts Mike Feinberg and Jared Carver.

“Balogun feels to me a bit like the final season of Willock. I think he’s an excellent player in impeccable form right now and that will attract teams who are in need of a frontman. If a team comes in for him for, say, £40m or above I think we cash in, take pure profit, and reinvest in squad depth. I see Balogun as a more valuable asset to sell than to assimilate back into our fold.”

“In a time where the market for young, yet-to-be-proven players has seemingly exploded, Arsenal is very fortunate to potentially be putting a 21-year-old, Ligue 1 Golden Boot winner up for sale this summer.”

How the club responds to the growing reality that it may have three front-line strikers remains to be seen, but if there is a problem that needs to be set right in the summer, it may as well be this one.

Andrew Thompson

US-based Football writer. German football guru with a wealth of experience in youth development and analysis. Data aficionado. Happily championing the notion that Americans have a knowledgeable voice in the beautiful game.

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