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 striker’s family emigrated to England when he was two years old, ultimately joining the Gunners’ academy at the age of 8. For over a decade, he developed while studying Arsenal forwards like Robin van Persie, Olivier Giroud and Pierre -Emerick Aubameyang.

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

And while Arsenal has yet to recall him as a replacement for the injured Gabriel Jesus, his torrid form has opened a lucrative potential transfer market for teams in need of a goalscorer.

What has made Balogun so successful in France, and how might he fit in to a US national team program in desperate need of a striker (should he choose the US)? Let’s dive in.


Player profile

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

The 2020-21 campaign provided his career with a breakthrough of sorts: Balogun opened his Arsenal scoring account during the Europa League group stage before securing a winter loan to Middlesbrough for more regular match action. Playing under Chris Wilder at Boro, Balogun bagged three goals while adding three assists in 18 Championship matches.

Upon his return, Arsenal thought that a year with Stade de Reims could speed up his developmental curve in Ligue 1 as it had for William Saliba on the other end of the pitch.

As it turns out, it’s been a dream move for all parties. Speaking with The Athletic last month, Balogun said that one-time Arsenal teammates Alexander Lacazette and Nicolas Pépé each suggested he try his hand at the French first division for more frequent involvement in a physical league.

“(Pepé) just said to stay positive, keep working hard and then he said to maybe think about a loan to 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 of getting 10 goals in the league and said, ‘If you do that, you’ve made progress.’”

As it turns out, Pépé’s “challenge” has hardly seemed a steep one. The striker notched his 10th goal of the Ligue 1 campaign with a brace against Rennes in Reims’ return to action following 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 ensuing match on January 2 with a reported hamstring issuewith Reims finishing 1-1 in an away day at Lille.

So, what changed?

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

Stat 2021-22* 2022-23**

Shots/90 (% on target)

2.2 (54.2%)

3.11 (46.5%)

xG/90 (npxG/90)

0.32

0.64

Goals/90

0.27

0.72

Touches in pen area/90

3.85

4.34

Offsides/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 placing them on frame. He also finished his chances at close to his expected rate, albeit with fairly meager service. It all pales in comparison to what he managed through the first half of the Ligue 1 campaign. Even removing his 3-for-3 record from the penalty spot, Balogun has managed 0.48 non-penalty expected goals per 90 when factoring for extra time.

He’s also been given more license to play a progressive role, logging an additional touch in the box per two games, being caught offside at a similar clip — showing a greater license to break behind the line, which isn’t a bad thing — and adding nearly a full additional progressive run per game. Those aren’t just significant improvements on his Championship output, either. It’s the type of profile which turns a striker from a rank-and-file loan army mainstay into a coveted young striker.

Here are Balogun’s percentile figures in the following table compared to positional peers in Men’s “Big 5” leagues, Champions League and Europa League over the last 365 days. Balogun has played 1160 qualified minutes in that timeframe.

Stat # per 90 minutes Percentile

Non-penalty goals

0.54

86

npxG

0.52

87

Shots total

3.1

78

npxG+expected assists

0.63

78

Shot-creating actions

2.25

39

Progressive passes

1.63

70

Progressive passes received

8.53

95

Dribbles completed

1.09

71

Data via fbref dot com

If there’s an area for improvement, it would be in his aerial game. Listed at 5-foot-10 (1.55 meters), Balogun hasn’t been adept at getting on the end of headers with Reims whether the balls float in 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.

Nevertheless, he’s fared well when he takes opponents on with the ball at his feet while also factoring into Reims’ front-line press. While we like to see an all-rounder up top, the number of true target forwards is dwindling with each passing year.

Balogun seems to project nicely to a more modern archetype — even when factoring for the difference in quality between Ligue 1 and the Premier League, as smarterscout’s data reflects on his pizza chart.


International future

Having represented England and the US at youth ranks and holding Nigerian eligibility, Balogun said Ligue 1’s website in November that he would make a decision about who he’ll 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’s the role of the media to ask these kinds of questions and I accept it. I’m going to 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 favorably about his US experience in the same interview.

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

While his family deliberates his options in private, the rest of us in the public arena can bear the brunt of analyzing his options. England’s striker stable ahead of the 2026 World Cup is headlined well, as Harry Kane will be 32 and Marcus Rashford just 28. There isn’t a clear next-in-line among the younger options beyond Balogun (who’s currently 21), as Aston Villa’s Cameron Archer, Leeds’ Joe Gelhardt, and Tottenham’s Dane Scarlett have yet to establish themselves at the club level.

Nigeria arguably has the deepest pool 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 US, no position has been a weaker spot over the past five years than striker. Throughout the Gregg Berhalter era, the team has opted to play its strikers in a more withdrawn role, asking them to play in build-up phases and create chances for their wingers as well as themselves.

While Jesús Ferreira was top option throughout the 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 for scoring chances of his own before missing the knockout defeat due to injury. Haji Wright came as more of a target option and pure scorer, but struggled to impress in the tournament after a fine debut against Wales.

All three represented a different approach to the position; all three struggled. In Balogun, the program would find its white whale: someone who could be a well-rounded striker and an upgrade over the current options.

Balogun vs. US’s 2022 World Cup strikers, 2022-23*

Balogun vs. US’s 2022 World Cup strike

Balogun Ferreira Sargent Wright

Shots/90 (% on target)

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

Touches in pen area/90

4.34

3.48

4.15

3.65

Forward passes/90 (% accurate)

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%)

Aerial duels (% 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 save for Ferreira, which uses the full 2022 MLS season

Balogun has not only fired off more shots per 90, but he’s done so at a respectable level 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 clip factoring for three converted penalty kicks.

The rest of the data helps show how he’s played for Reims, even if you don’t watch Ligue 1. The forward passing figures help illustrate the difference between Ferreira — a deep-lying forward if ever there was one — and Wright, more of a classic line-leading target forward. On that spectrum, Balogun is almost identical to Sargent, as is reinforced by the number of dribbles he attempts. Unlike the Norwich forward, however, Balogun has yet to showcase much ability in the air while factoring less in frontline defending.

Nevertheless, based on numbers alone Balogun would represent a better goalscoring threat than the current stable of US men’s strikers without sacrificing many of the factors which helped Sargent (and, in qualifying, Ricardo Pepi) become ideal options between Pulisic, Weah and the rest of the wing options.

While January may not see Balogun change clubs, his loan spell in France has indeed brought his game to another level. Whether he joins Musah and Tillman in leading the US into the 2026 World Cup or becomes one of the program’s great near-misses like Neven Subotić or Giuseppe Rossi remains to be seen.

However he leans, it’s clear that he’s finally gotten his senior career 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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