The anticipation to sense the defense switch to attack at a moment’s notice, the timing of the run in behind, the use of his body to hold off the defender and finally the early finish with zero back lift to beat the keeper.
If you’d been paying attention to Folarin Balogun’s time in France last season, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d seen him score this goal before for Reims. In fact, this was his first international goal for the USMNT – and a crucial one too, as it helped avoid Canada to retain the CONCACAF Nations League Crown.
Balogun has proven that he can score regularly for a mid-table side in Ligue 1. Now he is off the mark at international level, having chosen the country of his birth over England, where he has spent the vast majority of his life.
That decision was logical given the pack of forwards Gareth Southgate has at his disposal and the relative lack of firepower in the USMNT squad ahead of a home World Cup in three years.
The striker turns 22 next week and is approaching another crucial crossroads this summer – this time at club level. But when it comes to doubting his true potential, he’s been here before.
He joined Arsenal in 2012 as a 12-year-old and when he decided on a scholarship, Balogun was a winger who felt he was among the weakest players in his age group. “I told myself I only had two options: go hard or go home,” he said. “And as a 16-year-old I had my best season ever. I was top scorer in the team – I must have scored 40 goals. Even I was shocked by the transformation.”
Despite scoring 21 goals in 37 games during his loan spell in France last season – a previous spell at Middlesbrough had been far less productive – the question of whether he can do it at the sharp end of the Premier League, or even allow the chance to demonstrate his quality to remain up in the air.
Gabriel Jesus is first choice at the Emirates Stadium, while fellow Hale End graduate Eddie Nketiah had an impressive spell during the Brazilian’s absence last season, proving he has adapted his game to be the all-rounder Mikel Arteta wants.
Leandro Trossard played a false-nine role at times and the imminent arrival of Kai Havertz from Chelsea will add even more competition in that area.
Havertz to Arsenal: Reasons Arteta expects to switch from Chelsea No.9 to ‘Left 8’
Arsenal’s decline in the run-up last season was primarily the erosion of their defensive solidity, which collapsed following an injury to William Saliba, rather than a lack of attacking options, but there is still a sense that the squad lacks a genuine No.9 to bury a decisive chance. Perhaps Gabriel Martinelli will naturally develop into the central player given his rapid development and security in front of goal. But so far he is primarily a left winger.
So do Arsenal need a 30-goal clean sheet No.9 in their ranks? Is Balogun that man? And even if he is, does that necessarily mean he has a future at the Emirates?
Balogun does not yet know the answer to these questions, but he knows he is wanted and has already made it clear he has no interest in another loan next term. Or actually return to life as a team player. That leaves only two options: to play at Arsenal or to leave permanently.
So what would Arsenal, or a potential suitor, get with Balogun?
Balogun enjoyed an exceptional breakout season last round in Ligue 1, but that’s no guarantee that form and goals will automatically transfer to a better league and another team.
Reims is not Arsenal. They like to counter and hit opponents by attacking straight through the middle, which is where many of Balogun’s most impressive goals came from.
They averaged just 48.7 percent of possession — just ninth-highest in the league — and made the joint-fourth fewest passes/sequences. In fact, Will Still’s side played at the fourth highest direct speed.
“I saw that there were a lot of quick transitions, so as a striker I have to be very careful with my movements,” Balogun told the Ligue 1 website. “Also in the Premier League there are a lot of transitions, a lot of speed in the game, but here (in France) the transitions are perhaps even faster. A lot of teams are able to wait in a block and then go forward in two seconds to score a goal.”
Arteta is trying to grow his Arsenal into a team that regards the act of not having football as a crime against humanity.
However, reliable goalscorers are at a premium in football and it would be naive to turn your nose up at a player who has just scored 21 goals in a very new environment. Balogun initially set a target of 10 goals and ended up surpassing it by more than double that. If it was the test, he passed with flying colors.
There are no concerns about Balogun’s presence in the penalty box as 19 percent of his open-play touches took place in the box and he managed to fire 3.42 shots a game. Shot volume is important, but a greater indicator of future success is the placement and quality of chances a striker creates. Again, Balogun performs well in this regard with an average value of 0.18xG (expected goals) per shots sent from an average distance of just over 15 yards.
It’s the chance profile that should lead to respectable numbers, but while he was able to convert some simple chances by finding space through his movement and reading the game, he’s not yet at the conversion rate of an elite striker.
He scored 15 goals without penalties, but he underperformed his overall xG by six and recorded a major-chance conversion rate of 39.5 per cent – significantly below some of Ligue 1’s other leading scorers, such as Jonathan David and Alexandre Lacazette, who were both around one in two.
There is variation in his closing repertoire as there was one 68-46-13 split of shots with right foot, left foot and head, and a split of 8-5-2 in non-penalty goals. All six of his penalties were converted with his right foot.
However, he is happy to shoot from the left channel in the same manner as Thierry Henry’s trademark curling finish.
The way he worked on the edge of Auxerre’s penalty box…
…and opened his body…
… before sending it into the far corner spoke of a striker who is composed even with time to think.
He is able to move the ball and whip it in the same way, even if it is not completely out of his feet and he faces away from goal.
It’s one of Nketiah’s weaknesses and it led to several big chances being missed, despite his all-round game having clearly matured. Jesus is also not a striker likely to score over 20 goals every season.
By contrast, Balogun has shown signs that he is a man for the big occasion with five match-winning goals and a further 10 to open the scoring. It’s goals when the game is in the balance and the game is close.
Much is made of the difference in quality between Ligue 1 and the Premier League, but the fact that he scored against so many teams is also a pretty good indicator that he can adapt his game against different types of defence. He scored against champions Paris Saint-Germain, registered home and away against second-placed Lens and third-placed Marseille, and also registered a brace against fourth-placed Rennes and a goal against sixth-placed Monaco. He didn’t just fill his boots against the relegated teams.
What allows him to get into scoring positions so often is his movement. It is his greatest strength and it is promising that at a young age he understands his abilities so well.
“I know I’m quick and I’m able to hold off defenders, so the main thing for me is really the timing,” Balogun said. “If you start at the right time, no one can stop you.”
Reims learned to look for Balogun within seconds of winning the ball back as they knew he could hurt teams on the break. He possesses extremely intelligent movement and against Brest he was able to draw the defender in…
… and runs in behind.
His goal against Troyes in February showed those insightful skills again, but it also showed what a powerful runner he is.
He was able to get a run on the defender and push him out of the way…
… before he pokes home with his weaker foot.
He has mastered the art of running out to inside and ghosting in from the left channel to get on the end of through balls. It led to several big chances last season.
This one was against Lens…
And this one against Lille…
… to show how effective these arrows have been.
Doubts about his suitability for Arsenal stem primarily from the fact that he would not enjoy as much space with teams increasingly dropping deep against Arteta’s men.
He will have to operate in tighter areas where space is harder to get past, but his movement to get on the end of crosses is good and his combination play could be neat with his ability to lay off and spin particularly effective .
There are times when his passing and hold-up can look a little clumsy.
In his defence, he often had to deal with long balls played up to him with a defender close to his back as Reims tried to use him to get upfield. When he has his back to the goal and is under tight pressure, he could be content with securing the ball more often.
With two years left on his deal, Arsenal would demand a healthy fee for Balogun on the back of an impressive season, but they must be confident that sanctioning his sale would not prove to be a costly mistake.
Should he stay or should he go?
There are compelling reasons to believe the youngster could boast a profile that Arsenal currently lack if he could be persuaded to stay and work his way into the team. However, it may be difficult to convince a player who was productive as a regular in Ligue 1 last season to bide his time.
Balogun wants to be first-choice striker next season – but where will that be?
(Top photo: Robin Alam/ISI Photos/Getty Images)