Analysing the Arsenal loanee that's flourishing in France's Ligue 1
Who is Folarin Balogun?
Folarin Balogun is making a name for himself this season in France at Stade de Reims. The 21-year-old currently leads the way in the Golden Boot race, with 14 goals already to his name, surpassing Kylian Mbappé with a recent hat-trick.
After dwindling in the shadows of the Arsenal senior squad for some time, and a difficult six-month spell at Middlesbrough last year, the England U-21 international is putting together a breakout season in Ligue 1.
His uptick in form coincides with the mid-season appointment of Anglo-Belgian 30-year-old coach Will Still, and their season only seems to be getting stronger.
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Folarin Balogun's style of play
The out-and-out number nine has been a fixture of Reims’ starting elevens this season – for good reason when you assess Balogun’s threat to the opposition’s last line. While pretty adept and willing to move laterally to rotate and offer between the lines, the Arsenal academy product is always at his best when hunting the space in behind defences.
Will Still has, so far, done a great job of emphasising the need to make Balogun a more persistent outlet. The striker has the turn of pace and vision to see when a run is on; that means the more time he spends focused on which channel or shoulder he should peel onto the blind side of, the more chance he has of helping the team.
It’s of little surprise that 61.9% of his touches under the up-and-coming coach have occurred in the opposition’s third, which is a significant increase from the 45.8% he registered in early appearances under Óscar García.
Specialising his role has removed a lot of the visible indecision in his drifting movements to and from the ball – since he still lacks some dynamism in terms of double movements and the like – that were previously leading to regular miscommunications and break downs of attacking sequences.
As a receiver, Balogun is happy to show for the ball and clearly boasts the instincts of a traditional centre-forward, one who wants to be able to play with his back to goal and to bring others into play. His execution of this is, however, unreliable.
He could benefit from withstanding pressure with a more side-on stance so that he would then be able to roll opponents more easily with the ball, but this is a lesser issue compared to how unreliable his touches tend to be. No matter how he adjusts his body to take on the weight of a pass, Balogun is rarely able to kill any ball dead, which can immediately eliminate the chance to link into runners. His head can be quick to drop too, meaning he will sometimes miss good lay-off opportunities that occur right under his nose.
What also hurts his chances of turning an opponent and driving with the ball is a mix of lacking confidence and some technical limitations. When Balogun takes a ball on the turn, he doesn’t coordinate his body well enough to shift in sync, so he struggles to sell defenders and take it in his stride.
This also limits his prospects even when he turns successfully because it stunts his run as a whole. Without the confidence to persevere and attack the space under even reasonable pressure, it often results in him halting the movement altogether and laying the ball off.
Beyond that, there isn’t much to say about Balogun’s dribbling. He can evade pressure quite nicely but anything beyond that stretches further than he can manage, which is why both his touch and ball-carrying restrict many goalmouth opportunities.
In spite of his soaring goal tally, Balogun’s quality of first touch too often takes him away from goal in a way that restricts his angles. Equally, the stuntedness to the way he adjusts the ball initially – so key with little time or space in and around the box – consistently hinders his ability to centre over the ball and keep both angles open.
What contradicts some of these technical issues are his impressive data points. Balogun takes 3.5 shots per 90 in the league, ranking him highly among peers. But those figures are pumped up by poor shot selection. With his head rarely lifting up from the ground in these situations, he never hesitates to pull the trigger once getting into a shooting situation.
Whilst Balogun often does well to keep his shots down and on target, he doesn’t have the superhuman ability to find the corners from any which angle. Poaching, where he has less time to think, is his strongest skill right now. It’s something that Still has clearly worked on, also, as his previously tentative movements towards goal and between defenders for crosses are quickly becoming a more pronounced and positive part of his prowess up front.
On the other side of chance-creating actions is his passing, which is unfortunately just as untidy across the board as his touch game is. Balogun undeniably wants to be a link player but his weight of pass, no matter how simple the ball is, isn’t remotely consistent enough.
Inevitably, this extends into his final ball, which is let down by this far too often, even when he’s done the hard work of spotting the best choice and releasing it to them quickly.
Folarin @balogun wouldn’t be denied 😤— Ligue 1 English (@Ligue1_ENG) January 29, 2023
𝑳𝒂𝒔𝒕-𝒎𝒊𝒏𝒖𝒕𝒆 𝒔𝒕𝒖𝒏𝒏𝒆𝒓 𝒊𝒏 𝑷𝒂𝒓𝒊𝒔 #PSGSDR pic.twitter.com/xonFxzkimn
On the defensive side, Balogun has matured his pressing game somewhat this season. Whilst middling in most other aspects of his defensive profile, Still has stripped away quite a few of the traps he was stumbling into regularly under García.
He’s rarely caught over-instigating trigger presses or over-committing, as he was often being caught in no-man’s land previously. When he does go to press now, he spreads his stance well to maximise his cover shadow and showcases excellent intensity throughout. Such focus helps to overcome what glaring awareness issues he was succumbing to, particularly against the best passing teams.
There’s still plenty of room for improvement, though – especially when it comes to being an active contributor in the counter-press and in being a more effective challenger of the ball.
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Forecasting Folarin Balogun's future
Balogun is an exciting player to have leading your line because he is such a livewire up top. He creates a bit of chaos, jabbing a thron into the side of pretty much every team he plays.
His problems are less so an ability to generate chances and more so the ability to convert them into higher quality ones and act more clinically. At a higher level, where chances may be in shorter supply, it’s hard to trust that his technical level and decision-making will stand up to the test and provide his team with crucial moments of quality when they’re on the back foot.
Whether strides in this area of this game can realistically rise to the level that will see the big teams roll out the red carpet for him is tricky to foresee happening, though. For the time being, staying put in a fruitful environment such Stade Reims, or similar, is what seems like the best choice for Balogun at this stage of his career.
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What are Folarin Balogun's strengths?
Folarin Balogun is an astute presser and excellent goal threat, whose constant, fast, intelligent run-making through from the centre helps to generate lots of chances for his team.
What are Folarin Balogun's weaknesses?
Folarin Balogun is pegged back by inconsistencies to his weight of touch and pass, his subsequent inability to carry the ball, his shot selection, and his lacking contributions defensively in transitions.
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