Arsenal are a side who boast a fantastic record of developing their most exciting youth prospects into first-team regulars, with the likes of Serge Gnabry, Hector Bellerin, Alex Iwobi, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka and Charlie Patino – to name but a few – all having graduated from the academy in recent years.
However, there is one prominent youth graduate of Arsenal’s who – prior to this season – has yet to live up to the early hype surrounding his potential in the professional game, in the shape of 21-year-old centre-forward Folarin Balogun.
Indeed, after scoring 38 goals and registering eight assists over 41 appearances for Arsenal’s U18s, as well as bagging 37 goals and providing 10 assists over 62 fixtures for the U21s, Balogun was tipped to become the next big thing out of London Colney – with Martin Keown going as far as to compare the youngster to both Ian Wright and Andy Cole back in December 2020.
Speaking to BT Sport after the striker bagged his first senior goal in a 3-0 Europa League victory over Molde FK, the former Arsenal centre-back said:
“I’m looking at him thinking, ‘remember the name’ tonight, really, because of the way he linked up, some great turns. You try and compare – is it Andy Cole or is it Ian Wright? There’s that sort of movement about him.
“I know they’re big name players and if he can live up to that he’s going to have some career. But I just like the way he’s always looking on the shoulder, his movement, creating space. I was really impressed.
“The way he scores the goal, the way he comes onto it, he’s pointing, give me it. He steps onto it, this is me, this is my moment, I belong here. I like that. He’s had to wait for his opportunity, he’s 19 years of age and already showing good signs.”
Despite bursting onto the senior scene – scoring a further goal and providing an assist in a 4-2 victory over Dundalk FC the same season – first-team opportunities remained limited for Balogun over the remainder of Arsenal’s 2020/21 campaign, as well as the first half of last season – before the England U21 international was sent on loan to Middlesbrough in January.
At Boro, the £7m-rated talent showed flashes of brilliance over 18 Championship appearances – only nine of which came as starts – scoring three goals, registering three assists and creating two big chances for his teammates, as well as taking an average of 1.4 shots – 0.8 of which hit the target – making 0.5 key passes and completing 0.5 dribbles per game.
However, this form was clearly not enough to convince Arteta that the 21-year-old was ready for a regular spot in his senior squad this season, with the Spaniard once again sending the youngster out on loan – this time to French side Stade de Reims.
And, while the season is still young, it has been in France where the £43k-per-week sensation has started to finally show his true potential, having already scored five goals, provided one assist and created three big chances over his eight Ligue 1 appearances, with these returns seeing the striker average an extremely impressive SofaScore match rating of 7.06.
As such, should the player who Gunnerblog dubbed a “goalscoring sensation” be able to continue this level of form over the remainder of the campaign, the youngster could well leave Arteta no choice but to consider him a first-teamer at The Emirates next season – and, who knows, perhaps Balogun could even go on to fulfil Keown’s Ian Wright prophecy further down the line.