Thursday, March 23, 2023

Balogun’s goalscoring opens doors for him and Arsenal

Good morning.

Let’s start this morning’s blog in France where Folarin Balogun scored a hat-trick last night for Reims, propelling him to the top of the Ligue 1 scoring charts. You can see the goals over on Arseblog News.

It’s been a good week for him. On Sunday he scored a late equaliser at PSG, the kind of goal everyone can get behind simply because of who it was against, and last night with his side 2-0 down he sparked a fantastic comeback. Spare a thought for former Arsenal keeper Vito Mannone who was in goal for Lorient, but it’s all about the 21 year old striker who dispatched a penalty, a right footed volley and a super-sweet left footed volley to bag his first hat-trick in senior football.

It put him on 14 goals for the season, one more than Kylian Mbappe, and two ahead of a clutch of players that includes Neymar (who must be due to take his time off for his annual party seasoon soon), and former Gunner Alexandre Lacazette. When you take into account that Reims have scored 26 goals in the league this season, Balogun’s contribution looks even more impressive.

This loan is working out big time, for the player and for Arsenal. He was at a point where he had to play regularly to develop; the club needed to see what he could do in men’s football, playing against grown-ups every week, and this is the answer. I think what makes this even more promising is that he’s at a club that has been ensconced in mid-table for a couple of years now. They finished 6th in 2019-20, but since then they’ve ended up 14th and 12th in the league.

If Balogun had gone on loan to a bigger club, perhaps his playing time might have been impacted, but the challenge then is to have end product at a club where you play more often but for whom chance creation is a bit more limited. I’ve lost count of the number of very highly rated Academy strikers who have gone out loan in similar circumstances, but who haven’t been able to score with the kind of frequency that gives the club something to really think about. In those circumstances, it’s ‘Well, let’s see what we can get’.

Now, as we contemplate a future with Champions League football next season, and with our centre-forward situation still feeling a little light, Arsenal look like they’ll have a real decision to make come the summer. Balogun signed a new contract before he went on this loan, so there’s protection in that sense. Playing in the Champions League requires a deeper, higher level squad because you don’t rotate for that competition the way you do for the Europa League. When Mikel Arteta spoke about wanting his players to be to able to go out and perform every three days, this is exactly what he had in mind.

At this point, there’s a very good case to be made that he could give us greater depth at centre-forward. Another one to make the grade from Hale End, joining Eddie Nketiah, Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka as a first team player. Scoring in Ligue 1 doesn’t guarantee Premier League success, but scoring for a side like Reims and taking on the responsibility up front augurs very well. When you think about what you might need to spend on a young striker of commensurate quality to augment the squad, it would leave a lot of money free to bolster other areas of the team.

On the other hand, and I don’t want to piss on anyone’s chips here, this is the kind of loan the club could turn into pure profit. In January there were whispers of interest from both Milan clubs, but you can be sure that his goalscoring will have attracted the attention of plenty of clubs in England and around Europe. It means that the kind offers you receive will give you something to think about. Clubs won’t be bidding for a player with potential, they’ll be bidding for a player who has shown he can do it one of Europe’s top five leagues. I’m not saying we should sell, by the way, but his performances this season open up doors for him, and potential revenue for Arsenal. That’s just the reality of it but the romantic idea of him coming back and making it here is the ideal, no question.

Elsewhere in Ligue 1, Nuno Tavares is having a very good season for Marseille. He never felt like the right fit as a left-back for this team, but he’s thriving in a system which gives him less defensive responsibility. I don’t believe he’ll be brought back to become a square peg in a round hole again, but playing well this season should mean Arsenal – at the very least – break even on a player they bought for £7m. You’d like to think that we could make some profit, but we have still to see the kind of improvements in how we sell to match most of our recent recruitment. On that basis, it will be an important summer for Edu.

I also saw some quotes from Albert Sambi Lokonga after his move to Palace, where he spoke about how important it was to have the confidence of Patrick Vieira. I think those were quite pointed. Not in a bad way, but you don’t leave a club like Arsenal right now – flying high at the top of the Premier League – if you’ve got the trust of the manager. I think that’s the main reason he’s gone. If he plays well and keeps his value in the market, that would be an excellent by-product of this loan, but I don’t think we loaned him for that reason, if that makes sense.

I hope he does well there, and it’s quite interesting to think about him in the context of our pursuit of Moises Caicedo. I saw a lot of people ask ‘Why don’t Arsenal make signings like Brighton etc?’, but both Lokonga and Tavares were attempts at that kind of signing: a young player with potential who could grow into the first team. The difficulty they have is that they are almost always second choice at a club like Arsenal whereas at other clubs, they get to play more regularly. Caicedo, let’s not forget, was bought by Brighton and immediately loaned out.

It’s a bit mad to think that the Ecuadorian has just one more Premier League appearance to his name than Lokonga, but this season his 1608 minutes dwarf the Belgian’s 195. Which isn’t to say that Sambi will be the next Caicedo or anything like it, but playing time is so important, and with any luck he gets plenty at Palace and once again Arsenal can benefit from that when the summer comes around.

Right, that’s your lot for this morning. Over on Patreon we have an episode of Statements for you, in which I shoot the breeze with Paul from the Arsenal Vision Podcast. Check that out here.

Back tomorrow with more, including a brand new Arsecast. Until then.

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