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Folarin Balogun: From Arsenal’s academy to outscoring Kylian Mbappe in Ligue 1 with Reims

“The 14 goals after 21 games, I’m not going to lie to you, no…” laughs Pol-Edouard Caillot, sporting director of Reims, when asked if he expected Folarin Balogun to be this good.

Balogun is on loan from Arsenal and the move is already proving to be a big success for all parties, especially for the man who joined the Gunners aged 10.

The 21-year-old once again put on a show against Lorient during Reims’ 4-2 win on Wednesday, scoring his first hat-trick as a professional.

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“He is incredible”, said Reims manager Will Still after the match. He is not the only one to be stunned.

“He has a real thirst for goals,” said former Arsenal Under-23 coach Kevin Betsy. “It was very difficult to get him to leave training when he was working on his finishing.

“His willingness to learn, to listen to advice, to ask questions to improve was remarkable.”

With 17 games to go, Balogun is the top goalscorer in Ligue 1 ahead of Kylian Mbappe (13). Five players, including Neymar and Alexandre Lacazette, are on 12 goals.

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Born in New York to Nigerian parents, he arrived in London with his family as a baby. He climbed through the academy ranks at Arsenal, distinguishing himself each time as a scoring machine: 75 goals in 103 games across the Under-18s and Under-23s.

His first senior appearance came in the Europa League against Dundalk in October 2020. He had a reputation of a player that was too strong for players his own age, but not quite good enough to worry senior opponents.

At that point in his career, Balogun’s future remained uncertain. In their Premier League season opener against Brentford in 2021, Arsenal were without Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah so Balogun was thrown into the deep end as a substitute.

Arsenal were beaten 2-0 on a memorable night for the newly-promoted Bees, before Balogun was also part of the team that lost to Chelsea later that month.

Florian Balogun a obținut tricoul lui Kylian Mbappe, după PSG – Reims 1-1

Image credit: Eurosport

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He returned to the Under-23 side and found his scoring boots again, with manager Betsy making him captain.

“When he came back, I thought it was really important for his progress,” said Betsy. “He has a great work ethic, application. He is introverted, very focused and determined. His communication on the pitch was improving as a captain.

“Taking on that responsibility was beneficial. For a talented youngster, it’s very easy to rest on your laurels, even if you don’t play a lot. He wanted to improve, to be sharp, ready for the first team at any time.”

Fast forward to January 2022, when Arsenal had no European football and Balogun seemed to have no way into the senior team.

He went on loan to Middlesbrough, playing 18 matches and making six goal contributions. It did “a lot of good” for the youngster, says Caillot, who was so impressed Reims snapped him up on loan during the summer.

“We felt he was a player with a superb mentality, who was not going to see himself as a superstar,” the Reims sporting director continued.

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“He integrated quickly. He is a perfectionist on a daily basis, programmed to be a great striker. He arrived with his cook, always looking to improve on minor details.”

Folarin Balogun of Stade de Reims celebrates after scoring his team’s 1st goal during the Ligue 1 Uber Eats match between Reims and Rennes at Stade Auguste Delaune on December 29, 2022

Image credit: Getty Images

Balogun’s former coach Betsy added: “Every day, he gives his all. From training to analysing matches. He wants to be in optimal physical condition. At the end of the game, when the opportunity arises, he has the ability to sprint at high intensity and to finish with calm and composure.

“He was scoring a lot, but maybe his goal conversion ratio wasn’t that good. He’s become excellent with both feet. In front of the goalkeeper, he doesn’t rush, he scores different types of goals and can create them without having to rely on others. No matter what level Flo plays at, he will score.”

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