On-loan Arsenal striker Folarin Balogun is currently the top scorer in Ligue 1 with Stade de Reims; the 21-year-old scored a hat-trick against Lorient on Wednesday after netting a 96th-minute equaliser for PSG at the weekend; Balogun will return to Arsenal in the summer after his loan
Thursday 2 February 2023 16:57, UK
With Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe looking on, Folarin Balogun broke through on goal at the Parc des Princes.
The on-loan Arsenal striker went past European Championship-winning goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, slotted home and ran towards the corner.
Putting one confident arm on the flag, Balogun emulated one of Thierry Henry's old celebrations after shaking hands with the Arsenal legend just a few hours before. "Only right I show my respect," tweeted the 21-year-old that evening. But Henry should rightly be giving respect in the opposite direction.
Balogun's goal last Sunday allowed Stade de Reims to snatch a point at champions Paris Saint-Germain to extend their unbeaten record to 12 games under half-English rookie manager Will Still.
And there was no unlucky 13 for Reims, nor Balogun, on Wednesday night as the England U21 striker netted a hat-trick in a 4-2 win over Lorient to add to his memorable week.
Messi and Mbappe were looking on last weekend, now they're looking up. With over half the season gone, Balogun leads the Ligue 1 goalscoring charts with 14 goals in 20 appearances.
It's easy to pinpoint this as a breakthrough season but it's not the first time Balogun has entered the spotlight. The unknown striker was thrust into the Arsenal starting XI on the opening day loss at Brentford due to a coronavirus outbreak that ruled out Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Some would see that experience, which saw him taken off after 59 minutes having barely made an impact, as a troubling one for a player so raw - but now Balogun has more league goals than both Lacazette and Aubameyang combined this season.
In fact, only Erling Haaland and Harry Kane have scored more goals in all competitions in Europe's big five leagues this season than the on-loan Arsenal man.
It is a major step up from the striker who only managed three goals in 18 Championship games for Middlesbrough last season. But that was the low, difficult period that Mikel Arteta was searching for.
Arsenal's coveted youngsters have all suffered setbacks in the last few years. Emile Smith Rowe had an injury-laden loan spell at RB Leipzig and came back without an appearance. Eddie Nketiah sat on the bench at Leeds under Marcelo Bielsa and nearly walked away from the club last season doing the same under Arteta.
William Saliba was frozen out of the Gunners' first-team set-up and training with the U23s, Gabriel Martinelli picked up an anterior cruciate ligament injury in 2020 just as he was breaking into the first-team. Bukayo Saka's meteoric rise couldn't even go without a Euro 2020 penalty miss. Every Arsenal youngster who is thriving at the moment has suffered an early blow. Arteta wanted the same from Balogun.
"You can see how he is developing," said Arteta in March of last year when Balogun was in the Championship. "This is going to give us more detail about what is the next best move for him to keep developing, because he has developed and we want him to be part of our future.
"He needed a pathway, he needs that exposure. He needs to go through good and difficult moments, and he needs to be able to adapt and find himself in the dressing room, and develop the importance that is required to play at this level. I think he is doing all of that really well."
That next move was to France and Ligue 1 with Reims. A difficult climate for a young player bred in north London for most of his life. New language, new team-mates, new culture.
His difficulties were summed up in an Amazon Prime clip by Reims boss Still in training, joking with Balogun. "Your French is absolutely shocking, absolutely terrible," the manager said.
All of this in a team who slumped towards the bottom of the table, who sacked Oscar Garcia and demanded that Balogun - helped by inexperienced manager Still - drag them out of trouble.
"I've spent my whole career in London so when I came here I knew it was going to be different," Balogun told Prime Video earlier in the season.
"I didn't know the language and I'm still trying to learn - but for me it's important to step out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself. This is the reason I'm here and hopefully this decision will be good for me and pay off."
And Arsenal legend Henry, who used to coach Balogun in Arsenal's youth team, agrees with the young forward.
"In general, Londoners struggle to leave London," said Henry back in September.
"I'm really happy for him because in general English players don't go abroad. Normally players are loaned either to another Premier League side or in the Championship.
"He's a very English-style player who likes to run down the channels but he was missing something, which was his finishing."
Now the only question marks about Balogun are where he sits in the Arsenal striker hierarchy upon his return to north London in the summer.
The way he is scoring at the moment, he could be the striker Arsenal were looking for in the January transfer window just gone.