Gunner Thoughts

What to Do With Flo? Arsenal Have Decision Over Young Star’s Future

Much like Arsenal’s project, the plan with Balogun seem to be ahead of schedule, but that means Arsenal will need to make a decision this summer.

Arsenal fans were wowed to no end by what Balogun was doing at the youth level in the red and white. But the jump from youth football to first team football —playing up against fully grown men and astute professionals — is a large gap. 

Naturally, Balogun graduated from the academy and questions were asked about this young talent’s ability to make the leap. Although, given his talent, the questions being asked were more along the lines of “when” would he make that leap, and “where” was he at currently in his ability to contribute, more than “if” he could make the leap. 

After scoring a hat-trick against Lorient in Ligue 1 and claiming the label of league leading scorer during his season on loan at Reims, eyebrows are beyond raising. 

Much like the rest of Arsenal’s project, it seems Balogun’s development is ahead of schedule. 

After the match, French football journalist Julian Laurens said, “wow, 14 goals and the confidence is high. He’s got everything. He’s been amazing; really, really amazing. I don’t know what Arsenal do now. Do you bring him back? Do you loan him again? Like I said, he’s 21. Do you integrate him into your squad for next season with Gabriel Jesus and Nketiah. But how much is he going to play?”

Laurens is simply asking the question on many people’s minds: what is Mikel going to do? Because if there is one thing Balogun’s season has proved, whatever the plan was before this, it must be accelerated. Which means Arsenal are likely going to have to make a serious choice between three options: sell, keep, loan.

Sell Balogun

The vision behind why people would consider selling Balogun is pretty straightforward. The market has seen a number of young star prospects sold for exorbitant prices, even in the face of very little match experience. Antony and Mudryk will be the obvious players to point at after both being sold for roughly €100m packages, but Brighton’s asking fee for Caicedo also tells a story of an emboldened seller’s market.

There is plenty of season remaining but Arsenal currently hold a 21-year-old star that topped the French league in scoring in essentially his first adult campaign. If it were a smaller club selling that player upstream to a bigger club, the fee could be astronomical. As it would stand, the likelihood is that Arsenal would be selling to a smaller club — short of PSG knocking on the door after seeing him play.

Whether people like to admit it or not, there really are two markets in this footballing world: small selling to big and knowing they have money and ambition, big selling down to small and trying to extract as much as possible from a club that will play the ‘poor’ card. Perhaps in this current day, you could add selling to a Premier League team versus selling outside the Premier League. These details would drastically affect the fee Arsenal would be likely to get for the talent, and you’d have to ask how much is worth it.

Strikers that have an ability to stick the ball in the back of the net are special. It’s why they garner huge wages, fees, and stardom. As much as other clubs selling upstream could ask for a large fee, Arsenal may only realistically field offers in £40m range. Buyers will say he’s only done it once. Arsenal will say he’s young and will only get better. And the buyer will “offer what they can” but likely come up short of stumping up a £55-60m offer.

Yes, much of that in conjecture, but Arsenal are a sizable Premier League club that really doesn’t want for money. Selling players is important for advancing the project and retaining club health, but they don’t need to race to sell a player that could be a prospective talent showcasing the levels on display this year.

For me, selling isn’t the right choice at this time. Yes, every player has their price and if someone stumps up the cash, it could persuade any club to sell, but cashing in now for £40-45 million feels overly safe when Arsenal can carry some small, managed risk in the name of star potential.

Keep and Integrate

In a dream world Arsenal integrate him with Nketiah and Jesus and the trio are the most prolific, high-flying trio in the league. Minutes split between the Premier League, cups, and the Champions League (assuming theres not meltdown the rest of the way this season) are enough to satisfy players that feel as though they are really competing for opportunities versus resigned to flounder and falter on the bench.

Competition is at the crux of this team’s current growth stage and all over the pitch Arteta is creating a competitive environment: Zinchenko v. Tierney, Eddie v. Jesus, Trossard v. Martinelli, Vieira v. Odegaard, Kiwior v. Gabriel, and likely more competition to come in the midfield. Add another Summer window worth of deals and this side could be incredibly competitive across all eleven positions.

As a manager, Arteta has shown a real willingness to create competition and has never shied away from that being a matter of fact aspect of this sport — even in the face of fans cringing at the idea of ‘blocking growth paths’. However, when it comes to integrating Balogun, or any young star, it has to be done at the right moment.

It’s not the clubs entire job to ensure the player works out, but there is a symbiotic relationship between a the club putting players in positions to succeed, players panning out, and the club benefitting through wins and fees and a better product. Obviously.

Integrating a player at the wrong time or introducing them into a side where they aren’t going to get those opportunities to continue to grow and find success is detrimental to the whole operation. In a different way, it’s something we are seeing this season with Lokonga. It just hasn’t worked out for anyone and the opportunity for growth isn’t there, hence the move to Crystal Palace.

You have to ask if next season, even with Champions League feels like the right time to pluck a young player and plunk him between two other strikers, including a serial winner that’s just entering his prime and the club paid £45m to sign. Will it satisfy Balogun or do him favors to train every day, play very limited minutes all season, but have the opportunity to learn and compete with Nketiah for more minutes? Maybe, maybe not.

Loan Again

The player Arteta and Arsenal will point to as the epitome of loan success with team reintegration is William Saliba. If there is any way to warm a player to the idea that the club care very much about his future and see him as a valuable part of him, it would be to highlight a player that was loaned twice, brought back when the time was right, and whom has become one of the best center backs in the league.

It is almost easy to forget now, but William Saliba was in Ligue 1 last season with Marseille. Arsenal took their time before bringing the center back into their side and that patience has reaped massive rewards.

Is this a recipe that can be relied upon and repeated with another player proving to possess just as much — if not more — signs of potential?

Arsenal’s side is built upon a youth movement and it won’t be lost on anyone that star Bukayo Saka is actually younger than Folarin Balogun. But that doesn’t make Balogun too old to be sent on loans for more playing opportunities and experience. Quite the opposite. Of course, Balogun will back himself to make inroads back in north London, but if Arteta is keenly aware of just how difficult that would be, it could be wise to take the patient route once more and keep Balogun playing elsewhere.

After the season he is having in France, it wouldn’t be difficult to land him a loan spell at a club that can offer a step up in play, the same way Arsenal sent Saliba to a Marseille side that could offer Champions League minutes and competitions for top honors. With no disrespect to Reims, they are a midtable side that attacks when they can, but not nearly as much — or in the same way — as Arsenal do.

Landing Balogun that Marseille-esque loan experience in a side competing to win their league, maybe offering European competition, and one that plays an attacking system in line with Arsenal, could work wonders for Balogun’s career. More minutes, more matches, more growth, less obstruction, and potentially a more seamless integration back into Arsenal the year after that.

At that point, he would be roughly the same age as Eddie Nketiah is right now, he would have multiple campaigns under his belt, and be ready to fully compete the way a mature professional is expected to.

Overall, it should be remembered that this is a great thing for Arsenal and Balogun. ANOTHER young player shining, another academy graduate making waves, and another young star prospect that Arsenal have a measure of control over. Regardless of the choice — although we hope the right one is made — Arsenal are in the drivers seat alongside Balogun in making a choice, rather than trying to purchase this young talent off another club.

Selling this player right now may capture short-term financial gains that can be reinvested to potentially push Arsenal’s growth to new heights, but Striking talents work differently than talents in other positions. They are rarer, they are special, and collecting as many as possible is never a bad idea. If the risk next year is passing on a medium-sized fee to run the chances that this season in France is not a fluke and foreshadows Balogun’s levels, it’s worth taking. If it doesn’t pan out and Balogun’s fee takes a hit, its a financial hit Arsenal can weather pretty easily.

For me, the choice comes down to loan again or keep. Personally, I would be trying to loan him once more a la “the Saliba route”, but this is where we as fans lack insight and must remember we are looking from the outside in.

It will come down to the honest conversations that Mikel has with Balogun and his agent, and the responses that Folarin gives. While it may be frustrating for him, much as it was for Saliba, if he can see the light at the end of the vision, he could be setting himself up for an incredible career as an Arsenal striker.

If a loan deal is something he refuses, Arsenal will be in a tougher situation. One that will require Arteta to have a brutally honest conversation about the depth and competition that Balogun faces. This season we have seen Nketiah prove to us and the world that he has to goods to be a Premier League striker… and he’s still the second best striker on the team. Balogun would have to overcome some real talent to get himself enough minutes to be worth it, which is never a guarantee.

In the end it will be his career and his choice to make alongside the club, but a second, well-placed loan feels like an ideal world for him to continue to shine while he hones his craft.

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