Folarin Balogun ushered in the new Premier League 2 season with a hat-trick on Monday night, and he’s already proving Arsenal were right to send Eddie Nketiah on loan this season.
Over the summer, Arsenal had a decision to make on their centre-forward options.
Eddie Nketiah joined the first team on their pre-season tour and ended up as the club’s joint-top scorer, with suggestions he could take Danny Welbeck’s vacant squad spot this campaign.
Although Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are undoubtedly going to remain the first-choice options up front, they’ll need rests at some point during the season. Let alone if one or both of them pick up injuries.
On the other side of the argument, Nketiah clearly needed more regular football than he was given last year. The 20-year-old played 331 minutes of senior football in the entirety of 2018/19, despite Danny Welbeck’s injury in early November.
Nketiah drew plenty of summer interest, from Championship clubs like Bristol City to teams around Europe looking to take him on loan. Leeds United ended up as the front-runners, but Unai Emery understandably wasn’t initially keen to let the striker go.
In the end, Arsenal had to make a call over whether there were other players in the squad who could step up and fill Nketiah’s role this season. Enter Tyreece John-Jules and Folarin Balogun.
It’s no coincidence that Arsenal confirmed a new contract for John-Jules days before Nketiah completed his loan to Leeds. The 18-year-old had just a year left on his old deal, but Nketiah’s departure opens up a pathway to the first team that wasn’t there before.
John-Jules impressed in the opening games of Arsenal’s tour of the USA, even if his chances were a bit limited after that. The assist for Nketiah against Bayern was clear evidence of his silky touch and quick thinking.
As for Balogun, the striker showed at u18 level last season that he’s one of Arsenal’s biggest talents. His balance and acceleration allow him to race away from defenders, opening up space behind the defensive line or in wide areas.
Once the 18-year-old gets ahead of his opponent, his strength and speed on the ball make it near-impossible to get in a recovery tackle. He shrugs defenders off with ease if they can even catch him.
When in on goal, Balogun rarely falters. He’s a clinical finisher with either foot, consistently finding the bottom corners with power and precision. We’ve put together a video of his first 21 goals from this calendar year to show the quality of that finishing.
The only question was whether that form would translate into the higher age groups.
At this stage, that doesn’t seem to be a problem. In Balogun’s final three games of pre-season, he scored a first-half hat-trick against Barnet, a brace against Brentford B, before adding another one to his total against Watford u23s.
With John-Jules picking up a knock in that Watford match, Balogun started against Blackburn Rovers in the Premier League 2 on Monday, and he ended up taking the match ball home after another hat-trick.
Suddenly, Nketiah’s loan looks like a masterstroke. Balogun and John-Jules, who may not have received any significant first-team opportunities otherwise, have both been given the motivation to push on this season.
Nketiah will get regular football, developing himself as a player, and Arsenal have two fantastic prospects covering the centre-forward position in his absence.
In the long-term, it’s unlikely Arsenal will hold onto all of Nketiah, John-Jules and Balogun, especially with the club looking to tie down Aubameyang and Lacazette to new contracts.
If they can manage the young strikers properly over the next year or so though, one or two may well end up staking a claim in the first-team, whilst the others bring in good money for Arsenal’s transfer budget. Here’s hoping.