Have you heard the one about the English youngster outscoring Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Neymar in France – and who is set to give Arsenal a “positive headache”?
When Reims signed a player on loan who had scored three times for Middlesbrough last season, it made few headlines – but now many eyes are on Folarin Balogun.
The England Under-21 international is the top scorer in France’s Ligue 1 with 14 goals for a mid-table team managed by fellow Englishman Will Still, who is only 30 and never played professional football.
Balogun’s past 10 days have included an injury-time equaliser against Paris St-Germain and a hat-trick against Lorient.
“The goals are great, but it is everything else,” said French football writer Julien Laurens. “When you look at a striker you look at the goals – but the movement, the awareness, the intelligence, all of that is as important and he has all of that.”
Balogun’s prolific season
Across Europe’s top five leagues, only Erling Haaland, Harry Kane and Victor Osimhen have scored more than Balogun this season.
Reims had only won one game when Still replaced Oscar Garcia as manager, initially as caretaker, on 13 October – and are unbeaten since.
But Balogun’s form has been impressive throughout, starting his time in France with five goals in his first six games under Garcia.
The 21-year-old’s importance to this Reims team cannot be underestimated. He has scored 54% of their league goals (14 out of 26) – a higher share of any player for a team in Europe’s top five leagues.
Only six Reims players haves scored in the league this season. Their next top scorer, Junya Ito, has scored four times.
“He is a super complete striker,” said Still. “He is able to play with his back to goal and deep. He scores, he is decisive.”
Glenn Hoddle is the only English player to ever score more goals in a Ligue 1 season, with 18 for Monaco in 1988-89. Balogun has 16 games left to score five goals and beat that record.
What next for Balogun?
On current form, Balogun could be returning to the English champions this summer, so what then?
“What do Arsenal do with him?” asked Laurens. “Do you give him a place in the squad, do you loan him, do you sell him?
“He would be worth a lot of money, an incredible talent, and a positive headache for Arsenal.”
Balogun, who signed a four-year deal at Emirates in 2021, is two years younger than Eddie Nketiah, who is the Gunners’ main striker at the moment with Gabriel Jesus out injured.
Nketiah is Arsenal’s top scorer with nine goals in all competitions this season. Jesus has netted five.
Balogun has struck 15 goals this season, including one on his French Cup debut.
He would not be starting at Arsenal from scratch either, having played 10 times for the club over the previous two seasons.
Balogun netted in Europa League games against Molde and Dundalk and played in two Carabao Cup quarter-final ties for the club.
“Arsenal is my family,” he told L’Equipe earlier this season. “For me, the club represents brotherhood and unity.
“I think by the time I go back I’ll be in a better place to compete than I was before I left. I realised there were certain things I would struggle with, but I think that’s a good thing.”
Could there be a change of nationality too? He told the BBC in October he would consider playing for Nigeria if they called him up. He was born in the US to Nigerian parents but raised in England, who he has represented at four youth levels.
He would join good company if he made that move. The second-top scorer in Serie A, Atalanta’s Ademola Lookman, is a former England Under-21 forward who now plays for Nigeria.
Could anyone have seen this coming?
Balogun’s form seems a mile away from last season, when he netted three goals in 21 games for Middlesbrough after joining them on loan in January.
“Flo Balogun wasn’t a regular starter for the Boro last season,” says BBC Tees sports editor Paul Addison.
“Manager Chris Wilder would often deploy him from the bench, and his impact for the most part was limited.
“He scored three goals in four Championship matches towards the end of the campaign, which hinted at what he might be capable of.
“That spell led many fans to believe he might rejoin on loan for this season, but a move didn’t materialise.
“The sacking of Wilder and subsequent appointment of Michael Carrick as head coach has seen the club head in a different direction but his current form will have many Boro supporters thinking about what might have been.”