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SSFC Spotlight: Folarin Balogun embarks on crucial loan with Middlesbrough

The attacker is receiving first-team minutes away from Arsenal. 

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Middlesbrough v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

Supporters of the United States Men’s National Team have been following Folarin Balogun for a few years, hoping the tri-national will commit to the program. The 20-year-old striker was considered a top prospect in the Arsenal academy, a constant scoring threat and exciting talent. He has struggled to break into the first team and recently embarked on a loan to Middlesbrough in pursuit of regular playing time. The next few months could dictate his immediate future, whether proving himself to the parent club or leading to a departure.

Balogun was born in New York City to Nigerian parents and moved to England at the age of two. Following a spell with Aldersbrook, he went on trial with Arsenal and Tottenham, opting to join the Gunners’ academy. After scoring 25 goals in a season with the U-16s, the club signed him to a scholarship contract.

Following promotion to the U-18 squad in 2017, Balogun contributed 38 goals and eight assists in 40 matches, reaching the FA Youth Cup final and becoming “a more clinical finisher.” Arsenal signed him to a first-team deal in February of 2019. “It’s been a rollercoaster of a journey with a lot of ups and downs, but I’m glad that my hard work has been noticed and it’s starting to pay off,” said the prolific attacker.

The following season, he scored ten times in 15 Premier League 2 appearances despite dealing with a persistent injury. The club considered him “one of the most promising strikers in the academy,” but contract extension talks “broke down” after “failing to get assurances of a pathway to the first team.” Arsenal turned down a £5 million transfer offer from Brentford, while Southampton, AC Milan, and Sheffield United also reportedly showed interest but failed to meet the supposed desire fee of £8 million.

Balogun made his senior debut in October 2020, a substitute appearance against Dundalk in the Europa League. The next month, he scored his first professional goal against Molde, finding the back of the net 60 seconds after entering. Manager Mikel Arteta deployed him five times in the competition but only for a mere two minutes outside of the group stage.

“I didn’t think that particular break was going to be my chance, but I always try to stay ready and I’m happy that on this occasion it paid off,” Balogun said after scoring. “It’s been good. It’s nice to see the boss showing faith in me. It feels like this is a good experience for me, I just need to keep on learning, keep on adding to my game.”

His strong production continued at the reserve level, notching nine goals and three assists in 18 matches. Despite the lack of playing time, Arteta cited him as a “player [he] wants to stay at the club” with talent and ambition. Liverpool, VfB Stuttgart, and Swansea were among 15 parties monitoring his progress, hoping the attacker would enter free agency over the summer.

With interest reaching a fever pitch and reports that the decision was made to leave, he signed a contract extension with Arsenal through the summer of 2025. “We have been extremely impressed by Flo this season,” shared Arteta. “He has continually shown his natural ability in many training sessions with us and we have been equally impressed with his early integration into the first-team squad on match days.”

Tipped for a breakout season, Balogun earned his first Premier League minutes, playing in the 2-0 Opening Day loss to Brentford. After making a substitute appearance the following week against Chelsea, Balogun was relegated to the second team. Demonstrating his clear graduation from the reserve level, he contributed 15 goals and three assists in 13 matches, with Arteta telling him to “keep faith” and insisting there is a “clear project” for development.

Needing a bride between the U23s and Premier League, the club looked for other opportunities. Last month, Balogun, ready for “a new challenge,” was sent on loan to Middlesbrough through the end of the season. “I want to play senior football, fight for three points, to push for promotion and there is a lot of pressure here,” he told The Mirror. “It is a great fit for me to be here and learn and score goals “

His time at the Riverside Stadium has drawn positive headlines, failing to score but registering assists against Coventry and Derby County. The latter was a “breathtaking bit of skill,” finding teammate Duncan Watmore with an audacious backheel. Boro manager Chris Wilder praised him for being a “constant threat,” which bodes well for the rest of his time at Riverside Stadium. After returning to Arsenal, Balogun should receive yet another chance to enter the rotation, with no shortage of suitors if the decision is made to leave.

At the international level, Balogun is eligible to represent England, the United States, and Nigeria. He has largely featured for the Three Lions, playing in four matches at the 2018 UEFA European Under-17 Championship and most recently competing with the U-21 squad during November’s qualifying fixtures. The program is “committed” to him, hoping to avoid another departure similar to Yunus Musah.

The striker accepted a call-up to the U.S. U-18 National Team in August of 2018. He played in four matches at the Václav Ježek Youth Tournament, scored twice, and helped claim the title. Nigeria also reportedly contacted him, although the Super Eagles appear to be a tertiary option.

From a young age, Balgoun was touted for his ability to “get into good positions and always score goals.” He prefers “to play on the shoulder of the last defender and make runs behind them.” OneGoal describes him as a “do-it-all striker” that “creates chances for himself” and is “comfortable with both feet, demonstrates blistering pace, confident with back to goal, and finds little pockets of space in the [opponent’s] backline.”

“Balogun is quick,” wrote Mark White for Breaking the Lines. “That’s the first thing a viewer will notice about him and ironically the last thing that a defender will. The striker is comfortable on either foot too. Most of his goals come from opportunities in which he hangs on the edge of a high line, before shedding his marker to find himself one-on-one with a keeper. His preference is to stand straight, lean left and open his body up, before using his right foot to curl the ball either side of the keeper... With less time available to him, he is comfortable taking the ball around his man or sliding it first time with either foot.”

For now, Balogun appears set on staying with England, which is to be expected considering his upbringing and connection to the program. His current focus is on increasing his production at Middlesbrough and succeeding with Arsenal next summer. USMNT fans will continue to wait, hoping the striker returns and adds another scoring threat to the attack. The striker depth chart remains unsettled and the potential to participate at the upcoming World Cup or in 2026 are tantalizing opportunities for prospects looking to compete on the international stage.