Folarin Balogun has underwhelmed at Monaco, but remains key to USMNT | USA –DGU

Aniket
7 Min Read

In four matches at the 2022 World Cup, Gregg Berhalter started three different center forwards. Haji Wright was the only one of the three to score – a mere consolation goal in a 3-1 defeat to the Netherlands in the round of 16. The US men’s national team’s dearth of quality options at the No 9 position was exposed for the world to see.

Folarin Balogun’s decision in May to play for the US over England and Nigeria considerably changed this landscape. Widely considered one of the world’s best young strikers, the Arsenal academy graduate has started the USMNT’s last six matches. Berhalter is building around Balogun.

Monaco are trying to do the same after spending $42m on Balogun in the summer transfer window. So far, though, the 22-year-old has yet to replicate the form that saw him score 21 goals in Ligue 1 for Reims last season. In fact, Balogun has netted just once in his last nine appearances for his new team, prompting some to question whether the US international can truly live up to his hype.

Balogun’s underlying numbers highlight the drop-off in his overall game. Last season, he averaged a goal every 143 minutes from 3.6 shots per 90 minutes. This season, those numbers have dipped to a goal every 226 minutes from just 2.4 shots per 90 minutes. And it’s not just that Balogun is shooting less – the quality of the shots he’s taking has also suffered. Last season, his expected goals (xG) per shot stood at 0.19. This season, it’s down to 0.12.

Stylistically, Balogun is being asked to play in a slightly different way. His role for Monaco isn’t the same as the one he performed so well for Reims. There, Balogun was part of a counterattacking machine; he was Reims’ best player and so they played to his strengths. Everything was geared towards releasing Balogun in behind as quickly and as often as possible.

Folarin Balogun’s stats per 90 compared to Europe’s top-five league

At Monaco, though, Balogun is expected to be more involved in possession play. Reims ranked ninth for average possession share in Ligue 1 last season. Monaco, on the other hand, are ranked behind only Paris Saint-Germain and Lille for average possession share this season. Adi Hütter likes his team to have control and this has been an issue for Balogun who thrives on chaos.

This doesn’t mean Balogun can’t improve, but he must refine his game to become an all-round center forward. Hutter is at least still giving the American regular game time despite some criticism and is adapting his own approach to get the best out of Balogun, most recently starting the US international and the more prolific Wissam Ben Yedder as a front two.

Theoretically, Monaco should be a good place for Balogun to grow. At Arsenal, game time would have been limited with Mikel Arteta’s team targeting a Premier League title this season. At Chelsea, who were also reportedly interested in signing Balogun, he would have risked being engulfed by the quicksand that has seen so many talented young players sink at Stamford Bridge.

Ligue 1, however, is a league Balogun already knows how to score goals in. The pressure at Monaco – often overlooked even within French football – isn’t crushing like it is at many Premier League clubs. It is a healthy environment for young players to learn with Kylian Mbappé, Aurelien Tchouaméni, Benoît Badiashile, Youri Tielemans, Bernardo Silva and Anthony Martial all passing through Stade Louis-II as youngsters.

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It’s too early to make any sort of judgment on Balogun’s Monaco career, but Ricardo Pepi’s positive start at PSV Eindhoven could put pressure on his USMNT place. Pepi has scored four goals in just 191 minutes in the Eredivisie this season and even netted a stoppage-time winner in a Champions League match against Sevilla. He might not be first-choice, but Pepi has made a bigger impact at PSV than Balogun has at Monaco to date.

Between the two, the USMNT are undoubtedly better equipped upfront now than they were only a year ago. Neither Balogun nor Pepi went to the 2022 World Cup, but the pair now sit at the top of the center forward pecking order and it’s difficult to envisage anyone displacing them before the 2026 tournament.

The No 9 position with the USMNT is Balogun’s to lose, but the 22-year-old has still to be truly integrated into the team. The US can still get a lot more out of Balogun. “He’s one of the best players I’ve ever coached at running behind the backline,” said Berhalter, “and you need guys picking up on his runs and you need guys brave enough to play the ball.”

For club and country, Balogun is going through a transitional period in his career. While 2023 was a big year for him, 2024 could prove to be even more significant as he tries to convert his obvious potential into world class ability. Both the USMNT and Monaco have made a big bet on Balogun being able to do this.

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