Personal training program helps Folarin Balogun surpass Mbappe
Folarin Balogun appears confident. On the pitch he plays with flair and scores goals. Away from that, he has a relaxed but confident demeanor.
“He has a clear idea of what he wants to do professionally. Really ambitious, really committed and he’s really brave.” Mikel Arteta said this month of the 21-year-old.
Balogun’s clarity has helped in many ways. He has lived independently since the age of 16, took the risk of a loan to Reims despite options in England and does not expect anything to be presented to him.
That’s why he turned to coach Saul Isaksson-Hurst last summer. Isaksson-Hurst coached at Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur academies and now acts as a consultant for clubs like Arsenal. The 45-year-old also accompanies young professionals in one-on-one meetings outside of club training.
“We did two or three sessions a week for two or three weeks over the summer,” says Isaksson-Hurst. “Then a couple of sessions when he was back for the break.
“He has such a natural quality and finishing ability that it’s just a matter of stretching him and giving him quality, position-specific, high-volume rep sessions.
“He said he doesn’t get that kind of training at the clubs in terms of individual things because when you finish the drills you might have 11 other players with you. That’s what I offer, that special attention to detail in the players.”
Back from his first loan at Middlesbrough, the striker was keen to hone the subtleties that would set him apart in the final third.
For Isaksson-Hurst, many of these points are cognitive, with an emphasis on triggers so Balogun can time his forward runs more effectively.
“All the shots we take are based on a run to break the line,” he says. “The trigger can be when the ball comes and you have to time the run to stay on the side and get into the box. It’s all about that.
“We use a mannequin as a line. The trigger is the pass and then you explode into the penalty area at full speed.
“That is the purpose of individual training. You have to make it position specific and as realistic as possible when you don’t have defenders there, so make movements from passes to get into the box to shoot.”
We’ve already seen an impressive collection of wild forward runs for Reims from Balogun, who tops Ligue 1’s scorer list with 15 goals – more than anyone on Paris Saint-Germain’s star-studded front line of Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Neymar.
In Sunday’s 4-0 win against Troyes, 10 of the 17 passes he received started in his own half. Six of them ended in the last third, including the example below.
As well as being a powerful weapon in transition against disorganized defensive structures, Balogun can provide pressure-relieving outside ball for a Reims side who had the third-lowest possession in Ligue 1 last season.
On this occasion, Balogun tries to break through the gap and win the race, an upbeat, unbalanced Lob. It lands harmlessly in the keeper’s arms, exemplifying some of those raw, electric skills that could use honing.
The need for more varied movement when playing for a front team like Arsenal is clear. As the side that presses rather than invites, Balogun’s opportunities to venture into the open space would be limited. His pace might be needed in short bursts, drilling holes into low blocks rather than breaking away from high lines.
This is something Isaksson-Hurst has tried to develop, focusing on “small movements to send the defender’s balance one way before turning the other”.
Although he often tries to curl his legs, there are encouraging signs that the coach’s words have stuck.
Against Auxerre, with the defensive line a little lower and the ball to the left, Balogun drifts wide. He initially opens his body to receive the obvious pass down the line. The full-back’s body shape reflects his satisfaction at allowing that pass, happy to jockey the run into a wide area where he could potentially box his attacker…
However, Balogun quickly changes direction, switching from a side step to a full blown sprint towards the box and curving his run around the flat-footed defender into the box…
Balogun’s later goal is a product of his physicality, quick thinking and instinct to reject the easy long run.
What offers further encouragement from Arsenal’s perspective is an increasing ability to use such moves in the penalty area to create a separation from defenders in tighter spaces.
In the example below, Balogun’s simple but effective triple move allows him to get in front of his marker to convert the cross. First he starts a run near the post with the ball on the outside…
Then he suddenly pauses while the defender looks at the ball…
And then, with a flat-footed opponent, stopping to make sure he stays close to the striker, he rushes back to the near post and meets Junya Ito’s driven cross before bundling home…
Such details go a long way to explaining his incredible Lodge presence, where Balogun posts numbers that are perhaps getting too good to ignore from north London.
With an average of 3.2 shots on goal per game and a league-leading 11.4 for expected goals without penalties (xG) of 11.4, the 21-year-old keeps putting himself in scoring positions. With 50 of his 59 non-penalty shots coming from inside the box, the raw data shows a prolific close-range striker who is adept at creating quality scoring chances.
As it is around the expected level, we can say with relative confidence that this is not an uncommon shape. We are dealing with a young, high-volume shottaker who has the potential to hone his finishing skills.
Again of potential interest for Arteta is Balogun’s improvisation, possessing the ability to dig up a degree after quickly responding to a distraction or a parry.
He heads his head forward against Marseille, stretches behind him to shoot into the bottom corner against Lorient Volley, and stops quickly to stay in control and finish in Strasbourg. Those messy, instinctive finishes can be crucial in unlocking deep blocks and crowded penalty areas.
“You have to cover all areas of the box and understand what most goals look like at the highest level – one-touch finishes inside the box,” adds Isaksson-Hurst.
“I try to build contextual interventions into the sessions. For example, a set might consist of three different executions using three types of runs or movements to get the ball. It adds a bit of challenge and realism to the player and gives them more to think about.”
“You have to create these images for players to get used to doing these awkward and challenging finishes from different angles when they come to the game. It’s in their technical muscle memory.”
Balogun has added more finishes to his armory after firing 35 shots with his stronger right foot and 27 with his left foot. His sensational volleyball hat-trick against Lorient comes to mind quickly.
What a player Folarin Balogun will be 🤩
Another fantastic performance from Ligue 1 top scorer against FC Lorient ⚽️⚽️⚽️
The Arsenal loanee has taken the French league by storm ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/Uk4VoquUrl
– Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) February 2, 2023
While his rapid improvement in France has been exciting, there are still some tendencies the young forward needs to iron out. The most important of these is probably his shot selection.
Especially when the ball is accepted in the penalty area, Balogun often cannot resist. With heads down, more valuable opportunities can often be missed.
Here, against Lorient, with the ball just under his feet, he fires on target with an xG value of 0.04, producing a ragged shot that statistically 97 percent of goalies would see saved or missing the target.
Likewise, Balogun can also improve his overall order with time on the ball. Overhit passes and hard touches can occasionally narrow angles and stall progress.
Still, meaningful comparisons can be made with Eddie Nketiah, whose linking play and sequence participation improved markedly under Arteta’s tutelage. With Balogun naturally drifting to the left, there’s also a possibility that he could provide additional support for Gabriel Martinelli in the left half-space as the Brazilian is more isolated since Gabriel Jesus’ injury.
For now, Balogun’s French adventure remains an intriguing subplot amid an intense title load.
There are fundamental attributes that need improvement, but his boxing presence is undeniable and encouraging, and his work with Isaksson-Hurst has nuanced his off-the-ball moves and speaks volumes about a studious player.
Arteta remains withdrawn, only conceding that Arsenal will “assess the situation” and “plan the next chapter of his career” once his loan move is over.
The next chapter in Balogun’s career promises to be very exciting.
(Photo above: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images)
https://theathletic.com/4212387/2023/02/17/folarin-balogun-arsenal-ligue-1/ Personal training program helps Folarin Balogun surpass Mbappe