‘It felt like we were going into a zombie apocalypse’ – Folarin Balogun’s lively Ligue 1 loan spell

Folarin Balogun’s introduction to Stade de Reims was intense.

“I even asked my team-mates, ‘Are we going to a football match or are we going to a scrap?’. It was a crazy experience,” he tells The Athletic.

It was an away trip to Marseille, his first Ligue 1 match after his loan move from Arsenal this summer.

“When we were approaching the Velodrome, the police had guns and there were flares going off. It felt like we were going into a zombie apocalypse. I hadn’t seen anything like it.”

His team struggled that night, losing 4-1, but Balogun scored Reims’ only goal. The 21-year-old has a tally of eight league goals in 15 Ligue 1 games so far this season.

Last season, Balogun was on loan to Championship side Middlesbrough, where he also impressed. He had options to stay in England again but decided to take a riskier step.

“The option in France with Reims was so new to me. I’d never even thought of the possibility of playing abroad,” says the England under-21 international, who is also eligible for the US and Nigeria, though wants to establish himself as a scorer in Europe before making a decision on his international future.

“The manager told me, ‘If you come here and do the right things, you’ll play’. It was black and white. It was just left to me to see if I wanted to take that risk and we decided it was the right step.”

The manager at Reims was not the only one who thought Ligue 1 would be a good fit for Balogun.

“I spoke to Laca (Alexandre Lacazette) and Nico (Nicolas Pepe) before making the move,” the young striker says.

“Laca told me he thinks it’s a good league for me and that I needed to start playing. Then Laca left and I spoke to Nico when we were in America on the pre-season tour. He could see during that time I was a bit upset because I wasn’t playing.

“He just said to stay positive, keep working hard and then he said to maybe think about a loan to the French league, ‘I’m sure you can do well in this league if you apply yourself’. He set me a challenge of getting 10 goals in the league and said, ‘If you do that, you’ve made progress’.

“He just gave me a lot of encouragement. I took it on board, but I didn’t think too much of it at the same time. Later on, I heard the interest from France and I’m sure what he said was in the back of my mind somewhere.”

The foundations for his success in France were laid during the 2021-22 season.

Officially promoted to the Arsenal first team after signing his contract that summer, there were vague discussions about a loan. At that stage, however, it was decided it was best for Balogun to spend six months around the first team to understand what that environment is like.

Then, for the opening match of the season against Brentford, Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Eddie Nketiah were all unavailable. Balogun was in the starting XI.

“My biggest memory is how hectic it was. I was just thinking about watching the game, then within a couple of hours, I’m starting the first game of the Premier League,” says the striker.

“I was excited, looking forward to it, but naturally I just had a more passive outlook on the game — just trying to see what I could learn.”

It was a harsh awakening for a young striker who had just turned 20 and had only experienced first-team football in the Europa League. The Brentford Community Stadium was a cauldron.

It was Brentford’s first top-flight game in 74 years and Balogun was up against a back three of Kristoffer Ajer (6ft 6in), Pontus Jansson (6ft 4in) and Ethan Pinnock (6ft 4in).

Arsenal lost 2-0.

Folarin Balogun is consoled by Mikel Arteta after Arsenal lost to Brentford in August 2021 (Photo: Shaun Botterill via Getty Images)

“It took me a few days to understand what happened and evaluate the positives and negatives, but in hindsight, it was definitely an experience I needed,” he says.

“We had a meeting the next day analysing the game where everyone said their piece on what went wrong. Looking at how the other players dealt with it helped.

“What I didn’t realise at the time was that it’s just a game and there are a lot of games in a season. I was more chaotic in my head, thinking, ‘We’ve lost this game, it’s a nightmare’, whereas the other players said, ‘The best thing to do is put it right in training, and then in the upcoming games’. I followed their lead and went from there.”

Balogun did not feature in the Premier League for Arsenal after August last season.

Instead, the striker experienced a play-off charge and an FA Cup run while on loan at Middlesbrough. That cup run included wins against Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur before defeat to Chelsea in the quarter-finals. Balogun featured in each game.

“When I played against that opposition with Middlesbrough, it was very different,” he says. “I wasn’t used to not having possession and going into games with a mindset of, ‘Let’s get through the first five minutes without conceding’. That was really new for me.

“When we were preparing for those games, a part of me wanted to be like, ‘Let’s just get after it and keep the ball,’ but you quickly realise that is naïve. You have to respect the game plan and respect what the manager wants from you.”

What did then Middlesbrough manager Chris Wilder, who was interested in Balogun since he was Sheffield United manager in 2020, want from him?

“In those games, if we’re out of possession in a deep block and we win the ball, in a transition moment the ball will be played to me. Chris wanted me to look after the ball, buy us time and, if I could, get a foul for the team so we could get up the pitch and slowly progress.

“You have to do that in any game at any time, but there was more emphasis on that at Middlesbrough with Chris.”

Folarin Balogun

Folarin Balogun celebrates after scoring for Middlesbrough against Birmingham in March (Photo: Richard Heathcote via Getty Images)

While at Middlesbrough he also learned about playing in front of hostile crowds, such as Millwall at the Den, where Balogun and his team-mates were booed for almost the entire 90 minutes.

“That was definitely the most hostile environment I’d been in. I’d never seen anything like it, just because I hadn’t had it in my career to that point,” he says.

“To be fair, I didn’t really hear the boos because I was just focusing on the game. When I watched the game back I remember just hearing jeers and the fans getting angry when I was injured on the floor. I just found it funny.”

After that match, Wilder said: “It’s an experience that won’t do him any harm at all.”

Certainly, it hasn’t done him any harm at Reims, where he is set to complete the entire season on loan. While discussing the subject, a picture springs to mind, and as we pull our phone out to show him he laughs: “I know the one you’re talking about. Yeah, that one!”

Marseille are not the only Ligue 1 fans who make their presence felt. The picture above was taken at a Reims home match against Lens in September, another experience of hostile opposition fans ticked off.

Returning to the match against Millwall, Balogun says: “It must have helped me build more mental strength when I’m playing in hostile grounds. It’s a good learning curve to get on the ball when people are booing you, trying to throw you off. It’s a good challenge. I’ve played in more hostile grounds since then and I just feel I’m more equipped going into those games.”

Two months after the Marseille trip, Balogun had another watershed experience. Not only was he on the same pitch as Kylian Mbappe and Neymar as they turned out for Paris Saint-Germain, but his side frustrated them.

He played the entire game and was up against a back three of Danilo Pereira, Marquinhos and Sergio Ramos (who was sent off after 41 minutes). Despite PSG having 63 per cent of the ball, Reims managed 24 shots to their 11. The game finished 0-0, but it gave the squad belief moving forward.

“It was the craziest experience. Lionel Messi didn’t play, but playing against Mbappe for 90 minutes… To see him up close and how he makes his movements was unreal,” he says.

“He’s so sharp and decisive in what he does. Neymar came on in the 70th minute and he’s someone I’ve always grown up watching on YouTube. It was just nice to see his tricks up close.

“I didn’t get a conversation as I was busy trying to focus on the game and afterwards they were more annoyed because we drew the game. In their eyes, it must have felt like a missed opportunity. A few of them stormed off and we didn’t get a chance to speak.

“There’s a perception of leagues outside of England that they are deemed to be easier, but players like Messi, Neymar and Mbappe are playing in this league week in, week out. They wouldn’t be playing here if it was easy.”

As well as the standard of players he is facing, he says other aspects of French football have helped him develop.

“The physicality of the league has helped me to improve. The centre-backs are strong, fast, smart and really experienced,” he says.

“They’re physical and experienced so they read the game well. I was excited to play against one of the best and most decorated defenders over the past 15-plus years in Sergio Ramos, and Marquinhos has been one of the best defenders in recent times, so I was excited to see how I would fare and I learned a lot from that experience.

“That was one of the big aspects in going out there, to still improve my link-up and hold-up play, and I’m definitely doing that in France — even against my team-mates in training, it’s really physical.”

Similar to Nketiah at Arsenal, those improvements are evident on the pitch. Balogun has shown an improvement in his game intelligence, being able to receive the ball on the halfway line under pressure and play a little flick around the corner to a team-mate. Inside the box, his sharp movements have led to him winning and converting three penalties.

Folarin Balogun

Folarin Balogun appearing for England Under-21s against Germany Under-21s in September (Photo: Naomi Baker via Getty Images)

The first half of Balogun’s 2021-22 season probably didn’t seem noteworthy to many observers. He was training with the first team but tended to play for the Arsenal under-23s. What was noteworthy was that he scored 15 goals in 13 games for the under-23s during that period.

“Kevin Betsy is my guy,” Balogun says when last year’s under-23s head coach is mentioned.

“I liked playing under him for the half-season I did. We spoke a lot and had a good personal relationship. It’s easy for managers to just leave you to it when you’re training with the first team and come back down to the under-23s, but Kevin made sure he always held me accountable and helped me improve.

“He was more of a conversation-based coach and more of a show-and-tell-based coach. He wouldn’t just show you what to do on a screen, he would actually show you in training. That made it easier for me to learn.

“He helped me to visualise what runs I should be making, the timings and the double movements. He was always a really in-depth person, so if I asked him for something small, he’d analyse it and give me so much helpful information.”

That aspect of his development, particularly making diagonal left-to-right runs in behind defences, became a feature of his game at the time. That was not just against under-23s teams, but against first-team opposition, too, in the Papa John’s Trophy, with Betsy citing examples in matches against Plymouth Argyle and Ipswich Town.

Balogun also got a taste of playing in a two-man strike partnership with Mika Biereth. He has since played in similar systems for Middlesbrough and Reims, while also playing as a lone striker at times.

“In a two-man strike partnership, you can score goals that you wouldn’t get by yourself,” he explains. “If you’re playing against two centre-backs, it’s literally a two v two. It’s just about trying to throw them off and confuse them.

“When I was playing with Mika (Biereth), we gave each other a lot of assists. You just have to get to know the player you’re playing with. In training, we’d be on the same team when we played small-sided games and I was always looking at what type of player he is and what type of runs he makes.

“As a one, you’ve just got to be a bit more selfish with your movements and the way you operate.”

Balogun’s loan to Reims has also given him a chance to expand his horizons personally.

Football is the main focus of these loans, but how players settle and assimilate to the culture around them is crucial — especially if they move abroad. Some find it easier than others but Balogun, who has lived on his own since the age of 16, has embraced the north of England and France.

“The biggest thing about settling in somewhere new is that only you can do it,” he says. “There are a lot of things people can help with, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to make the effort to do it. It’s very tricky and probably the most challenging thing I’ve done so far in my career.”

“You can either live in a little bubble and not get out of your comfort zone or you can try different foods, speak to people and do new things.

“You’re going to make mistakes. When I’m trying to speak to people in French and getting words wrong, I’m just trying to learn and see how I can improve and make the experience better for myself.”

Thinking back to the early days of that settling-in period elicits a wry smile from Balogun.

“I remember my first training session with the team — we were doing possession,” he says.

“In my head, when the coach was explaining it in French, I was watching what he was doing and it seemed basic to me — just a normal possession drill I’ve done my whole career. Then I took the bib and apparently I kept getting it wrong because they do it a different way to what I’m used to.

“They tried to explain but I just didn’t understand. It dawned on me that I’m in a foreign country, they do things differently and I was like, ‘This is a big, big challenge and I’m in for a shock’.”

Balogun’s understanding of French has come on to a point where he is “comfortable enough to survive”. He has been having lessons twice a week and while he has a grasp on what is going on in team meetings, there is a better barometer for his growth.

“If my friends are talking in the changing room, I can understand the joke and I know I can because I’m laughing at the same time as them,” he says.

Balogun has had experiences few Premier League academy graduates have had. Even if his international future is not clear — those eligibility possibilities — it is clear that this past year will benefit him in the long run.

(Top photo: Francois Lo Presti/AFP via Getty Images)

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‘It felt like we were going into a zombie apocalypse’ – Folarin Balogun’s lively Ligue 1 loan spell

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