The Europa League group stage can tell us only so much. But Arsenal should be optimistic over Balogun.
There is only so much Mikel Arteta will ever learn from the Europa League group stages. It is an incredibly useful resource for geographical studies, so long as the subject matter is specifically County Louth, the Romsdal Peninsula or western Vienna. It is also remarkably effective when investigating Mohamed Elneny’s latent goalscoring capabilities. But in terms of practical lessons, there is little of worth transferable from the early stages of this tournament to the Premier League.
Arsenal, edging towards domestic disaster, are the only team with a perfect record in European competition this season. They have scored twice as many goals in six Europa League games as they have in 11 Premier League matches. They are Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, provided only one has a passport.
But that isn’t to say that every night is not a school night. Even Thursday evenings serve a teachable purpose, giving a necessary spotlight to the extra-curricular exploits of less exposed and infinitely talented members of this squad.
It gives Cedric Soares an opportunity to stretch his legs. It offers Joe Willock, Emile Smith Rowe, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Eddie Nketiah enough chances to sustain an otherwise threadbare diet of spare minutes here and there. It allows Nicolas Pepe to frustrate and thrive away from more prying eyes.
This campaign in particular, when Plan Aubameyang has faltered so devastatingly, it has been useful in developing Plan Balogun.
Balogun looks exciting…need to keep that guy
— Yannick Bolasie (@YannickBolasie) December 10, 2020
“He is a player that I want to stay at the club,” said Arteta last month. “You can see the talent is there, the ambition is there and he can fit with our structure and progress in the future.
“We’re trying to change the situation that we are in at the moment with him, and trying to convince him that this is the right place for him,” the Arsenal manager continued. The desperation to keep him in north London beyond a contract that expires next summer is clear. The evidence as to why is stacking up.
Arsenal were faring fine against Dundalk, on course for a victory that affected the position of neither in this group. Their goals had come from Nketiah after he forced an error himself, and Elneny’s thunderbolt soon after. But their approach play was a little disjointed, lacking in finesse and direction.
Balogun changed that. His introduction on the hour mark provided a focal point up front, a target to aim at, focus on and centre everything around. As against Molde, when scoring with his first touch as a substitute, every action mattered and meant something.
Five minutes after he came on, the teenager assisted Willock’s goal with some excellent hold-up play and a simple pass. Soon after, his curled finish from Pepe’s ball underlined an accomplished display. Balogun played almost as much of this game as he had in his three previous senior appearances. The drip feed of minutes is already paying dividends.
The danger now is in walking before he can time that run off the shoulder of the last defender. Balogun’s substitution was symbolic: replacing Nketiah in this game but also as the general flavour of the month among Arsenal supporters. That tide sweeps players away as often as it pulls them in. Arteta will know to be careful. Throwing him into this team head first is far more likely to break him than it is to heal them.
But as fans and the manager continue to search for an answer, Balogun is doing his utmost to pose the difficult questions. At the very least, Arsenal’s potential Plan B deserves a place on the bench against Burnley. He has earned the Europa squad promotion.
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