Mikel Arteta has seemingly confirmed that Folarin Balogun and Arthur Okonkwo will be part of the first team setup this season, per a quote shared by Chris Wheatley. Arsenal are in the midst of a roster rebuild and are looking to shed expensive, senior players. It follows that the Gunners will bring through some of their academy products, especially following the meteoric rises of Hale End graduates Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe.
Said Arteta of Balogun and Okonkwo, “I think they are the right age and they have the space in the squad to do that [develop in first team] and they have the hunger and they showed the desire to stay at the football club and fight to become one of the first-team regulars.”
Balogun signed a contract extension with the club this past April, putting an end to months of speculation that the highly touted striker prospect might leave the club to seek more playing time and a clearer path to first team football. Whatever Mikel Arteta told Balogun about his plans was clearly enough to convince the U.S.A., Nigeria, and England-eligible striker that he had a place at the Emirates. My guess is that he told Balogun that he’ll be in the rotation this season, get semi-regular minutes next year, and be first in line to take over from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at the end of the ‘22-’23 season.
The 20-year old played in both of Arsenal’s preseason matches in Scotland last week and put in solid, not spectacular performances (not that I was expecting him to set the pitch on fire, so to speak). His poise on the ball is impressive, and I really like that his first instinct in and around the box is to work himself free for a shot. Arsenal desperately need that. Once or twice he might have been better served to lay the ball off from the 18, but that decision-making will come with time and experience.
Okonkwo also recently signed a contract with the Gunners — his first senior contract with the club. He was a regular in first team training last season and will likely be Arsenal’s third keeper this season. The Gunners still need a reliable backup for Bernd Leno in case of injury, but without European football, Leno should be fine to handle the lion’s share of the keeping workload at the club this season.
The 19-year old Okonkwo looked a bit shaky in his first senior professional appearance against Hibernian last week, which is to be expected. His shot-stopping was fine, but he did not look comfortable on the ball. Veteran fullback Cedric Soares didn’t do him any favors by playing a bouncing, underhit ball back to him on the goal he conceded. Okonkwo looked more comfortable and settled on the ball against Rangers over the weekend.
Given the financial state of the football world as a result of COVID and the simple reality of Arsenal’s spending power relative to the true giants independent of the pandemic football economy, the Gunners need a productive academy pipeline. Whether that be to mint stars, useful squad players, or prospects that they’re able to sell, Arsenal have much better odds of success when transfers aren’t the only way for the club to add talent and qualifying for Europe isn’t the only way to secure more funds. Folarin Balogun and Arthur Okonkwo’s first-team promotion is a promising step in the right direction.