Ivan Toney’s first game as a Premier League footballer wasn’t his most impressive but it was excellent, nonetheless.
A quiet display of assured coolness, he knew he would belong at this level, typified by a tweet (opens in new tab) later that evening, “Nice kick-about with the boys”. He didn’t do enough to score that night – but he did enough for Mikel Arteta to use him as fuel in the reverse fixture.
Just over a year later and the same fixture’s programme saw an illustration of Toney holding the Premier League ball and raising three fingers. Two weeks ago, he was leaving the Brentford ground with the match ball after a stunning hat-trick against Leeds United – and now, he’s an England international. He’s the first Brentford player to have been called up for the Three Lions since they returned to the top flight. He was always the obvious candidate.
Quite simply, it’s shocking that a player of this calibre managed to play so much football in the lower leagues without someone noticing what he’s capable of sooner. Toney is a complete forward and should England not take him to the World Cup, Gareth Southgate is making a huge mistake.
The centre-forward position is maybe the only place that’s locked in for England in Qatar: let’s get that clear, for a start. And yet that’s at least partly thanks to there being no obvious candidate to recast the role of Harry Kane, even in a few years. Dominic Calvert-Lewin has faded with injuries and uncertainties, Ollie Watkins has had his thunder borrowed from time to time by Danny Ings. Tammy Abraham, toiling in Roma under Jose Mourinho remains the obvious Plan B to the Three Lions’ golden boy – and should go to the tournament, too.
Nice kick about with the boys. ⚽️ @BrentfordFCAugust 13, 2021
Ivan Toney, meanwhile, often goes about his work in silence. If he’s not rifling in free-kicks, it’s easy to suggest he’s gone missing. A little like his second home performance against Arsenal – which had none of the plaudits from the first but still saw him run the channels, bustle against the centre-backs and make a nuisance in exactly the same way, just without the rewards of three points this time.
He may not always get the win – but what he offers is perhaps closest to Kane from any Englishman.
In the past season, perhaps only the Tottenham man has been a better hold-up striker than Toney. The England captain dropped deeper to allow Son Heung-min to scoop a Golden Boot: Toney did the same with less fanfare in the first half of last season, swivelling the spotlight to Bryan Mbeumo, scoring fewer himself, as a result, and incensing FPL managers who picked him based on his goal stats from the Championship.
When Christian Eriksen arrived, Toney began scoring more freely, released from the shackles of having to be both provider and poacher for the Bees. He’s regularly praised for his brawn: he’s not nearly praised enough for his brain.
Whether in a front two or up front alone, he manages to occupy defenders not just with muscle but the intelligence to drift away from the box to link up with his teammates. His first-time assist against Manchester United for Mbeumo’s counter attack finish was testament not just to his strength to hold off opponents but his incredible vision of the game. Could you picture any other English striker making it? Apart from that one.
There are few strikers like Toney in the Premier League – of any nationality. Forwards are usually boxed either as a Haaland or a Firmino. Harry Kane has the best of both: so does Ivan Toney.
In a nation like Spain, Italy or Germany that’s traditionally had such elite coaching, maybe they realise sooner than others the importance of the unit. Maybe some parts of Europe produce metronomic passers in abundance because in warmer climes, it’s preferable to conserve your energy and let the ball do the work. By the same token, perhaps England is playing catch-up tactically, with the typical English forward being slight and speedy out of individual spirit to turn a game by themselves. Maybe it's a desire to keep moving and just to keep warm.
England have always had Shearers and Owens but not so often someone who can stop, think and see beyond that irrepressible eye for goal. It’s what makes Kane undroppable – but it’s also what makes the idea of him not being available so worrying. For so long, he’s the only member of England’s squad without a top-class deputy – and he just happens to be the most important player.
Toney isn’t just a luxury to take to Qatar, in that context. He’s an absolute must. Maybe he won’t be able to go about his business quite so quietly anymore.
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