On the eve of Brentford’s first Premier League match in August 2021, Thomas Frank made a promise about Ivan Toney.
“He has got all the abilities,” said the Brentford manager. “His link-up play, his finishing, timing in the box and awareness, so I am sure he will score goals in the Premier League.”
The goals have certainly been there. Twelve last season, 16 this term with a dozen games to spare.
But it’s the link-up play that has been a key factor in Brentford’s success this season. It prompted Jamie Carragher to describe him as “one of the best attacking players in the league”, “an all-round footballer” and “reminiscent of Harry Kane”.
That last point is especially poignant given England’s squad announcement on Thursday. Despite a betting scandal hanging over the Brentford striker, Gareth Southgate has decided that Toney can not only fit into this England striking department – but bring something a little extra as well.
Frank sees it too. “In that area, Kane’s all-round play is such a high level but Ivan’s is high as well,” said the Brentford manager after their 2-0 win at Southampton on Wednesday night. So what makes Toney so similar – but different – to Kane?
Link-up play but excels in the air
The link-up play is the obvious aspect of play the two England forwards share. A brief look at their statistics and they’re almost identical. A similar amount of passes completed, touches of the ball and pressing statistics. It all matches up.
But where Toney excels over Kane is in the air. The Brentford striker has the fourth-most successful aerial duel record of any Premier League player this season.
It is the reason why Bees goalkeeper David Raya looks out for him so often. When the ball is at his feet, the Spanish shot-stopper has tried to pick out Toney out 329 times this season – according to Second Spectrum. The next sought-after player on Raya’s list is centre-back Ben Mee, who has been given the ball 169 times.
This season, three out of Toney’s four assists – which is twice as many as Kane – have come from aerial duels. The latest came late at Southampton, flicking the ball onto Yoane Wissa to finish with a one-on-one.
Josh Dasilva scored a similar goal from a Toney flick-on away at West Ham in December, while Bryan Mbeumo would have netted an opener away at Arsenal via the same route had his goal not controversially been ruled out for a contentious foul on Gabriel.
Put simply, Toney’s aerial presence hurts defences. The Brentford striker won all 10 of his aerial duels against William Saliba in Brentford’s 1-1 draw at Arsenal.
“If you put Ivan Toney against any defender in the league and you put 10 balls that are coming down with snow on them, he is probably going to beat them,” said Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta a few days after the match.
Manchester United’s defence was another victim of Toney’s aerial presence in the 4-0 drubbing at Brentford in August. Toney won aerial duels against Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw and Lisandro Martinez during a first half when Brentford ran riot.
Martinez – who Frank admitted they targeted in the game – was taken off at half-time, a decision that Toney described as “a compliment for me”.
Set-pieces are another aspect where Toney excels – and not just with his perfect penalties.
Dead-ball situations are a key part of Brentford’s game – four out of their last seven goals in all competitions have come from set-pieces and Toney is the leader in the Bees’ pack, with the striker having the highest Expected Goals ratio from set-pieces in the Premier League this season.
Toney has 10 goals from 10 Premier League spot-kicks for Brentford, with his unorthodox slow run-up contributing to his flawless record. But it is actually from corners where Toney has proven useful.
Take Toney’s goal against Southampton as an example. Mbeumo’s corner met Christian Norgaard at the front post, leaving Toney with a tap-in at the back.
It’s not the first time the Brentford striker has scored from that combination – the same three players combined in an identical routine against Tottenham on Boxing Day.
But what is noticeable is that Kane has also benefitted from that routine too. The Spurs forward scored that exact same goal against Leeds, Newcastle and Chelsea this season, latching onto a front-post flick to tap in at the far post.
Free-kicks are also a set-piece scenario Toney can contribute to, which sets him apart from Kane. The Brentford forward scored from a direct free-kick against Leeds earlier in the season and hit the crossbar from a similar effort against Fulham on Monday Night Football.
Given that set-pieces have been a key part of Southgate’s success with England, Toney being included in the England squad adds another string to the team’s bow in this and many other departments.