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Ivan Toney returns: Why Brentford’s striker is more valuable to his club than potential transfer destinations

Ivan Toney is back, and his arrival could scarcely be any better timed. His eight month gambling ban was dominated by talk of his future to such an extent that it almost needs a moment to remind yourself that the 28 year old remains a Brentford player, one whose presence is really rather needed over the coming months. 

When Toney played his last competitive game in Brentford colors, a 1-0 defeat at Liverpool, the Bees were still in the mix for European football. This was a side who seemed an established Premier League force, the sort of competently run, well coached outfit who would be firmly established in the top division for years to come. That is probably still true, but injuries, absences and exits have hit Thomas Frank’s side hard this season. Now they face Nottingham Forest on Saturday in a clash that has at least some of the trappings of a bottom of the table scrap, Brentford three points from Luton in 18th, their opponents only one better off. Now would be quite the opportune moment for the hero of this club’s rise to make his much-heralded comeback.

To add to the sense that the once and future king of west London is back, it will be Toney who carries the Brentford standard on Saturday night. “I’ll break it now that he will start tomorrow,” said Frank, “and he will also lead the team out of the tunnel as captain.”

Toney might return at what appears to be Brentford’s hour of need, but the likelihood is that they might well have been fine without him anyway. Their position in the league table might be precarious, but everything about their performances would suggest this is a team that will drag themselves away from the danger zone. After all, this is a team whose expected goal difference (xGD) of 8.24 ranks them sixth in the Premier League this season, just ahead of their great modern rivals for the title of England’s smartest club, Brighton.

Without so many key pillars of their side, not only Toney but David Raya and, for much of the season, key full backs Rico Henry and Aaron Hickey, Brentford have more than held their own. Even the run of five league defeats, four of which came without Bryan Mbeumo, should be taken with a pinch of salt. Understat’s expected point model gives them just shy of six points from those five matches. Hamstrung by a string of absences, this looks nothing like a team that should be fearing the drop.

No wonder Frank offered no sign of a coach fearing the worst in his pre-match. He and his star player seem invigorated by the weeks ahead. “He’s buzzing like an eight-year-old boy who wants to go out and play his first football game – it’s pure joy. I’m looking into the eyes of a player who is very committed and very excited.

“On the pitch, he drags people and he wants to win. He wants to help the team, so of course it’s a massive boost. I’ve said before, it’s like a new signing. There is an argument that he is the second-best striker [after Erling Haaland] in the Premier League.”

Wild as that might sound, Frank has a case. In the two full seasons Toney has played in the top flight only Harry Kane, Mohamed Salah, Haaland and Heung-min Son have more goals than his 32. One of them is now in Munich, two of them are generally more wide forwards than pure strikers. No one else is particularly close to Toney. There is a lot of green in that shot chart below.

Shots taken by Ivan Toney in the Premier League, sized by xG value
TruMedia

The question that hangs over Toney and the move to an elite club that he so covets — in an interview with Sky Sports this week he refused to rule out a January exit despite no sign of direct interest so far — is that patch of green around the penalty spot. The 27 year old takes a mean spot kick indeed and has scored 29 of the 31 he has taken in his career so far. A suitor like Arsenal, though, does not have much need for someone to take spot kicks. Scrub them from the equation and the view you get of Toney is rather different. 

His goal tally, for instance, is bettered by eight other players, including the man who he succeeded at Brentford, Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins. Toney converts the chances from open play that come his way, he is just not necessarily elite at getting in those positions frequently enough. His non-penalty xG per 90 Premier League minutes is 0.33, slightly inferior to Neal Maupay, slightly better than Antony. Give him the benefit of the doubt and say that that number is weighed down by a first season where he was still adapting to the highest level of English football. His second season tally of 0.4 represented a sizeable upswing on year one, it still places him just inside the top 20 for the 2022-23 campaign.

There is more value that Toney brings than just his goal return. He is a dominant aerial presence, creates a fair bit for his team mates and in Frank’s system he wins the ball back high up the pitch more than he is given credit for. The question Arsenal and Chelsea will have to ask themselves in the summer is whether all that justifies the price Brentford will charge for him.

Certainly, at the moment, there is enough of a difference between how his current employers value him and how suitors might. With a price tag said to be at nine figures it is no wonder that Frank can put the chances of Toney staying at “99.9%.” There is something rather familiar about Toney’s profile at this instance to those who have followed the many attempts of Wilfried Zaha to extricate himself from Crystal Palace the second time around. Much like the Eagles when they had their star winger at the peak of his powers, Brentford are probably good enough to survive without Toney. They would be well advised not to test that theory, however, particularly when Mbeumo is sidelined for some time more. 

Even in the summer, one wonders what value the market might place on a 28-year-£££™old in the final year of his contract set against how Brentford would price their biggest name. Plenty could change between now and then, however, as Toney finally gets the chance to justify his manager’s fulsome praise where it matters most.

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