Ivan Toney has had a fantastic start to the season so far for Brentford. With the English striker finding the back of the net 5 times in 6 games, Toney has caught the eye of many across the football landscape. Over the past weeks, Toney’s performances have even encouraged people to make comparisons with past Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, due to the way he plays within a lone striker system and the talent he has exhibited in abundance on the ball. But just how similar is Toney to the Chelsea hero, and could he reach the same heights?
Whilst at Chelsea, Jose Mourinho liked to deploy a 4-4-3 formation in the Premier League, with Drogba often leading the line as the number nine. Although the 4-4-3 is commonplace within English football now, using only one striker was viewed as unconventional during Mourinho’s Chelsea days, with two strikers in a 4-4-2 formation the most prevalent within the Premier League. Drogba’s performances at Chelsea as the lone number nine became the blueprint for the modern striker. He was able to run beyond defences with his electrifying pace, drift out wide to isolate defenders and assist in build up play, whilst also dropping back to midfield to conduct defensive work.
Brentford boss Thomas Frank also likes to employ the same 4-4-3 setup, and he consistently relies on Toney to lead the line for the Bees. Toney thrives in this formation, regularly receiving chances. In particular, Toney and winger Bryan Mbuemo have struck an effective creative partnership that has continued into this season. The partnership is particularly effective during a counter attack, with Mbuemo able to use his pace down the wing to make chances for Toney on the break. Like Drogba, Toney acts as a target man on the counter, and he is often able to slot chances away from passes arriving from the flanks.
The Bees striker is often able to successfully retain and hold up the ball when it is at his feet. Naturally, this draws defenders into challenges around him which creates more space for wingers Wissa and Mbuemo on the wings, allowing them to make runs in from behind with their pace. As well as being lethal in front of goal, Toney also represented a creative threat and can create chances for his teammates. Last season, Toney was regularly asked to drop deeper, meaning he took on a #10 esque role which allowed him to showcase his creativity. He delivered a beautiful through ball from the middle of the pitch against West Ham, with Canos’ shot parried across goal by the keeper before being tapped in by Mbuemo. This proved to be a crucial passage of play for The Bees, who went on to win the game in a tight 2-1 victory. Toney looks to be carrying this creativity into this season, and has so far achieved 2 assists with an assist xG of 0.22 per 90.
Toney has so far demonstrated that he has very similar individual attributes to the legendary Chelsea striker Drogba. He is able to burst past centre backs with intelligent runs that are timed to perfection, and he is able to take advantage of over the top passes. Ivan Toney is not as tall as Drogba, who possesses a height of 6ft 1 compared to Toney at 5ft 8, but he is strong, and can brush off defenders' challenges in the same vein as Drogba with his physicality. Despite his height difference to Drogba, Toney has scored similarly powerful headers throughout his career, timing his leap to reach the ball ahead of taller centre backs. Brentford also like to make use of Toney’s aerial talents with long goal kicks from keeper Raya up the pitch, to begin an attacking phase of play. Raya has an excellent kicking range, with Toney able to beat opposition players in the air and win headers. The English international is then able to carry the ball forward at its feet or use his head to nod the ball to a teammate.
Brentford’s striker has also been able to use his commanding presence in the air to create chances for his team. In their home game against Manchester United this season, which Brentford historically won 4-0, Toney was able to flick a dead ball pass from Mbuemo into Ben Mee’s path, who slotted home Brentford’s third goal of the game.
Throughout the game against Manchester United, Ivan Toney appeared unstoppable and The Reds from Manchester had no answers to the questions who kept constantly asking. Toney did not score in the match, but he played a vital role in Brentford’s attacking passages of play and relentless front foot pressing. Whilst Ten Hag’s United conducted pressing infrequently and to varying degrees of success, Brentford performed as a well oiled pressing machine, and Toney’s role up top was key in this. The second goal the Bees scored against United was because of Toney and Jensen’s pressing. Their joint effort of pressing Manchester United’s defence allowed Jensen to depossess centre back Martinez in the box, who was then able to calmly slot the ball home and send the home crowd into raptures.
For the 4th goal, it was Toney’s run that left United right back Dalot nowhere to be seen, with the striker’s electrifying pace allowing him to race past him on the left flank. Toney was then able to pass to Mbuemo who struck the ball at home, stunning the opposition. Ivan Toney’s performance across the attacking frontier and his hard work on and off the ball against United was a spectacular display of his world class talent. It was very Didier Drogba-esque.
A couple of weeks later, Ivan Toney once again demonstrated his qualities against Leeds United. The striker scored a hattrick, his second this calendar year. Toney’s first goal was a penalty, which he powerfully slotted into the bottom right corner. His second goal came just before halftime and was a spectacular free kick from 25 yards out, which was particularly remscient of the free kicks that Drogba used to take from Chelsea. Brentford’s star man was then able to achieve his hattrick with an audacious chip over the goalkeeper from the outside of the box. The hattrick of course generated headlines across the footballing world, with rumours of Gareth Southgate looking to include Toney in his England squad for the international September friendlies. Toney’s hat-trick of course generated attention to the amount of goals he scored, but it was also an opportunity for the striker to show his dead ball talent.
What made Didier Drogba such a fantastic, memorable striker however was his ability to perform in big matches for Chelsea. In the 12 cup finals he played in, Drogba scored 9 goals, proving that he was able to step up when silverware was up for grabs. The highest stake game that Toney has played in so far in his career is Brentford’s Championship Final play off match against Swansea City. Toney scored the first goal of the game, notching an ice cool penalty home within the first 10 minutes. The Bees went on to win this match 2-0, securing promotion to the Premier League for the first time in their history. Whether Toney is able to score and perform to a high standard in other season-defining matches remains to be seen, but on the basis of his talent and determination, one would make a good case for him doing so in seasons to come.
Although Toney’s exposure to games where silverware is at stake has been limited, he has demonstrated in the Premier League that he is able to successfully perform against the biggest teams. Brentford’s 3-3 draw to Liverpool sent shockwaves across the world during The Bees debut top league season, and Toney’s performance played a big part in earning his team a point. As well as assisting Brentford’s third goal, he tormented Liverpool’s defence throughout the match, making impeccably timed runs over Liverpool’s high defensive line. Toney also frequently dropped back into midfield to conduct defensive duties, whilst also winning 9 of his aerial duels and achieving a 70% passing accuracy against a side that likes to intensely press. This game showed Toney’s ability and the confidence he exuberates when playing against the top teams, and no doubt will continue these performances during this season.
Toney does not have many weaknesses as a striker, but his limited number of progressive ball carries is a limitation. The Brentford striker likes to look for a pass or to create a chance when he has the ball instead of carrying it forward himself. This also means that Toney conducts a limited number of dribbles per 90 with an average of 0.64; a number that is low compared to other attackers in the Premier League. When he attempts a pass, Toney sometimes falls into the trap of overcomplicating his action, as he occasionally plays an ambitious pass that is easily intercepted instead of playing simpler passes that are available to him. It will be interesting to see if his style of play and attributes evolve if he decides to move to another club.
Brentford Football Club currently have a great squad, with a manager in Thomas Frank who is tactically smart and likes to play attacking football. However, in order to get a true representation as to whether Toney can match Drogba’s talent, he will need to secure a move to a bigger club. Toney holds very similar attributes to the Chelsea hero, and he has consistently shown that he has talent in abundance. Rumours of clubs scouting Toney were rife within the recent summer transfer window, and it may not be too long until we will see whether Toney will be able to create a legacy similar to Drogba at a top club.