Not just there for penalties: Ivan Toney has made best case for himself of any England change yet

Steven Chicken
England's Ivan Toney climbs way above a defender to successfully challenges in the air against Slovakia.
Ivan Toney, with his name like an idiot celebrating a Broadway awards triumph

Gareth Southgate threw on Ivan Toney out of England desperation and got a masterclass of a pressure-relieving centre-forward performance. More please.


WhatsApp chat log: [21/05, 12:43] Steven Chicken: Toney is a mad shout imo
[21/05, 12:43] Steven Chicken: When are you going to need him?

I choose to bear my arse in public in this manner because I can’t imagine I was the only one to send a message like that to a group of football friends after Gareth Southgate’s squad was announced.

That ‘analysis’ was swiftly withdrawn after being reminded that he’s good on penalties – but nobody had correctly suggested ‘in injury time to try and salvage a knockout round tie against Slovakia, then in extra time to help them win it’, the idiots.

When we say Brentford could not have given Ivan Toney’s return from his gambling ban more hype, we mean that in a completely literal way. They played The Undertaker’s entrance music, for god’s sake.

But after initial signs of picking up where he left off that renewed all the talk of a deserved big move to a big club – he scored four in his first five games after his comeback in January – Toney’s season had fizzled out. He did not find the net again in 14 more appearances last season.

Thankfully for Gareth Southgate, The Undertaker routine proved apt for England as they came back from the dead against Slovakia. Toney’s unexpected apparition onto the field to deliver a decisive, match-changing chokeslam captured our attention in a way we didn’t see coming.

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It was more than just Toney’s assist for Harry Kane’s winner. Over the remaining 29 minutes, Toney actually managed to achieve something nobody else in that England squad had done yet before this summer: when England got it forward to him, he made it stick.

Toney had nearly as many touches in his half hour on the pitch (18) as Kane had in his 105 minutes (26) – some sources make it even closer. He won more aerial duels (four) than anybody for either team except for centre-backs Marc Guehi and Denis Vavro. Nobody for either side won more fouls – including for the winning goal. He was one of just five England players on the night to make both a tackle and an interception, with all of the others playing at least 84 minutes.

As far as pressure-relieving extra time centre-forward performances go, it was practically a masterclass. He’s not just there to take penalties after all, is he?

This is exactly what England have been missing throughout the tournament. For all everybody keeps rumbling on about Cole Palmer (nothing against him, we’d have him over Phil Foden or Bukayo Saka, at this point, despite our pre-tournament agreement with Gareth Southgate’s preference), England’s issue is less that they need to find a way to get more of their superstars in, and start including more players who can create a cohesive playing system that actually works. A smaller cog is better to get the big ones turning than another big cog that doesn’t fit.

For Brentford, Toney is that big cog, but for England, he can fulfil a different function. Before Jude Bellingham’s overhead kick changed everything, our enduring image of the Slovakia game looked set to be Jordan Pickford, standing with his foot on the ball several yards outside his own box just 37 minutes into the game, issuing a frustrated shrug to the ten players who had gone into hiding ahead of him. By the end of the game, Toney made that option as obvious as could be.

This was just Toney’s fourth appearance with Three Lions on his shirt, that ban having cost Southgate the chance to have more of a look at him – so understandably, the manager may not really have seen it before. It took sheer, desperate necessity for that invention to be born.

That’s not to say Toney should necessarily start against Switzerland: his late missed chance to kill off the game once and for all showed he still has some kinks to iron out. But whether they need a goal again in the second half or have a lead to see out, Southgate should no longer feel compelled to hold off until the 94th minute to call on Toney. That’s when they need him.