Few clubs represent the adage that the team is more important than any individual better than Brentford. Their rise up to the Premier League and subsequent solidification in the top flight has been built on a fantastic team ethic and detailed strategy that needs everyone to work in a certain way. But there can be no doubting the Bees are missing striker Ivan Toney, and the reality of his absence may be something they have to accept in the long-term.
Toney is currently serving an eight-month ban after being found guilty of multiple betting offences. Brentford are still impressing in the Premier League because of their strategy, mainly stemming from manager Thomas Frank’s leadership and tactical nous. Brentford still dominate the ball in most games and get at teams through their incisive one-touch play. But it is hard not to see how much they have been missing Toney’s presence, both in terms of physicality and, of course, goal threat.
Strikers with an all-round game and an ability to score in the Premier League are hard to find. Toney scored 20 league goals last season and became an England international in the process; it would also be fair to say that he is the heartbeat of the Brentford set up, and a talismanic figure who has not only grind with the club as part of the wider team ethic, but stood tall when it matters.
Listen to Toney speak and it is clear that it takes a lot to knock his confidence. He knows his qualities and is philosophical about his shortcomings. Somebody with that kind of aura is always going to be a miss for a club who have by and large overachieved in recent years.
But it is on the pitch where he is missed most, in a tactical sense. Without Toney, Brentford struggle to get a foothold in some games because they miss the focal point he provides. Neal Maupay has returned to the club, but he can’t replicated the intelligence and link-up that has proven to get the most from players like Bryan Mbeumo. Brentford have been as swift throughout the pitch as ever at key points this season, but they lack that killer instinct in the final third.
It was evident in a frustrating home draw with Crystal Palace, a game they dominated, away at Newcastle where potency was always going to be crucial at key points in the game, and again on Sunday as Nottingham Forest managed to salvage a point at the City Ground with only ten men.
Frank was asked about the striker situation after the game, and although he dismissed the idea of lacking a focal point, he did admit his side are not as decisive in attack at this moment in time.
“[Yoan] Wissa and Mbeumo have done very well for us. Today, they were good without being fantastic,” Frank told BBC Sport.
“When Bryan was running against defenders, he lost the ball or he didn’t find the pass. It was more that. We lack the final bit.”
Toney is back in training ahead of a match return in January. He is the kind of player you’d expect to have an instant impact, but in the long run, how long will he be at the Gtech Community Stadium to drive the team on? If the gossip columns are to be believed, not very long at all.
Being as confident as Toney often needs ambition, and he doesn’t lack that. He has been very open about the fact that he wants to play for a big club, confessing to being a Liverpool fan and admiring Arsenal. Since an ill-fated spell at Newcastle ended, Toney has been driven by a desire to grasp a chance at the elite level. At both Peterborough United and Brentford, he has been promised the chance at a big move if he leads them to where they want to go. Bees fans may not want to admit it, but there is little doubt that he has done that for them and earned the right to think about himself.
Chelsea are heavily linked, as are the Gunners. There will be plenty of clubs keen to sign a striker with Toney’s pedigree. The ban has robbed him of a huge chunk of playing time at the peak of his powers, but it has also offered Brentford a glimpse of a potential future they may need to adapt for accordingly.