The 2022 World Cup in Qatar constitutes another chance for England to put right the fact that one of the biggest nations in the history of the beautiful game has won the tournament just once during that famous run to immortality in 1966.
Since then, despite one generation of talented players after the next, the Three Lions have failed to make good on the wealth of ability that has included iconic names the likes of Alan Shearer, Michael Owen, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, and Wayne Rooney.
But with an appearance in the semi-finals four years ago in Russia that was followed up on a loss to Italy at Euro 2020 on penalties (how England, after all), many expected Gareth Southgate’s men to once again be viewed as a heavy favorite coming into the tournament this winter.
It has not gone according to plan recently, however, after England suffered relegation to UEFA Nations League B during an international cycle that saw them struggle for goals during the run of play and an increased reliance on Harry Kane to get it done from the penalty spot.
With criticism levied at Southgate and his frustration with tactical preferences coming to the fore now more than ever, something has to give if England is to emerge from a group containing the United States, Iran, and Wales.
Additionally, frustration has reached near-boiling point on the back of a Nations League performance that saw them score just twice from open play while failing to come away with a single three-point haul against Italy, Hungary, or Germany, two of which will not even be featured in Qatar five weeks from now.
As such, should Southgate continue to keep faith in a schematic that preaches the need for influential wing-backs and service from out wide so often the order of the day, there is a defense to be made in support of Brentford’s Ivan Toney.
The 26-year-old Northampton native has continued to produce the goods for Thomas Frank’s Bees this season and is already sitting on eight goals in the Premier League and just one behind Harry Kane.
Toney’s brace against Brighton last night featured a lovely re-directed back-heel after a ball was squared across the face of the goal by Frank Onyenka before he added his second from the penalty spot in customary cool fashion.
But despite Toney now sitting on 54 goals in 100 appearances for Brentford while only Mohamed Salah, Harry Kane, and Jonson Clarke-Harris have scored more goals for senior football clubs in England, Toney still has yet to get a real taste of action for his country with zero international caps on his CV to date.
Despite being included in Southgate’s latest squad for the Nation’s League that saw England lose against Italy 1-0 and then battle back from 2-0 down to draw rivals Germany 3-3 in London, Toney remained on the bench no matter how badly the side needed a goal.
It is not to say that Kane should be removed, given how good the Tottenham star can be at any given moment either during the run of play or from the penalty spot, Southgate’s hesitancy to bring on a second striker when the Three Lions are struggling to find the back of the net shows a stubbornness that has already cost the nation in the wake of Euro 2020 and the same could occur in Qatar five weeks from now.
That is not to suggest that Kane should be removed, but rather, Toney be introduced into a system either off the bench or from the start that includes both players in what could be - on paper - an incredibly difficult striker tandem to negotiate for opposition defenses.
Similar to what Serbia is sure to bring to the table in the vein of Aleksandar Mitrović and Dušan Vlahović, a Kane-Toney partnership not only provides two attacking outlets for England to utilize as well as two targets for service from out wide but the added ability in command of the air on both sides of the ball and another credible penalty taker in Toney would give England an added boost depending on their opposition on the day.
If we look at England’s last outing against Germany in isolation, Southgate’s troops barely caused Hansi Flick’s men a spot of bother while Kane was often left isolated up front as Phil Foden so often dropped deeper into midfield while Sterling was higher up on the left but regularly left to his own devices to try to create something in relative isolation.
It was not until personnel changes in the second half through Mason Mount and Bukayo Saka did England come alive and chances begin to flow far more regularly.
Given the depth that Southgate has at his disposal in an England player pool that is one of the deepest in the world, there is something to be said when it comes to tweaking the XI and the approach to what England will potentially face.
But as Southgate has proven to stubbornly want to keep faith in a back three deployment that managed to score just two goals in the run of play in six Nations League fixtures - both coming on the final day against Germany - to persist in that vein means Kane must be supported and a more agreeable link with the midfield be adopted.
Further looking at the attacking balance England brought to the table against Germany showed the reality that so many have already known; an over-reliance on wing play that bore little fruit. But when Saka and Mount were introduced, two players who could link play more centrally while also running at the opposition to draw out defenders, England’s best chances came from central areas, which could benefit both Kane and Toney if certain adaptations were called for.
The majority of England’s goals during the run of play continue to come from the wide channels on either flank but some of the nation’s finest attacking moves have been rammed down the opposition’s throat; Mount’s strike against Germany springs to mind. But with this unlikely to change, other options must be considered.
Phil Foden, a player who is renowned for his technical craft, vision when on the ball, and ability to combine play with a player like Erling Haaland this year, is one change that Southgate could also consider if Toney was called upon from the start.
Rather than utilizing the Manchester City starlet as one of two central attacking midfielders that are often tasked haphazardly, Southgate could instead make use of him as the lone number 10 just behind the forward pair while also directly linking to what should be the preferred midfield duo of Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice.
With Bellingham’s ability in a box-to-box role to drive play taking some pressure off Foden, Rice’s ball-playing ability that could bypass Foden altogether, and England still utilizing Kane and Toney in the forward spaces to occupy defenders which could unlock underlapping runs from the likes of Luke Shaw, Reece James, and Ben Chilwell, this constitutes more balance of play when in possession but also should allow England to feel confident enough to dominate proceedings more than just relying on sitting deep and looking to counter.
Where that leaves the aforementioned Mount and Saka remains to be seen, but given Southgate’s tactical preferences, it is assumed that there is no room for either player in the XI and to force that issue has seen Saka deployed as a wing-back in a role where he is far less effective.
For a nation with as much talent as England can bring to bear there remains far more questions than answers for a nation that has arguably now surpassed previous talent production levels and now boasts perhaps the deepest player pool in its history.
There are answers to be found for Southgate, and Ivan Toney should be one of them. A player that has proven himself at the highest domestic level in the world while maintaining a balanced player profile that brings strength on both sides of the ball, and in a myriad of ways when in possession, can not only help the players around him - including Harry Kane - but also provide Southgate with a valuable key he has yet to consider.