Ivan Toney is back after an eight-month ban, and his timing couldn’t be better for a Brentford side who are sliding down the Premier League table.

For a team in freefall like Brentford, January might normally provide hope in the shape of the transfer window.

But in this unique set of circumstances, Thomas Frank is instead looking forward to something slightly different. Ivan Toney completed his eight-month ban for breaking gambling rules on Wednesday ahead of a much-anticipated return to action when Brentford host Nottingham Forest this weekend.

“To get Ivan back will be like signing an unbelievably good striker,” Frank said last month. The ‘like a new signing’ cliché would scarcely before have been more accurate.

Everyone knows how important Toney has been throughout his Brentford career. He scored the goals that got them promoted from the Championship in his first season at the club, and has been the only of their players to reach double figures in either of their two full seasons in the top flight… and he did so in both of them. Last season, he was the Premier League’s third-highest scorer, behind Erling Haaland (36) and Harry Kane (30), scoring 20 goals.

So, to lose him for the first half of 2023-24 was a massive blow. It wasn’t like selling your biggest asset when his stock was at its highest, because there were no incoming funds to use for his replacement. Brentford basically just had to make do without their biggest goal threat.

After his ban took effect last season, Brentford won all three Premier League matches that he missed in May, while for a decent chunk of this season, it seemed they could contend with his absence. After four games, they were still unbeaten, and Bryan Mbeumo (four goals) was the Premier League’s second-highest scorer behind Haaland (six).

Neal Maupay was re-signed on loan but to say he isn’t much of a clinical finisher is a bit of an understatement. He has underperformed compared to his xG to a greater extent than any other player since Opta started calculating expected goals (xG) numbers in the Premier League, with 29 goals from 45.7 xG; an underperformance of 16.7. But then things were going so swimmingly for Brentford that even he started scoring, netting crucial openers in wins over West Ham (3-2) and Luton (3-1). In Mbuemo, Maupay and the lively Yoann Wissa, they seemed to have enough firepower in their ranks to get by.

After 11 games, Brentford were ninth, 10 points clear of the relegation zone and within four of the top six. As recently as after their 14th game, they were still in the top half.

Then came the fall.

Since the Luton win in early December, Brentford have lost five consecutive games and slipped to within three points of the relegation zone. It’s the club’s longest losing streak in league games since seven defeats in a row in March 1993 in the second tier, and their longest in the top flight since 1947. It leaves them closer to the bottom three both in points terms (three points) and league positions (two places) than they have ever been later than Matchday 1 in their three seasons in the Premier League. Relegation might be creeping into the concerns of the board, the fans and even the manager. Toney’s return could not be more timely.

But they should also be careful not to pin too much of their hopes on Toney. He is obviously going to make a difference, but can he alone end this terrible run of form and help the team back into mid-table?

Over the course of the first 14 games of the 2023-24 Premier League season, only Liverpool (1.89) produced more non-penalty xG per game than Brentford (1.86). Frank’s side created lots of high-quality chances, but only Everton (-0.45 per game) underperformed their xG to a greater extent than Brentford (-0.43 per game), who scored six goals fewer than their chances suggested they should have.

During this period, Brentford players – Maupay (-2.6), Mbeumo (-2.2) and Wissa (-2.1) – made up three of the five worst Premier League culprits for underperformance compared to their xG. It was easy to conclude at this point in the season that finishing off chances was the team’s problem, and Toney’s return could solve that. Brentford were still within touching distance of the European places with six weeks of Toney’s ban remaining, so there was plenty of reason to believe that they could aim for an improvement on last season’s ninth-place finish.

Since then, though, their xG has dropped to 1.1 per game, the fifth lowest in the league, ahead only of the bottom three and an out-of-sorts Crystal Palace. And their finishing has got even worse, too, dropping to an underperformance of -0.5 per game. It’s worth mentioning here that Toney outscored his expected goals last season, with his 20 goals coming from 18.7 xG.

brentford xg 2023-24

So, over the last five games, Brentford have continued to finish poorly, but they have also created far fewer chances. It’s only a five-game period but it’s not like they faced a particularly tough run of fixtures to skew the numbers. In that time, they have lost to bottom-of-the-league Sheffield United and to two out-of-form teams in Brighton (one win in eight when they met) and Crystal Palace (no wins in eight when they met). Their other two losses came at home to Aston Villa and Wolves, who have seven wins from 21 away games between them this season. Brentford will have gone into every one of those games with a decent chance of a point or more, and they came away from all five empty-handed.

Such a poor run of form suggests Brentford’s issues right now are bigger than the fact they are without their best goalscorer.

Toney isn’t just a goalscorer, though. The fact that, in his absence, Brentford have had to change much of their game proves as much.

Brentford aren’t a long-ball team in the Tony Pulis sense, but they do go direct more than most other Premier League teams, and Toney was key to that last season. They played more long passes in total (2,312) and a higher proportion of their total passes were sent long (17%) than any other team in the top flight. With Toney up top, they could go long as a tactic whenever they wanted, and they used his aerial presence and ability to bring the ball down under pressure to great effect.

This season, however, they rank sixth for long passes (1,110) and ninth for proportion of passes sent long (13%). It’s not necessarily a negative to play less long-ball football, but these numbers do serve to highlight quite how big the adaptation has been for Frank and his team.

There have also been direct negative consequences to Brentford keeping the ball on the floor more, with Toney able to provide an out-ball for his defenders when they were under pressure. Last season, Brentford conceded only five goals following a high turnover (when the opposition win the ball within 40m of the Brentford goal) – or one every 7.6 games.

At the midway point in 2023-24, meanwhile, they have already conceded more goals after a high turnover (seven) than in the whole of last season, doing so every 2.7 games, with only Bournemouth (eight) having let in more. Of course, there is far more to consider here than merely Toney’s absence, but it is certainly a contributing factor.

brentford high turnovers against 2022-23
brentford high turnovers against 2023-24

Toney’s impact on Brentford’s own pressing game has been missed, too. Brentford have gone from being the most effective pressing side in the league, having scored a league-high nine goals following a high turnover in 2022-23, to the second worst, with their total of one goal-ending high turnover this season only better than Luton (0).

There have been other key absentees, though, particularly of late. Mbeumo’s serious ankle injury could rule him out for several months, Rico Henry could miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, and Wissa, Frank Onyeka and Saman Ghoddos are now off at the Africa Cup of Nations. Kristoffer Ajer, Aaron Hickey and Kevin Schade have all missed significant periods, too.

So, while Toney’s return will be extremely welcome, it remains to be seen if it is sufficient alone to turn the season around and end this recent slump in form.

Then there are the questions about Toney’s longer-term future. Chelsea and Arsenal are both reportedly looking for a new number nine, and Toney has spoken before of his desire to play in the Champions League. With only 18 months left on his contract, the ball is very nearly in his court when it comes to where he could be playing for the next few years.

However, recent results will have convinced his manager further that he needs Toney in a Brentford shirt, at least for the rest of the season.

“I think it’s very clear, I don’t want to let him go,” Frank said last week. “I want to keep him as long as possible and I only have that in mind. My only focus is getting him ready for Nottingham Forest [on 20 January].”

With the bottom three teams pulling Brentford dangerously close to the relegation zone, and Luton in particular having improved enough to suggest we might just have a relegation battle on our hands, Frank won’t want to risk heading into the second half of the season without Toney, even if another club was willing to splash out on him.

Survival could hinge on Toney’s return, so he could be worth more to Brentford than any amount of money a bigger team might realistically offer.

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