Understanding the Problem– More Than Just League One’s Top Goal-scorer

Welcome to this three-part series looking at the challenge of replacing Ivan Toney. Toney is a player who, over the past two seasons, has evolved into by far the most important player in this current Posh side. His progress has been so rapid, and performances this season so extraordinary, that it is easy to forget that when he first arrived in the summer of 2018 he was initially on the bench behind then first choice duo of Matty Godden and Jason Cummings.

His performances and development since breaking into the side mean that the 24-year old is destined to be on the radar of a number of high-profile sides in the Championship, or possibly higher, this summer. Of course, if Posh’s promotion push ends in success, they might be able to entice him into staying. If not, the challenge of trying to replace him will be the biggest challenge when assembling a squad for next season (whenever that may start…)

In this first part, we’ll consider what it is that Toney has brought to the side this season, and create a profile of what his ideal replacement would look like. Part two will run through some potential like-for-like replacements. Part three will consider who Posh might look to sign if they also look to change from their direct style of play.

Profiling Posh’s Usual Signings

Before we consider Toney’s skillset, let’s first set some parameters by profiling Posh’s typical signings. Looking at signings of the MacAnthony era we can say they are usually:

  • Aged 24 or below and have resale value
  • Are important players for clubs in a lower league position/division than Posh, are fringe players at Championship sides, or in the U23s of Championship/Premier League sides
  • Can be developed to a higher level than they are currently playing at
  • Are signed permanently as opposed to loan deals, thus leaving room to be developed and sold on for a profit

For strikers, we can profile them even further to being:

  • Pacey
  • Technically good
  • Have decent, but not always outstanding, goal scoring records
  • Not the ‘finished article’ and can be developed into better players by the coaching staff

Toney broke this mould slightly in that he is primarily a strong, target man style striker, although his goal scoring record and technical ability make him much more than just that, and Darragh MacAnthony has recently hinted on Twitter that he has been converted to the merits of such a striker.

Creating a Profile – Ivan Toney

To better understand what it is Posh will be losing I will examine both Toney’s skillset and compare his performance levels to other top League One strikers using key performance metrics.

To find candidates for comparison, let’s take a look at both the top scorers and players with the highest attacking contributions in League One this season. Thanks to Mark Wilkins for allowing me to use his excellent graphic.

Using the above as a basic filter to find high performing League One forwards, it was decided that the following players would be used for comparison to Toney:

Armand Gnanduillet, James Norwood, Matty Godden, Freddie Ladapo, Tyler Walker, Johnson Clarke-Harris, Matty Taylor, Paddy Madden, Ched Evans and Toney’s Posh teammate Mo Eisa.

Now, let’s take a deeper look at what Toney’s replacement will be required to replicate.

Able to hit the ground running at League One level next season

Toney has amassed an impressive 2842 minutes of football this season, only having missed three games due to suspension. Skipper Mark Beevers is the only outfield player at the club to have played more minutes (sneaking past him by roughly half an hour with 2877 minutes). Toney has also played more minutes than any other player in our sample.

Therefore, finding a player capable of withstanding the mental and physical workload of a 40+ game season, who is not susceptible to injury and will be almost always available for selection, is incredibly important.

It is lucky that Toney has been a near ever present as Posh look a far worse side without him in it. He is at the heart of most attacking moves and without him in the side Posh often struggle to gain a foothold in the attacking third of the pitch. To understand his importance to the side can look at Posh’s record with, and without, Toney this season.

It must be acknowledged that Toney has missed just three matches this season, and that using data from such a small sample size is a dangerous thing to do. However, anyone who has suffered through the 270+ minutes of football Posh have played without Toney this season will know what a turgid affair these have been, and just how badly they missed him when he wasn’t there. The stats, therefore, are probably a fair reflection of this.  

We also know that Toney doesn’t just put in the minutes but is incredibly consistent. It is nearly impossible to think of a bad game he has had in a Posh shirt. When Toney is in the side, his dependability and selflessness helps elevates the level of those around him. It’s easy to contrast this with the inconsistency and selfishness of another recent star departure, looking at you Marcus Maddison, who despite his obvious talent was frustratingly inconsistent and who’s selfish streak sometimes led to the detriment of the team as a whole.

Therefore, finding a player who can produce week in, week out, is of the upmost importance, as Toney’s replacement would be expected to play both regularly and consistently.

Be good in the air, physically strong and imposing

Unlike Posh strikers of the recent past, Toney is physically imposing and excellent in the air. Even when he doesn’t win the first ball, he places defenders under sufficient pressure that they are not able to get a clean clearance. This in turn allows both Szmodics and Dembele to press high up the pitch and force mistakes or turnovers, something that has been an important function of Posh’s play this season.

To compare how Toney stacks up to other leading League One strikers we can look at his aerial duel and ground duel record against the players in this sample. From the graphs below, we can see Toney is one of just three players to appear in the top right quadrant on both charts, reinforcing that both his physicality and aerial ability is impressive in relation to his peers.

Toney’s competitiveness in the air and physicality has allowed Posh to play in a more direct style than we have seen from Darren Ferguson sides in the past, enabling Posh to quickly move the ball upfield and build attacks in the final third.

If Posh want to carry this style into the post Toney era, it is vital that his replacement can perform a similar role as the focal point of attacks.

Be good technically and able to link play

While it’s easy to pigeon hole tall, physical strikers as ‘target men’, Toney is much more than that. Although his hold up and link play in a traditional target man sense is effective, Toney has the skill and technical ability to effectively drop into the space between the opposition midfield and defence. Take Toney’s recent performance against Portsmouth, where we saw both his ability in the air and his capacity to fulfil a creative deep lying role when necessary.

The clip below demonstrates this well. Toney collects a pass from Ward in the zone between the opposition defence and midfield. He uses both his strength and close control to maintain possession when surrounded by three players, before playing a one-two with teammate George Boyd. After receiving the pass back, he shows great skill to role the ball across his body before quickly flicking it in the opposite direction with the outside of his foot to beat centre back Sean Raggett, who hacks him down for a freekick on the edge of the box.

It’s a lot to ask to find a player who is both physically imposing and possesses Toney’s technical skills, ‘good feet for a big man’ is a longstanding football cliché for a reason. We will therefore place the technical ability and capacity to drop into a ‘false nine’ role as desirable, as opposed to essential. It is also an area which the coaching staff may look to develop in their new recruit.

Linked to this is Toney’s dribbling ability. While not one of Toney’s obvious strengths, he is still an impressive dribbler. We see this below, he ranks third for successful dribbles p90, although his success rate is just below average.

While not an essential quality the ability to stretch play, beat a man and create chances through dribbling would be a useful quality. It is also a skill which would become more important were Posh not able to find a similarly physical striker and therefore look to implement a different attacking threat next season.

Goal Scorer & Creator

Toney’s contribution to Posh’s goalscoring this season has been undeniably impressive. His 24 goals and five assists mean that he has been directly involved in 43% of Posh’s 68 League goals.

For comparison I plotted goals+assists p90, and xG+xA p90. The latter was done as goals and assists are dependent on players finishing chances, and I also wanted to see who was both getting into and creating goalscoring opportunities without them being finished off. On both fronts we can see that Toney comes out top of the class.

To get an idea of how a players goalscoring compared to their creativity, I then plotted goals against both key passes and xA, with players appearing in the top right column both good scorers and creators of chances for others. Only Toney appears in the top right quadrant in both graphs, showing that he creates both a high volume, and good quality, of chances for his teammates. Toney’s ability to create chances for both himself and others through a combination of his physicality and technical ability plays a large part in him performing so well on these metrics.

Therefore, the ability to both score and create chances for others is essential. Ideally, whoever comes in will also be able to fashion chances for themselves rather than being dependent on teammates putting them into good goalscoring opportunities.

Ability to Score a Variety of Goals

Toney is not just a great goal scorer but a striker who can score all manner of goals as well as occasionally having the penchant for the spectacular. We have seen this variety in the league this season, using body parts we can break his goals down into right foot (15), left foot (3) and head (7). He is also a threat from both direct and indirect set pieces (7) and is Posh’s best penalty taker (2/2). Finally, we have seen his ability to score great goals, such as his volley against Portsmouth or his incredible effort from distance in the FA cup. It would therefore be desirable to find a player who can score a variety of goals from a number of different situations.

Toney’s ability to score from a variety of situations also means that he is a regular goal threat. His shot volume of 4.2 p90 is only bettered by teammate Marcus Maddison’s (4.3) when looking at players in League One who played more than 500 minutes.

To gauge how much of a threat Toney carries throughout a game I compared his shots p90 to the players in this sample. It is wasteful shooting regularly however if you have no, or little, chance of scoring from said shots. I therefore added a couple of controls for shot quality, in this case xG per shot, shot accuracy and goals per shot.

While we see Toney leading the way in terms of having both a high volume of shots and good shot accuracy, his xG per shot is on the low side, indicating that he has a tendency to shoot from ambitious angles and/or distances. That could be seen as a either a positive or negative, some may view it as wasteful, however the fact that his goals per shot ratio considerably outperforms his xG per shot rate reinforces his ability to score a variety of goals from difficult situations.

We can therefore conclude that any player who comes in must be a regular goal threat, posting high xG and shot numbers.

Finishing

As the last table above touches on finishing ability let’s build upon that. There have, from small sections of the Posh support, been complaints about Toney’s supposedly ‘poor finishing’. Those who have come to that conclusion are probably misinterpreting his incredibly high shot volume, and the fact that he therefore fails to score from a larger number of shots than his peers, with poor finishing. When we look at both Toney’s non-penalty conversion rate for shots inside the area, and also his record of goals p90 against xG p90, he is once again a high performer.

*Madden & Taylor have had a disproportionally high percentage of shots & goals inside the 6-yard box

It’s worth noting that when comparing xG to goals scored it can be either good or bad that a player is outperforming their xG. For example, it may be that a player has scored more goals than their xG suggests they should have because they are a strong finisher. However, a player vastly overperforming their xG, especially if they have scored a lot of goals from a very low xG number, may merely be on a lucky ‘hot streak’ and therefore find that their goals dry up in the near future. The converse logic can also be applied to players underperforming their xG.

In Toney’s case however the signs are excellent. He has both a high xG, showing that he gets into good goalscoring opportunities, and is scoring above his expected rate, likely indicating a good level of finishing. Finding a player that is an above average finisher will therefore be an important part of the search.

Defensive Contribution

It is impossible to overlook Toney’s work rate and defensive contribution to the side. Posh’s pressing and counter pressing is a vital component of their game. Toney’s speed of press is impressive, especially for someone of his stature, while he is also integral to Posh’s defensive corner setup. He takes a zonal marking position centrally either in, or just outside, the six-yard box (see below). From this position he averages 1.9 clearances a game, clearing roughly one in three corners that Posh face.

His overall impact defensively is harder to capture in free data, however in an attempt do so I combined successful tackles, interceptions, clearances and blocks to create a defensive actions p90 chart. In a shock twist, Toney once again leads the way, and by some distance. His ability to defend corners plays a huge part in him posting such impressive numbers.

Therefore, finding a player who can act as the first line of defence, press willingly and quickly and ideally fulfil Toney’s role from at defensive set pieces, is very important.

Attacking Contribution to Team

Finally, when comparing statistical output, it is also important to factor in performance in relation to overall team performance. This is because a player in an underperforming side may appear to be posting average numbers, but is actually performing incredibly well compared to his teammates. Alternatively, a player who is in a high performing side may find his numbers inflated due to having better players around him. To factor this in I compared xG output in real terms to the percentage of the sides overall xG p90. It produced some interesting results, with Toney again appearing in the top right quadrant.

Conclusion

It’s fair to say the Toney is an exceptional player at League One level, and is at a cut above that of even the next best League One strikers. He is probably performing at a level akin to an elite Championship or decent Premier League striker. Replacing Toney for less than £2m is going to be a mammoth task. His vast skillset is not a package that you typically (ever?) find at League One level.

Realistically, Posh are not going to be able to sign a player currently operating at the same level as Toney and with the exact same skillset. The task is to replace his goals and overall contribution as best they can. As they have done in the past it is likely they will attempt to replace Toney with a player of great potential who the coaches can develop and mould into the next big money sale.

Moving forward then we have created a profile for his ideal replacement:

  • Able to the ground running at League One level next season
  • Capable of playing 40+ games in a single season
  • Capable of rapid development over the next two to three years, with the potential to reach a level of an elite Championship striker
  • Be good in the air, physically strong and imposing
  • Be good technically and able to link play
  • Capable of creating chances for both himself and teammates
  • A good finisher inside the box and capable of scoring from a variety of situations
  • Both mobile and able to press willingly and quickly
  • A good defender from set pieces
  • It’s a bonus if he is able to drop in between the lines and/or possesses decent dribbling/ball carrying ability

This is in addition to the criteria the club typically set when signing players:

  • Aged 24 or below and have resale value
  • Available to sign permanently as opposed to a loan deal
  • Is an important player for a side in a lower league position/division than Posh, fringe players at a Championship side, or in the U23s of a Championship/Premier League side

Realistically, of the eleven attributes listed above in the initial list, finding a player who can hit eight or more immediately would probably be a pretty good effort, with the top three being non-negotiable. But who might that player be? That’s the million-pound question we will look to answer in the next article of this series.