Ollie Watkins v Ivan Toney - is Brentford or Aston Villa striker England's best Harry Kane alternative?

With Harry Kane a doubt for England, Ivan Toney and Ollie Watkins could get to battle it out for a place at Euro 2024.
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Harry Kane is a doubt for England’s friendly against Brazil at Wembley on Saturday – and could be just one of many players who figure prominently in Gareth Southgate’s plans for Euro 2024 who will be absent, if indeed he doesn’t fully recover from the ankle injury he sustained after colliding with a goalpost in Bayern Munich’s 5-2 demolition of SV Darmstadt last weekend. But is this a headache for England’s head coach – or an opportunity?

With major tournament squads now condensed back down to 23 players after they were expanded during the Covid era, there is likely to be room for only one out-and-out striker in the squad beyond Kane himself. England’s record goalscorer has the starting job nailed down barring fitness problems, but who should go along as his deputy – Ivan Toney or Ollie Watkins? This is Southgate’s chance to find out.

Ivan Toney has just one senior England cap, playing against Ukraine in 2023.Ivan Toney has just one senior England cap, playing against Ukraine in 2023.
Ivan Toney has just one senior England cap, playing against Ukraine in 2023.
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Realistically, it will come down to one of those two. With England playing a lone striker system and with players like Marcus Rashford and Anthony Gordon who could fill in should there be a truly desperate injury situation during the tournament, there is very little chance that both will be called up alongside Kane. This is a straight shootout.

Ordinarily, we would have a season’s worth of statistics and form to make the comparison easier, but with Toney only recently returned from his eight-month suspension for breaches of the FA’s gambling rules, we don’t really have the volume of side-by-side data that would make life much easier for Southgate as he debates his decision.

You can put their number next to each other if you like, but they aren’t very helpful. Toney has four goals in ten games since coming back off an xG of 3.6. Watkins, in all competitions, has notched up 19 in 39 off an xG 15.9. Pretty similar ratios, better conversion rate for the Villa man, but there’s basically no more than a hair’s breadth between them.

Toney has looked sharp since coming back from his ban – any concerns that his fitness or form might have suffered from such a long lay-off appear unfounded. He looks no worse for wear and no worse than he did in 2022/23, when he outscored Watkins by five goals with both given a full season. And Toney had the better conversion rate last year, too. Purely on paper, it’s a coin toss.

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Who the better goalscorer is won’t decide this, even if it was easy to determine. It will come down to the fine details, and Southgate’s choice will tell us which qualities he values in his centre-forwards.

Watkins is the better ball-carrier, is better at finding space in the area, and is perhaps very slightly faster off the mark than his rival for that place on the plane. If Southgate wants a striker who makes a difference in the box first and foremost, or a striker who can play off the shoulder of the last man, latch on to direct passes and punish high lines, he’s probably the man for the job.

But Toney has the edge in other areas. He’s better in the air, winning around twice as many aerial duels as his counterpart and plays more dangerous final balls, although the two of them ultimately generate a similar number of shooting chances. Toney is also more effective in the press and tracking back, and generates far more turnovers and successful tackles and interceptions than Watkins. If Southgate wants someone who can come deep, win the ball and play the wide forwards in rather than always looking to get on the end of passes, Toney should be the choice.

But perhaps the most important factor is simple – how they link up with their team-mates. One member of England’s near-certain starting attack for Euro 2024, Bukayo Saka, is out of the friendless, but Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham remain. Playing nicely with them may be critical.

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Neither Toney nor Watkins plays with any of those players at club level, so the question is whether either can show signs of striking up an immediate understanding with them. So much of international football is about the team whose players can get on the same wavelength and link up more effectively, so if Watkins or Toney quickly demonstrate the kind of anticipation of their very infrequent colleagues’ play that is needed, it will be a huge tick in their respective box.

Watkins has three goals for England - but two have come in friendlies and the other was against San Marino.Watkins has three goals for England - but two have come in friendlies and the other was against San Marino.
Watkins has three goals for England - but two have come in friendlies and the other was against San Marino.

Can Watkins work out when to drop back to create space for Bellingham to go forward? Does Toney know when to press on down the channel to provide an option for Foden? Can either of those players pick out the runs of the different strikers and make quick passes into the right areas as if they’ve been playing together for an age? That sympathetic and symbiotic relationship between players in the forward line could make all the difference in the world, and it’s something Kane has worked on for years with the players around him in the international set-up. If Toney or Watkins can show a shred of that kind of connectivity with those around them, they should probably win that last slot in the squad.

The hope, of course, is that it doesn’t matter, and that the second striker’s role will be limited to giving Kane a break for the last 20 minutes of comfortable victories. The reality is that few sides go through major tournaments without at least one or two significant fitness problems, and the ability of the replacements to fill in can be the difference between victory and failure. These are the kind of fine margins upon which competitions can be decided.

Hopefully, both will get a fair shake of the stick over the course of the matches against Brazil and Belgium. If one doesn’t get many minutes, then it may well reflect upon their performances in training, of course – Southgate won’t be making his mind up purely based on 90 minutes’ worth of football on a Saturday in March – but both surely deserve a chance to show not just the manager but the fans what they’re capable of. Whatever happens on Saturday, let’s just hope Southgate makes the right choice. More often that not, he does.