It is less than three months since England, propelled by the goals of Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane and fortified by the defending of John Stones, got to within touching distance of victory at Euro 2020. For those players in particular, it must feel like far longer.
Each of that trio, firmly established as key men in Gareth Southgate’s set-up, has endured a hangover of sorts since. Sterling has one Premier League goal this season, Kane none. Stones is yet to play a single minute for Manchester City.
They aren’t the only stars of Euro 2020 to have come back down to earth with a bump.
Mason Mount and Bukayo Saka, who provided a creative spark on England’s run to the final, have lacked some of their usual shimmer. Harry Maguire, meanwhile, is injured and misses the World Cup qualifiers against Andorra, on Saturday, and Hungary, on Tuesday.
So are they burnt out, victims of their own success and the even fewer opportunities for rest over the past two, Covid-affected football seasons? From the outside it’s impossible to say with certainty, but we can look for clues.
Physically, England’s stars of Euro 2020 suffered more than most. Sterling, Kane and Stones ranked in the top 10 players at the tournament for both distance covered and minutes played. Maguire was in the top 30 and Mount in the top 40.
Sterling, Stones and Mount also had the minimum rest leading into the summer, due to Manchester City and Chelsea reaching the Champions League final. Maguire had only a few extra days as Manchester United did the same in the Europa League.
Then there is the mental toll of non-stop football. Thierry Henry touched on it last week when discussing proposals for more regular international tournaments: “I played four World Cups and some Euros. I came out of them shattered, mentally.”
Either way, this season, that handful of England players has failed to set the new season alight.
Sterling has been largely left on the bench, starting just two Premier League games and coming on in two more. Kane, who looked tired at Euro 2020, has played six top-flight games, five from the start, without contributing a goal or an assist.
Stones has been omitted altogether, as City have kept faith with a centre-back partnership of Aymeric Laporte and Ruben Dias, his only playing time coming with England in last month’s international break.
Mount has just one assist to show for five league appearances; Saka one goal and an assist in seven, but his performances have lacked something, by his own elevated standards.
Maguire helped United keep just one clean sheet before picking up a calf injury against Aston Villa. Luke Shaw, another influential figure of England’s Euro 2020 campaign, suffered a shoulder injury in the same game but has recovered enough to be called up by Southgate.
There may be other factors: Kane has had the distraction of an on-off move to City, where Sterling’s contract talks have apparently stalled. And other mainstays of England’s summer, such as Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, have gone from strength to strength.
Still, it is not ideal. Since the last World Cup, Sterling and Kane have scored 38 goals for England. With only a year until the next staging of the tournament, the flagging fortunes of trusted players represents a headache for Southgate.