John Stones was putting in the hard yards with City’s fitness coach Lorenzo Buenaventura. The central defender was timed sprinting from byline to halfway on several occasions. This looked like a pre-season drill and, for Stones, it effectively was.
The trouble is this was September 25, not July. Stones has not played a single minute for City so far this term and the main reason for that is the international calendar.
Defender John Stones had to start over after suffering a muscle injury on England duty
But Stones’ situation is not unique among the England squad who reached the final of the Euros, where they suffered that agonising and emotionally draining defeat by Italy.
Harry Kane is yet to score in the Premier League this season. Raheem Sterling cannot get in the first XI at the Etihad, Jack Grealish’s start to City life has been mixed and Phil Foden is only just finding his form. Ben Chilwell has started once at Chelsea and team-mate Mason Mount has been hampered by injury. Harry Maguire’s Manchester United cannot keep a clean sheet.
The reasons for the dips are myriad, from injury (Stones), the form of others (Marcos Alonso has been keeping Chilwell out of the Chelsea team), to bouncing back from a failed transfer (Kane).
City, for example, gave all their England players an extra week off following their summer exploits at the Euros, but were paying particular attention to Stones.
Forward Raheem Sterling is not in Pep Guardiola’s preferred XI at Manchester City
He had played all but 11 minutes of England’s run to the final and the City medical department recommended around 25 days’ rest before returning to training. Even then, it should act as a pre-season with any involvement in matches kept to a minimum in the short-term. For City, Aymeric Laporte is not exactly a downgrade.
Pep Guardiola was planning to ease Stones back in but then came the September international break. Having not kicked a ball in competitive action since July 11, Stones featured in two full matches for England — including the intense 1-1 draw in Poland — and hobbled back north with a muscle problem.
Disquiet rumbled around Guardiola, whose views on the fixture schedule are very strong and very public. But Guardiola makes sure his ire is never directed at Gareth Southgate.
Stones had to start his preparation for the campaign all over again and he offers a case study for how Southgate’s team at the Euros have fared since the devastating penalty shootout loss that capped a long summer.
Mount’s load was being managed by Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel before he suffered a minor thigh problem that kept him out of huge clashes with City and Juventus. Now with England, Tuchel and Guardiola must hope both Stones and Mount are given valuable minutes but not too many — striking a balance will be key.
Tottenham striker Harry Kane is yet to score in the Premier League this season
Southgate has not been able to call on Maguire or Kalvin Phillips this week after both suffered calf problems. These issues, seemingly the result of muscle fatigue, have not affected everyone in the England squad but there is certainly a running theme.
Very few players have been capable of performing at their peak so far this season, and that is understandable.
Quite how they are expected to carry on and on, without truly meaningful breaks of more than a few weeks, is bordering on the absurd.
A report this week released by world players’ union FIFPRO advised that only the introduction of specific measures — including players missing fixtures during pile-ups — will avoid burnout and the cutting short of careers.
‘We must release pressure on players at the top end of the game,’ FIFPRO general secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann said. ‘We need regulation and enforcement mechanisms to protect players.
Mason Mount’s load was being managed by Thomas Tuchel before he picked up a thigh injury
‘These are the type of solutions that must be at the top of the agenda whenever we discuss the development of the match calendar. It’s time to make player health and performance a priority.’ Very few managers would disagree.
While he has stayed fit, Kane’s output is below his usual high standards. Sterling is not in Guardiola’s preferred XI. Of England’s guaranteed starters over the summer, perhaps only Declan Rice and Kyle Walker buck the trend.
Grealish is showing signs of promise from the left of a front three at City but was criticised for his performance against Liverpool on Sunday and was taken off. He has scored once in the league — in the 5-0 hammering of Norwich.
Foden burst into life at Anfield after finally recovering from a complicated foot injury.
This England camp could serve as a tonic for some, a chance to recapture form starting against lowly Andorra on Saturday. But there will be plenty of managers simply praying their stars return in one piece.