England’s players rode the crest of a wave all summer as they made it to the final of the European Championship but came crashing down with those missed penalties. The physical exertion of a year of nonstop football is very hard to recover from but the mental exhaustion is even harder, especially when it ends in disappointment.
I did nine back-to-back summer tournaments and never got back to feeling myself until after Christmas, when the women’s game takes a break, but the men do not have that opportunity this winter. Few of England’s players have hit the ground running in the Premier League as they struggle to process the disappointment of missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win a major tournament on home soil, and perhaps the mental anguish has taken its toll.
The body is remarkable – it can recover from anything – but the mind can take time. During a club season a player builds themselves up to play well to earn international recognition and get picked to spend a tournament going through the highs and lows football brings, and for England that resulted in crashing and burning at the end. People will say: “They’re on £250,000 a week.” But that does not take away from the fact you want to play for your country and win an international trophy. No money in the world can buy that – you can’t use your wages on a winner’s medal.
After the tournament the players may have missed out on a full pre-season, making it impossible to get up to speed for the start of the campaign. If you start a season not at full physical fitness it is hard to catch up. It is unsurprising that clubs want their best players on the pitch but it could be worth reconsidering the breaks players are offered, to help them and the team in the long term.
If you look at Arsenal in the Women’s Super League, they have great examples of players who had an opportunity to rest mentally, allowing them to come back stronger. Beth Mead missed out on Great Britain’s Olympics squad but has returned vibrant and full of confidence, scoring and creating four goals in eight games. Kim Little is also looking back to her best after retiring from international football to give her the breaks she needs. Vivianne Miedema has been rested by the Netherlands and Arsenal this season to ensure she does not burn out and has rewarded the decision with her performances.
Harry Kane had a tumultuous summer even before the Euros, and was questioned before, during and after the tournament. The striker was keen to leave Spurs but that never happened, he missed almost all of pre-season and was greeted by a new coach in Nuno Espírito Santo who has already been and gone. In that time, Kane has scored one league goal and looked a long way off his best. A break may be what he needs – not even goals will help. Going away to build up fitness and sharpness in order to come back refreshed is required but that cannot happen, so he has to rely on teammates to dig him out more. He will already be looking towards the summer for a rest.
Kane may see Antonio Conte’s arrival as the fresh start he needs, because with Nuno things were up in the air after a summer of trying to engineer a move. You do not know how much of a relationship he built with Nuno after a summer of not knowing whether he would be a Tottenham player. He has a clean slate with Conte and will be there until the summer at least.
Manchester United’s England internationals have failed to find form. Luke Shaw has been poor, Harry Maguire has gone off the boil and Marcus Rashford has struggled with injury. Jadon Sancho took a mental break, a wise move for a player who endured such a tough ending to the competition by missing in the shootout, but that may not have helped him physically.
The winger did not feature too much during the Euros, so a month-long break between the tournament and starting at a new club was less than ideal physically for a player lacking game time. It may have had a detrimental impact on his fitness and it is unwise to arrive when not at your physical peak after a big-money move, leaving him battling to make an impact at Old Trafford. It proves there is a fine line when it comes to getting a player to their optimum level.
The situation was similar after the 2018 World Cup semi-final loss to Croatia. Very few players rebounded from the disappointment the next season, and some took as long as 18 months to get back to normal. Declan Rice is carrying on where he left off –although he is out of these England games because of illness – and Kyle Walker is in good form but it is hard to find another England regular from the summer shining in the Premier League.
Joining up for another international break could help the group, however, because they are all in the same boat, trying to kickstart their seasons. It takes you to a safe environment where you are loved, they know you and it puts a bit of a protective arm around you. Time away from the daily routine of club football can be helpful; I would often use an England call-up to reinvigorate myself if things were not going well for me in the league.
If you have mental fatigue, you constantly feel like you’re pulling a bus or a train. Life is hard enough without that feeling, so sometimes the best solution is the simplest: rest.