Given the novelty of having Premier League football back for the first time in three months, the absences of John Stones and Mesut Ozil from the match day squads could easily have gone unnoticed. After all, what’s a couple of absentees when you’re already missing 55,000 others?
But if Stones and Ozil’s omissions would have been notable before Project Restart, they are arguably even more striking after it.
The Premier League has only just changed its rules to allow managers to name up to nine substitutes rather than their usual seven. This, in theory, should help to ease the fatigue brought on by the new, compacted schedule, the lack of match fitness and the absence of a proper pre-season.
Even so, there was no place for Stones in Pep Guardiola’s 20-man squad or for Ozil in Mikel Arteta’s. Both instead had teenagers deputising in their positions – Eric Garcia lined up alongside Aymeric Laporte in Manchester City’s defence, while Bukayo Saka operated inside-right for Arsenal.
Explanations were given for their absences. Stones – like reserve goalkeeper Claudio Bravo and summer signing Joao Cancelo – was not considered to be fit enough to be available for selection. With Burnley visiting the Etihad on Monday night, it may be that he returns to the fold quickly.
Then again, this was the 22nd game of City’s season which Stones has missed entirely, without even a place on the substitutes’ bench. Even though the vast majority of those absences are due to minor yet persistent injury problems, it is a staggering number of games to sit out and further evidence of a floundering Etihad career.
Ozil’s omission was a little more curious. After confirming before kick-off that his playmaker was not injured, a clearly disappointed Arteta said after the final whistle that he had left Ozil out for “a tactical reason”. When pressed on the exact nature of that tactical reasoning, he merely added: “I need players in other positions so I decided to leave him out.”
So, let’s look at those players in other positions. Saka was joined by fellow youngsters Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock, with Matteo Guendouzi starting in midfield too. The lesser-spotted but first-choice full-back pairing of Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin was there. So was Pablo Mari, trusted to start ahead of David Luiz and – in hindsight – for good reason.
It felt like a glimpse of Arsenal’s near-term future under Arteta, with players he can mould, shape and develop. The same could be said of Guardiola’s selection of Garcia, who started ahead of not only Stones but also the erratic Nicolas Otamendi and the excellent but ageing Fernandinho. That’s the thing about giving the youth a chance, you see. Others have to make way.
And often, whether those others actually leave is a different question. Ozil’s infamously exorbitant contract hangs over Arsenal. It still has a year left to run and he has no desire to end it early. Stones is a slightly different case, with a greater re-sale value at only 26-years-old and with two years remaining, yet his stock has fallen considerably.
Finding a buyer and a suitable price for either player in the next transfer market will not be easy, particularly given the effect that the coronavirus pandemic is expected to have on depressing prices. But Wednesday night was the latest indication that both Stones and Ozil are moving further from their respective manager’s thoughts and closer to the exit.