By Richard Clarke
There can be few complaints about Arsenal’s start to the season.
In their opening five games they have garnered eight Premier League points and a crucial away win in the Champions League.
However the next week or so will provide a proper perspective on their achievement so far. It is nowhere near decisive of course, but the trip to Manchester City on Sunday and the home game with Chelsea the following Saturday will at least determine the immediate aspirations of the Arsenal supporters for the coming season.
As Wenger told this website on Thursday: “There is the title race and then there are the big games.”
These two belong firmly in that bracket.
Arsenal’s early optimism has been based upon two facets – the alacrity with which the summer signings have adjusted and a new-found defensive solidity. The former has been thoroughly discussed but the latter can bear more scrutiny.
In those five games they have conceded twice – once via an uncharacteristic mistake from Wojciech Szczesny and the other from a penalty. And yet it is the make-up of the defensive unit that has caught the eye.
Vito Mannone and Carl Jenkinson are two-fifths of the personnel. Had everyone in the squad been fit, then these two relative 'rookies' might have been third place in Wenger's reckoning for their given positions at the start of the campaign. As a consequence both have been targeted tactically in the opening month of the campaign but, as Wenger points out, it has been an education in which they have excelled.
"They’ve stood up to the test and I’m very proud of that," said Wenger. "I am very happy for them as well because I have faith in them. It’s always nice to see that first of all you are paid back and you were right.
"They have played in big games and the most important thing is they have dealt well with it well mentally. Sometimes, when you come in like that, you need a little breather after a few games.
"Vito has experience because he is now 24 and he played under pressure at Hull for a long time. He learnt his job here.
"He had to wait and I felt two years ago that he was not ready. Now I feel he is.
"As for Carl, he learns from game to game and is a great studier of football. I think he will have a big career because he’s such an immensely motivated boy and he has talent. Of course he wants to learn very quickly, but of course he has jumped from primary school to university in one year. You need some special talent to do that."
Let's not put the mortar board on the head of either player yet. University 'freshers' are normally three years away from graduation - and the intervening time is filled with plenty of exams.
As Wenger says, Mannone had loan spells and Arsenal mileage to fall back on but Jenkinson had played less than 30 games as a professional footballer before the start of this season so the learning curve has been particularly steep.
Sunday might just be the biggest test of their nascent north London careers.
Manchester City, of course, are the juggernauts of the Premier League. Robert Mancini has spent millions to assemble a talented and powerful squad. OK, they only sneaked the title from their cross-town neighbours last year in the final seconds of the final game. But, as Wenger would concur, Manchester United are a tremendously tough side to see-off, whatever their vintage.
Manchester City come into this game with a home record of P31 W29 D2 L0 since December 2010. It would take something special to win and a battling point would surely satisfy the travelling support - particularly if it is backed up by a win next weekend.
In truth, Mancini's men have been patchy this season. They drew at Stoke, just about stole a 3-2 victory at home to Southampton and fell to Real Madrid in midweek by conceding two late goals. In contrast to Arsenal, they are lacking defensive security - conceding 10 in six games if you include the Community Shield.
"I expect them to be focused and play well," said Wenger brushing aside the insinuation of the stats. "The Madrid game was a disappointment for them of course. It always takes a little bit away from you when you lose.
"But on our side, let's not have any speculation on the weakness or strength of them, let's focus on us to be at our best. If we are at our best I think we have a great chance to get a good result there.
"What gives the extra edge at the moment is that the Premier League is very tight. It’s the beginning of the title race and that you know that this game can have a big influence on the belief of both teams. Who has the upper hand has a psychological advantage too. So on that front it’s a very exciting game.
"It’s very early in the season,” added Wenger. “But it’s already very important for me."
Manchester City: Aguero (doubt - knee), Richards (ankle), Guidetti (calf), Nasri (hamstring)
Arsenal: Frimpong (knee), Szczesny (ankle), Rosicky (tendon), Sagna (leg), Wilshere (ankle), Fabianski (back)Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source