Mikel Arteta has revealed that Nicolas Pepe has made giant strides this season, but accepts that the criticism that Willian has faced has been fair.
Arteta and Arsenal have travelled to Rome, where Arsenal will face Benfica on Thursday in the first leg of their round-of-32 Europa League tie due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Both Pepe and Willian have travelled and Arteta accepts that the former has improved this season. Asked about how key the Europa League games have been for Pepe, Arteta said: “Yes, obviously the fact that we have Europe gave the opportunity to almost everybody in the squad to be fit available and completing for his place.
“Nico had some really good matches he scored some important goals as well, and I think that as you said helped him for the Premier League form and the recent form that he’s shown.”
Pepe has scored four times in eight starts in the Premier League. He was on the bench in the win over Leeds but previous to that had started the last four Premier League games, scoring twice.
The 25-year-old has started to show the form which persuaded Unai Emery to pay a club-record £72m for the winger in August 2019.
“Well, he’s done a lot of things. Not only there but in his mentality, the way he approaches every training session, his game understanding as well.
“It’s true he has patches where he’s playing more than at other times. He hasn’t had that continuity over months that every player will be seeking to have. But I think overall there is a lot of progress with Nico.”
Willian’s form was also a subject for debate at Wednesday’s press conference and one journalist claimed it was popular to criticise the Brazilian.
Arteta was asked to describe what the experienced winger can offer the team after only a bit-part role in 2021.
“Well, what he’s doing at the moment the way he’s training, the way he’s working, the way he’s willing to give everything to the team, is what I demand,” said Arteta. “Whether he’s more successful or less successful in the game is another matter. It will come with the quality that he has.
“But at least what I demand from every player is the full commitment and to put the passion and everything they have in every training session and when they have the opportunity to play. And so far Willian has done that every single day.”
Arteta refused to condemn the criticism of the 32-year-old because he knows what high standards the former Chelsea man demands of himself.
Arteta said: “No, I don’t say it’s unfair because with Willy expectations are really high in terms of the goals he can score and the assists that he can create. You expect him to be in the starting line up as well.
“So it’s normal that people write things about him. We have to protect him, we have to support him as much as we can because he deserves it the way he handles his profession and the way he is with us.
“Well he’s part of the squad so he’s got a really good chance (to play).”
Arteta was also asked if he dreams about lifting that trophy in Gdansk.
“That picture is always in the back of my mind because why we are here is to win trophies for this club. This is a competition that we want to be in it as well because we are participating as well.
“The Champions League has been massive for this club. At the moment we are not in it and the best way to be back there is by winning this competition,” added Arteta.
The Gunners were knocked out of the competition by Olympiacos at this stage last year.
“Well I thought it was very cruel the way we got knocked out of the competition. The tie was in our hands, we scored the goal we conceded in the last minutes of extra time, and we still had a massive chance with Auba to go through,” said Arteta.
“But the big lesson there is that we have to play every second of the competition with high focus. Every detail matters and every situation has to be handled depending on what is required.
“Because it’s over two legs the goal difference is very important and that has to be in the back of your mind. You have to be able to control your emotions as well, be able to change the game when you need to take it to your territory when the tie is in your hands.
“I think it was a really tough experience for all of us the way it happened because I think that we deserved to go through. But as well I think that created more hunger for this season to do more. And we have to use that thing that we have still more, that we haven’t gone through yet, to put more energy more passion and more commitment for this competition,” added the Spaniard.