Mikel Arteta described criticism of Willian as “normal” after the Brazilian came under fire from Arsenal legend Tony Adams.
Willian has made 18 Premier League appearances for the Gunners since joining the club on a free transfer from Chelsea, though he has struggled to produce his best form and has yet to score a goal for Arsenal.
In contrast, 19-year-old winger Bukayo Saka has netted five times in 21 league appearances this season, while 20-year-old Emile Smith Rowe has impressed in midfield, prompting Adams to question the club’s decision to bring in Willian, as well as the more recent arrival of Martin Odegaard in the January window.
Arteta admitted there is pressure on Willian to perform, saying of the criticism from Adams: “I don’t say it’s unfair.
“The expectations of Willian and the goals he can score, the assists he can create. It’s normal that people will write things about him.
“We have to protect him as much as we can.”
Watch the lads in training today at London Colney ahead of our trip to Rome to face Benfica
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) February 16, 2021
Adams also took aim at Odegaard, suggesting the Premier League club did not need to bring in the Norwegian playmaker, particularly given the recent emergence of Smith Rowe.
However, Arteta is backing the 22-year-old acquisition from Real Madrid to succeed during his loan spell, saying: “He’s got the potential [to become one of the best] because he’s done it.
“I followed him very closely when he was at Real Sociedad and he was impressive for long periods. That’s why I was so convinced he could be a player for us.”
Arsenal face Benfica in the Europa League round of 32 on Thursday, with the competition appearing to present their best route to qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
Both legs of the tie will be played in neutral venues due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, meaning Arsenal travel to Rome for the ‘away’ leg on Thursday.
Arteta underlined his side’s determination not to let the setting affect their progress, saying: “It’s very unusual but as much as we can we must try to maintain the integrity of the competition.”