Mikel Arteta says criticism of under-fire Willian is not unfair – but the Arsenal boss is confident that the Brazilian and team-mate Nicolas Pepe will soon live up to expectations.
Willian, 32, arrived on a free transfer from Chelsea last year and was expected to add experience and firepower to a youthful Arsenal attack.
Indeed, his arrival on a three-year deal worth £220,000 a week certainly raised eyebrows among the football fraternity.
But the playmaker has failed to display the form he showed during his seven years at Stamford Bridge, however, managing just three assists in 24 games in all competitions and failing to score.
Arteta, speaking ahead of Thursday's Europa League last-32 first leg against Benfica, said: "I won't say it (criticism) is unfair.
"Expectations of Willian are really high in terms of the goals he can score, assists he can create.
"We have to protect him. What he's doing at the moment, the way he's training, the way he's willing to give everything to the team is what I demand.
"Whether he's successful in the game is another matter, but it will come with the quality he has."
Willian isn't the only Arsenal attacker to have struggled to settle in north London, with Pepe also criticised for his below-par performances.
But the Ivory Coast star appears to have made progress in recent months, having started four of Arsenal's last five Premier League games.
And Arteta is pleased to see Pepe, who arrived for a club-record £72m from Lille in 2019, begin to show his full potential.
The Arsenal manager added: "The fact that we have the Europa League gave the opportunity to almost everyone in the squad to be fit and available and compete for their place.
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"[Pepe] has had some really good matches and scored some important goals as well and I think that has helped him for the Premier League form and the recent form that he's shown.
"I've seen a lot of things, in his mentality, the way he approaches every training session, in his understanding of the game as well.
"It's true that he has patches where he's played more than at other times. He has had the opportunity over the last couple of months that probably every player has been seeking to have but I think overall there is a lot of progress with Nico."
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