Mikel Arteta was full of praise for Nicolas Pepe and his development on Friday, insisting he’s a player for the long term at Arsenal.

Arsenal's French-born Ivorian midfielder Nicolas Pepe (C) celebrates with teammates after Leicester City's Austrian defender Christian Fuchs (unseen) scored an own goal during the English League Cup third round football match between Leicester City and Arsenal at King Power Stadium in Leicester, central England on September 23, 2020. (Photo by Tim Keeton / POOL / AFP)
Arsenal winger Nicolas Pepe (C) celebrates with teammates after a Leicester City own goal on September 23, 2020. (Photo by Tim Keeton / POOL / AFP)

Nicolas Pepe is the subject of ever-increasing scrutiny at Arsenal, following his move to the club in 2019. At first, it was due to his price tag, then his initial wait for a goal from open play, and now it’s the battle for places with new signing Willian.

Never mind the 18 goal contributions in a debut season from the wing despite playing half a season under Unai Emery and Freddie Ljungberg (without a coaching team), before winning the FA Cup and the Community Shield to cap the campaign off.

Thankfully, Mikel Arteta seems well aware of Pepe’s qualities, even if Willian is starting league games at the moment.

“I think he’s come a long way,” Arteta said. “We know what the club paid for him when he joined and that was obviously an extra pressure but he’s a player who’s had to adapt, it’s a different style. He has a really good attitude.

“We can see [development] in a lot of phases of his game. He’s very settled here, he’s liked by the boys, he’s a really good character to have around.

“I’m really positive that we’re going to have him for many years and that he can perform at a really high level consistently.”

Will Pepe start against Liverpool?

LONDON, ENGLAND: Adam Masina of Watford challenges Nicolas Pepe of Arsenal on July 26, 2020. (Photo by Neil Hall/Pool via Getty Images)

Despite his praise for Pepe, Arteta still hinted that Willian is the more likely to start against Liverpool.

When asked about the connection between Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arteta responded that the two had a great understanding, before saying: “Not only them, but with Willian as well and the way he’s come in the team straight away.”

The manager only added afterwards “[also] with Pepe, Bukayo – when he’s playing there – and with Reiss”, which feels telling. Clearly Willian is the first to come to mind when Arteta thinks about the front three. But it’s only a small hint at this stage.

For my part, I’d definitely bet on Willian starting the league game. I think the former Chelsea winger is more likely to execute his defensive duties in the way Arteta wants. Pepe will still make the squad and probably start the cup tie later in the week.