Theo Walcott’s shoulders actually slumped a little as the board was hoisted here. The winger stood in the middle of the pitch, hands on hips and disbelief etched across his brow, as he digested the fact his number was up just as he was contemplating plundering the hat-trick his performance had deserved. His was a trudge to the touchline thereafter as the majority in this arena chorused their appreciation. That reception, and this saunter to the top of the section, should serve as consolation.
This was another scintillating performance from Arsenal, such an irrepressible attacking force over recent weeks, to overwhelm tricky opponents but it was the bite offered by Walcott which truly wounded Basel. He is in one of those purple patches, where every pass finds him in space, every marker is unnerved by his gliding presence, and everything he touches flies in. This was the first time he had scored twice in a Champions League game for almost nine years but, on this form and with his team maintaining their upbeat rhythm of recent weeks, he can be prolific.
Only Robin van Persie has now scored more goals in this stadium than Walcott’s 45. He is a player revived by a summer of feverish work with his personal trainer, Bradley Simmonds, and has returned fit, focused and intent upon making his mark with his manager, who spoke one-to-one with the player in pre-season, having taken to regularly praising the forward’s positive attitude. “Look, it’s not the chat that makes you score goals,” said Wenger of his summer discussions with Walcott. “Theo assessed well where he stands, and rectified well what he had to add to his game. It’s 95% down to him.”
It is undoubtedly about time he imposed himself consistently at this level, but there is still time for him to fulfil the potential of his youth. On this evidence, a player who was used as a substitute in Sam Allardyce’s only game in charge of England may have a part to play from the start in Gareth Southgate’s first match as interim manager, against Malta next month. “The best recommendation (for an England recall) is his performances,” added Wenger. “It’s difficult to ignore him if you see him playing like this, but I will leave that to Southgate now.”
Basel, a team already 13 points clear at the top of the Swiss league, had no answer and duly subsided to their first defeat of the season. They wilted under Arsenal’s first-half onslaught which, just as against Chelsea on Saturday, effectively settled the contest. Alexis Sánchez was elusive, tormenting Marek Suchy and Taulant Xhaka at the heart of the visitors’ rearguard. Alex Iwobi was a menace from the left, his interchanges with Mesut Özil leaving opponents dizzied while, on the opposite flank, Walcott ran riot. At times it was painful watching Eder Balanta’s attempts to snuff out the threat. The Colombian was bypassed so often the mismatch almost felt cruel.
The goals were pilfered early. The Swiss had never really recovered from the slick rat-a-tat passing which culminated in Nacho Monreal drawing the first of many saves from an overworked but impressive Tomas Vaclik seven minutes in. Once Santi Cazorla had recycled the ball in midfield and liberated Sánchez down the left, the Chilean played onside by the hapless Balanta, Basel’s defence was dishevelled. Sánchez’s delivery was perfect and Walcott, bursting away from Xhaka, nodded powerfully in.
That was his third goal in as many games but, as he drifted from flank to centre, there were always likely to be further rewards. Just as Urs Fischer’s side had dared to hope they had weathered the storm, Sánchez and Walcott exchanged passes at pace, cutting out Balanta in the process, and the Englishman crisply dispatched a second across Vaclik and in off the far post. Thereafter the goalkeeper denied Arsenal a cricket score, saving from Sánchez and the marauding Héctor Bellerín. Iwobi and Mesut Özil should have given him no chance only for their efforts to fly off target.
In the end, only profligacy spared the Swiss a proper hiding. Therein lies Arsenal’s room for improvement because, while the advantage remained at two, David Ospina was anxious as Birkir Bjanarson forced him to save. Wenger actually cut an anxious figure on the bench at times in the second period, apparently concerned his players felt the job was long since done. “But it looks like the team has interesting potential, so we have to be ambitious and continue to develop,” he added. “We know exactly how we want to play football. That demands complete focus, some leadership inside the squad and some humility.
“It’s down to hard work, but also to belief. The confidence comes from the last few results, too. We hadn’t beat Chelsea at home for a few games, and now it looks like we’re playing with full power and pace.” It was all too much for Basel to leave Arsenal top of the group with Paris Saint-Germain. Theirs is a c