Arsenal 2 FC Basel 0
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 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. His first brace in this competition for almost nine years served to maintain all the effervescence from the hosts' league form, puncturing the visitors early and allowing Arsène Wenger's team something akin to a breather for much of the second period when the contest felt settled. Had Tomas Vaclik not been in inspired form in the visitors' goal, this would have been a thrashing.
Only Robin van Persie has now scored more goals in this arena 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 constantly praising his new-found attitude. It is probably about time he imposed himself consistently at this level, but there is still time for him to fulfil the potential of his youth. He will thrive in a team whose confidence can rarely have been higher.
For long periods this felt like a continuation of Saturday's emphatic dismissal of Chelsea, the intervening few days having done little to check Arsenal's upbeat rhythm. They tore into the Swiss from the outset, knocking the stuffing from the visitors' challenge inside the first quarter. Alexis Sánchez was elusive, tormenting Marek Suchy and Taulant Xhaka at the heart of their rearguard. Alex Iwobi was a constant 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. Walcott came off the bench for Sam Allardyce’s England this month but, on this evidence, he must be in serious to contention to start Gareth Southgate’s first game in charge, against Malta.
The 27-year-old is in one of those glorious purple patches, where every pass opens up an opportunity, every marker is unnerved by his gliding presence, and everything he touches flies in. He scored twice in the early exchanges to make a mockery of Basel’s initial ambition.
They are a side already 13 points clear at the top of their league after winning all nine games but who were reduced to chasing shadows from the off. 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 Vaclik seven minutes in. Once Santi Cazorla had recycled the ball in midfield and liberated Sánchez down the left, played onside by the hapless Balanta, Basel’s defence was dishevelled. The Chilean’s delivery was perfect and Walcott, bursting away from Taulent 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 dared to hope they had weathered the early 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. The goalkeeper deserved better than to be beaten twice in that one-sided half, his own reactions keeping out the excellent Héctor Bellerín and, twice, Sánchez.
Özil’s tame prod wide did not befit his team-mates’ approach play, but the confidence flowing through the home ranks took the breath away. This was Arsenal at their best, a side capable of blitzing all-comers from a contest. Basel have overcome the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United in recent years, but this onslaught left them wheezing.
Sánchez simply would not let them relax, buzzing as he did constantly at their backs. The Swiss were utterly flustered. They should have been dispatched more emphatically. The Dutch referee waved away appeals for a penalty after Vaclik smothered at Sánchez’s feet and, in the confusion which ensued, Balanta dived in optimistically to prevent Walcott reaching the loose ball. That lunge probably reflected the defender’s befuddled state of mind, though Wenger was more obviously frustrated by the sight of Iwobi and Sánchez poking wide when a third beckoned.
David Ospina’s sharp save from Birkir Bjarnason’s attempt, the first Basel had mustered, was a reminder that profligacy could not be tolerated with the Icelandic international skying an easier attempt over the bar from the resultant corner.
But the Swiss were poor, Andraz Sporar’s dithering in front of goal to allow Ospina to recover rather summing up their inferiority. Walcott’s absence for the last 20 minutes had actually come as a relief.