Lucas Perez’s hat trick decided Arsenal’s 4-1 win over FC Basel in the Champions League and, in an unlikely outcome, clinched the top spot in Group A for the Gunners.
Unlikely because Paris Saint-Germain, heavy favorites at home, could only draw with Ludogorets Razgrad. As a result, Arsenal’s won the group for the first time in five years.
The Gunners blitzed Basel at the beginning of each half and warded off most of the hosts’ pressure to secure the victory.
Here are three things we learned from the match.
Arsène Wenger still goes for it
The talk leading up to the encounter focused on whether the Arsenal manager should and would give his important players a rest. After all, PSG was almost certain to secure the group’s top seed at home, and the Gunners face a challenging Premier League calendar.
If you needed reminding of Wenger’s unpredictability and his respect for the Champions League, his team selection should give you all you require. Yes, he made six changes from the lineup that dispatched West Ham on Saturday; those six, though, did not include Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez. Arsenal’s two stars played long enough to secure the result, then left for substitutes.
Elsewhere, the manager picked an aggressive starting XI, fielding Aaron Ramsey in midfield beside Granit Xhaka and Lucas with Alex Iwobi, Özil, and Alexis farther forward. The priority was clearly on the attack, a focus that proved smart as Arsenal’s speed on the break overwhelmed Basel.
This risk-taking did mean that, early 2-0 lead in hand, this was not the team to lock it down. But the group, particularly central defenders Laurent Koscielny and Rob Holding, did enough to keep Basel from getting too close.
Lucas Perez gets to the right place at the right time
The two goals Lucas scored in early the first half displayed his opportunistic streak. He recognized the threat that left back Kieran Gibbs was posing on Basel’s right, and he got himself into can’t-miss positions in front of goal.
For his first, Lucas sneaked in as Alexis released Gibbs to the byline with a delicate chip in the eighth minute. Gibbs drew the Basel keeper Tomas Vaclik’s attention then slotted the pass to Lucas. The Spaniard waited a split-second, Alexis style, for the last Basel defender to commit, then eased the ball into the net.
Eight minutes later, Lucas scored a poacher’s goal, jumping on the rebound of Gibbs’s stinging shot to sweep home.
He had more work to do to finish off the second Arsenal hat-trick in as many matches. Again, Gibbs was instrumental. His intervention and strong pass upfield was deadened by Alexis into Lucas’s path. Lucas swung his weaker right foot, didn’t make clean contact, but had the angle perfect to beat Vaclik.
That’s five goals in just nine Arsenal appearances for the late summer arrival from Deportivo La Coruna. An excellent return.
Gibbs and Iwobi jelled well
Arsenal enjoyed a smooth combination on its left. Unlike in the last match against PSG, Gibbs and Iwobi synchronized their movements and reached dangerous positions.
Gibbs played much of the match practically as a winger, getting forward at every opportunity. Of his 62 completed passes, Gibbs directed the plurality (26) forward and connected on 13 of 14 passes in the final third. (Statistics from FourFourTwo StatsZone)
Gibbs could influence the match in this fashion because Iwobi frequently moved in from the flank to overload the midfield. Running from that central position onto Özil’s cutback, Iwobi scored Arsenal’s fourth goal of the night.
Meanwhile, Basel couldn’t exploit the resulting gaps on Arsenal’s left. Center forward Marc Janko wasn’t mobile enough to run into that channel, and right back Michael
Lang, though 15 of 15 on passes in the attacking third, could not produce the decisive quality.
Until the point in the 78th minute when Rob Holding surrendered possession, leading to Basel’s goal, his partnership with Laurent Koscielny at the heart of Arsenal’s defense performed impeccably.
Koscielny succeeded on seven of seven attempted clearances, while Holding was five for five. Koscielny also made a game-high four interceptions, while Holding completed 93 percent of his passes. All added up to solid contributions from a novel partnership.
A brief word about Granit Xhaka, too, upon his return to his original club: The Swiss international pushed Arsenal forward from midfield, completing 41 of his game-high 104 passes forward. He was also alert defensively, intercepting four Basel passes, making 14 ball recoveries, and succeeding on three of five attempted tackles. No player was more effective on those measures.