Remembering Emmanuel Petit’s incredible debut season at Arsenal
Some pairings capture the imagination so effectively that the two names involved become synonymous with each other and feel incomplete when uttered alone.
Take Adam & Eve for example. Or Bonnie and Clyde. Or Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit.
Nobody, before or since, has had the mental and physical blend to match Vieira’s abilities in quite the same way Petit could.
The midfield duo dovetailed so effectively during the late 90s that Arsenal have been unable to replicate the chemistry of their pairing ever since.
While Vieira is celebrated by many as Arsenal’s finest ever midfielder, all VapoRub, telescopic legs and long-range howitzers, it’s been somewhat forgotten how effective Petit was in his debut season in English football.
The France international overcame personal tragedy to win both the Premier League and the FA Cup in 1997-98, with the World Cup trophy on home soil acting as a cherry on top of an already delicious Victoria sponge.
Petit wasn’t in the best frame of mind in 1997. He’d almost given up football altogether as an 18-year-old when his brother died as a result of a brain clot suffered while heading a ball during an amateur game.
Coming through the Monaco academy, Petit was consumed with grief. Many a troubled footballer has sought escapism on the football pitch but, to Petit, the green expanses only acted as a reminder of the futility of life.
Luckily, his family urged him to play on in memory of his brother and Petit became an outstanding servant to Monaco, winning the Coupe de France and captaining the side to a league title.
Arsenal paid £3.5million for his services in June 1997 and Petit was reunited with former Monaco boss Arsene Wenger – who had big plans for his compatriot. Petit had spent much of his time in France playing at left-back but Wenger converted him into a deep-lying midfielder to play alongside Vieira.
It proved to be a masterstroke. The more naturally defensive-minded of the duo, Petit possessed enviable strength, energy and stamina alongside a poise that few in the English game could match. He simply exuded authority and Gallic confidence.
For his part, Petit found himself at home at Highbury. “The squad was full of big characters, crazy people,” he told the Arsenal Weekly podcast in 2015.
“The culture and style of play was completely different [to France] and we were preparing for games with rap music. I remember Ian Wright tramping through the bars into the Highbury dressing room and I could feel the walls shaking from the fans.”
— Premier League (@premierleague) June 4, 2017
But he didn’t enjoy himself straight away, finding the acclimatisation to English football tough with one game at Southampton proving especially difficult.
“I remember I received a kick on my knee from one of their central defenders in that game,” Petit said in 2020. “He gave me a big kick and I had to have five or six stitches – and after the game I was so down.
“Yes, we’d won the game, but I didn’t really feel like we’d played a game of football at all. I just felt like we spent most of the game watching the ball in the air and the ball was hardly on the ground. I remember having a talk with Arsene Wenger because he could see I was down. We won the game but I was disappointed.
“Arsene said to me: “Listen, this is English football. This is the way they play here. We try to get the ball on the floor and play but sometimes you’ll meet opponents who won’t play that way; they’ll just want to kick you off the pitch.
“You need to accept that this is their tradition. But we need to play a different style of football. We need to show these teams that we will win matches, even receiving kicks, by playing good football. It will come.
“From that moment I told myself to keep my mouth shut, get my head down and work twice as hard for my manager. I even followed the advice of my teammates to train without shin pads to make myself stronger.”
And the advice worked. Petit soon morphed into one of Arsenal’s most impressive performers and was named Premier League Player of the Month for April.
But it was a victory in March that has stuck with the midfielder. “The game between Manchester United and Arsenal was so important in the 1998 title race,” Petit told us in 2018.
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“We came out of the Christmas period a long way behind United with a lot of games in hand because of difficult circumstances and we needed to have a lot of wins before we went into this game at Old Trafford.
“By the time we got there, we were in a position where we could see them in front of us. If we win this game, the title would be in our hands and Marc Overmars scored the goal that changed everything for us as we won 1-0.”
That win against United was the second in a row of 10 successive victories that secured an improbable title win for the Gunners – United had been so far in front that some bookmakers stopped taking bets on them retaining their crown in February.
And Petit was in the starting XI as Arsenal beat Newcastle 2-0 in the FA Cup final, before famously scoring France’s third goal in the 3-0 win over Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final.
The Vieira-Petit midfield axis is rightly remembered as one of the strongest in English football history but let’s celebrate Petit’s contribution in its own right.
Because not many players overcome such adversity to win the amount of trophies he did in the 1997-98 campaign.
By Michael Lee