In his nine years at Arsenal, Patrick Vieira had many midfield partners in Arsene Wenger’s 4-4-2 system. Gilberto, Edu and Ray Parlour all played alongside the Frenchman to great effect but, one man stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Emmanuel Petit joined Arsenal from Monaco in 1997 for a bargain £2.5 million, reuniting with former boss Wenger.
Despite a slow start as he transitioned from a central defender to midfield general, the patience afforded to him by Wenger and the Arsenal faithful was well and truly rewarded.
Petit’s pace, power, tackling and experience, couple with his defensive intellect and impeccable positioning, honed during his days in the back four, made him the perfect foil for a young Vieira.
But, the Frenchman was more than just a midfield destroyer. Jamie Redknapp once said “You look at Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit at Arsenal. They are players that can do everything.”
He wasn’t wrong.
Petit’s wonderful range of passing allowed him dictate the tempo of Arsenal’s play, with his trademark back-to-front floater the perfect ammunition for Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright in attack.
These attributes alone contributed to Petit’s legendary status at the club but, his arrival was one of the main catalyst for the beginning of the Wenger era of dominance.
His first full season in N5 saw Arsenal win the double, with the Premier League and FA Cup trophies taking their rightful spot in the Highbury trophy cabinet. While Petit’s impact was felt throughout the season, his performances in it’s final, crucial months were standout.
Winning the Premier League player of the month for April, his drive and experience gave Arsenal the staying power in a title race that saw The Gunners pip Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United to the title, earning him a spot in the PFA Team of the Year.
His performances that year were not just limited to domestic football.
Petit was named as part of the French squad for the 1998 FIFA World Cup on home soil. Partnered once again by Patrick Vieira, Les Bleus won the tournament, beating favourites Brazil in the final. As he had done at Arsenal just months previous, Petit saved his best performances for when it truly mattered, assisting Zinedine Zidane’s brace and scoring one of his own against the Brazilians to lift footballs biggest trophy.
Petit spent two more years at Arsenal, performing consistently and lifting two Community Shields but, following further international triumph with France at Euro 2000, he drew the admirable gaze of Barcelona and his time at Highbury was up.
Petit moved to Nou Camp along with Marc Overmars on July 28th 2000, bringing a close to his Arsenal career after 118 appearances and 11 goals but, as with many Arsenal stars who have made the switch to the Blaugrana, it did not work out.
Returning to central defence and struggling for fitness, he lasted just one season in Spain. Petit later claimed in his biography that Barca coach Lorenzo Serra Ferrer didn’t even know what position he played when he joined the club.
Petit returned to England with Chelsea in 2001 before retiring in 2004.
Not even his time at Stamford Bridge could ruin his reputation at Arsenal, with many older fans still reminiscing about his dominant partnership with Vieira and his vital role in the double winning side.
Despite his own success at the club, Petit’s impact on the career of a young Patrick Vieira is often overlooked. Able to learn from his compatriot, Vieira may not have developed into the leader and Arsenal legend that he did without Petit’s tutelage, with the former often praising the latter’s impact upon his career.
It’s rare that a player who spends just three years at a club can achieve the statues that Petit did but, his quality will live long in the memory of those him saw him pull on an Arsenal shirt.
Voted 22nd on the list of Arsenal’s all-time greatest players, Petit will forever remain an Arsenal legend.