This feature is part of Duology
Despite both standing at six-feet something, one cut a willowy, sleek silhouette while the other appeared compact in stature. ‘Hard men’ though they were both perceived as being, one demanded his hair sat cropped close to his scalp, offended by the idea of labouring to style it, while the other proudly boasted a flamboyant, distinguishing ponytail that would long outlive his playing days.
And, quintessential French footballers though they both were, one was black, sadly befitted a cruel racial stereotype of having no relationship with his birth father, and could trace his ancestral roots back to poverty-stricken Senegal. The other was a white, blonde Dieppois from a port town in Normandy renowned for its fresh scallops, 15th-century castle and picturesque churches.
While such stark differences between any two given people may signal an objective incompatibility between them, for Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. On paper they may have seemed to represent one another’s antitheses but when witnessed in the flesh, where the sound of thudding boots and thwacked leather would sound to every ear and the aroma of manicured grass and vapour rub would waft toward every nose, it soon became clear they were made to play beside one another.
It might even have made more sense for the pair to appear as though they were two drafts of the same invention; twin peas borne from the same exquisitely crafted pod. But the truth is that Vieira and Petit were different. Yet they were not divided by their differences, they were defined by them.
Like watching a two-man army accoutred with not guns and ammunition but physical prowess and technical proficiency to spare, the duo’s balance was the very centrepiece of their thrilling collaboration. The strengths of Vieira and Petit blended so well, and so naturally accommodated for what few weaknesses the other had, their example would eventually become the benchmark against which all future Arsenal midfields would be judged. Despite playing together for just three seasons in the Premier League, Paddy and Manu would be remembered as one of the most devastatingly effective partnerships in the history of the English game.
Of the two Frenchmen, Vieira was the first to break ground in north London. He had not long since debuted with his first professional club, Cannes, as a wide-eyed 17-year-old, before being handed the team’s captaincy just two seasons later. Almost from the very inception of his professional career, Vieira’s name began appearing at the top of wanted lists belonging to a crop of very keen and highly regarded managers and he quickly found himself striding towards the upper echelons of the European game.
Vieira was hand-picked by Fabio Capello, who wished to add to the already considerable might of his Milan midfield, but therein laid the problem with the Frenchman’s first move abroad. At Milan, Vieira found the formidable figures of Demetrio Albertini, Marcel Desailly and Frank Rijkaard crowding his position and standing both literally and figuratively in the way of his professional development, consigning him to a place in the reserves. After just a single season in Italy, Vieira sought another transfer, desperate to rediscover first-team football. When a protracted move to Ajax collapsed, a path to the English capital soon opened up in its place.
Intrigued by the impending arrival of manager Arsène Wenger, who had made clear his wishes for his new club to sign the French enforcer in anticipation of his own arrival, a 20-year-old Vieira joined the Arsenal ranks. By the time Wenger followed him to N5, a month later, Vieira had already made a name for himself.
Arsenal had found themselves a goal down at home to Sheffield Wednesday, in September 1996, when a dead leg prematurely ended Ray Parlour’s involvement less than a half hour into the match. Having assumed caretaking duties between Bruce Rioch’s departure and Wenger’s appointment, coach Pat Rice summoned Vieira to the field and gifted the new recruit his opening bow.
Upon entering the fray Vieira’s dynamism became immediately apparent. Doubtless in his decision making, free from inhibitions whether spreading possession himself or demanding it from elsewhere with his powerful forward running, the Frenchman imposed himself on the game in a way he, a young whippersnapper with a backside still bearing splinters from the bench, had no right to.
A team transformed by fresh impetus pulsating at the heart of its midfield, the young Frenchman dragged Arsenal back into the game and inspired a rousing comeback. By the end of their 4-1 victory, despite an Ian Wright hat-trick, it was the name of Vieira on the lips of the Arsenal faithful. So too was his name on the lips of Ray Parlour, the crocked veteran midfielder who had made way for Vieira’s expedited introduction, who had witnessed from the sidelines the boy’s standout display, and who had admitted with a gulp, “I’m not going to play anymore.”
Throughout this time, Emmanuel Petit had been struggling to find his own feet with his boyhood club AS Monaco. Not for the want of talent nor temerity – Petit boasted ample natural ability and never faltered in his application of it – rather, personal issues had weighed heavily on him during the most important years of his development.
Petit had almost given up football altogether, aged 18, when his amateur footballer brother died as a result of a brain clot suffered while heading a ball; the accident taking place around the same time Petit had first earned a call-up to his club’s senior ranks. Having seen the lives of his best friend and his dear grandfather claimed in the space of two years, as a young teenager already battling against the demanding rigours of the Monaco youth academy, his brother’s tragic passing almost became the final straw.
The sight of a vast green expanse ceased to bring feelings of freedom or expression to his mind, as they once did, but instead became only a reminder of the cruelty and futility of life. How could it be here, on a football field, that his brother’s life was taken and why should he get to carry on playing when his brother could not. These thoughts shackled him to the sidelines. Fortunately, for the game’s sake and his, Petit’s family were able to reaffirm his ambitions by declaring his need to play for his deceased loved ones, to honour their memories with his own success, and by ensuring him that giving up in retaliation of his grief would achieve nothing.
And so Petit forged ahead with his football career, becoming an outstanding contributor to the Monaco cause for some nine seasons; winning the Coupe de France and captaining his team to a league title. Just a year after Vieira’s move to England, Petit too would depart his native France keen on accompanying his compatriot in painting London town red.
Vieira had on occasion partnered well with the likes of David Platt and Ray Parlour during his first season at Highbury. But the impending partnership he was to establish with the arriving Emmanuel Petit was to make his previous collaborations look positively amateurish in comparison. Put plainly, none had the mental and physical blend to match Vieira’s abilities in quite the same way Petit could. Remarkably, however, Petit had spent much of his time in France playing at left-back. His tactical switch to the centre of midfield would prove a mightily inspired one.
The more naturally defensive-minded of the duo, Petit often evinced immense strength, boasted energy reserves that permitted a seemingly undiminishing level of stamina, and a poise on the ball that a player of his uninhabited physicality should have found to be beyond them. Petit exuded a gallic confidence from which he could craft a wall of calm around him, while in any square inch of the park, affording him all the time and space he desired to pick the measured pass of his choosing.
Vieira meanwhile would wield his own confidence like a battering ram and, whether armed with the ball already in tow or simply a picture in his mind of the pass he would soon demand with an idiosyncratic forward charge, he’d routinely fulfil the box-to-box remit of his positional label with ease, ensuring opposition players from back to front knew exactly who was in charge of the field.
Their first season together saw Vieira and Petit collect an unforgettable double of Premier League and FA Cup trophies before significantly emboldening their claim to the title of world’s best central midfield pairing by aiding in their country’s dramatic triumph at the 1998 World Cup at home in France. The showpiece finale in Saint-Denis even saw Petit grab the third and final goal of the game; a sublime left-foot finish laid on by a perfectly weighted assist from none other than his friend and trusted colleague Vieira.
To what few who may still have doubted the credentials of the partnership, just one rebuttal required posing: how many other duos can say they gilded a double-winning domestic season by combining to score the icing-on-the-cake goal of a World Cup final triumph? The scarcity of alternative answers, beyond Paddy and Manu, said it all then just as it does now.
In the summer of 2000, feeling as though he had outgrown north London, Petit leapt at the chance to follow the lead of Arsenal teammate Marc Overmars in leaving for Barcelona. Failing to replicate his successes in a single season in Spain, blighted by positional changes and form-hampering injuries, Petit would return to the Premier League for a three-year spell with Chelsea before his eventual retirement.
Vieira, meanwhile, remained with Arsenal for a further five seasons, during which time he was able to claim another two Premier Leagues and FA Cups, in addition to forming the spine of the famously Invincible Arsenal squad, before sampling life at Juventus, Internazionale and Manchester City prior to the cessation of his own playing days.
While still a Gunner, Vieira blossomed once again alongside the defensive solidity of Brazilian enforcer Gilberto Silva, a man affectionately called “the invisible wall”, and Petit found great success as the defensive foil to Frank Lampard’s rampant attacking dynamism at Chelsea, but at each of their subsequent clubs neither Vieira nor Petit ever happened upon another central midfield player quite like their old comrade from the early days at Arsenal.
In their absence, in more recent times, Arsenal also failed to craft a midfield partnership that rivalled the efficacy of their two Frenchman. For football journalist James McNicholas, “Wenger’s later switch to using three central midfielders was the ultimate compliment to the Vieira-Petit axis: without them, he had to add another player to match their influence.” Their presence was irreplicable.
Though Vieira and Petit played shoulder to shoulder for a fraction of the time some partners spend together, marshalling midfields all throughout the Premier League for just three seasons, still their legacy retains the power to send football romantics trawling through their memories to fondly recall one of the game’s most dynamic and devastatingly effective midfield duos. A partnership with the potency to define an era for both club and country, there were none who did it quite like Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp