Tactical Insights

Emmanuel Petit interview: Barcelona, Premier League, Mbappé to Madrid…

Emmanuel Petit lays back on his Parisian sofa as the sun drips through the curtains. “It’s been sunny recently, let’s enjoy it”, he smiles as we sit down for a chat.

We start with the Premier League, which he says “has been a very exciting season so far” while commenting that he is happy to see the title race between three teams. One of them, Arsenal, is where Petit played between 1997 and 2000.

Right now, Mikel Arteta has Arsenal at the top end of the table, fighting it out with City and Liverpool for the title. “I know that in modern football” Petit nods in approval when I mention Arsenal’s manager, “especially at top clubs, you don’t have time to put on the pitch what you want to do, the vision you have for your players. I know about all the criticism he has received when he first signed for Arsenal, all the troubles he had to manage in the dressing room with players like Aubameyang, for example.

“Step by step you know, this team came back with their DNA on the pitch, and they gave back to the fans, to everyone who loves Arsenal and the job [Arteta] has done is remarkable.”

“And I think it’s amazing what he’s doing with this staff because he’s got a proper vision on the pitch, a proper identity into the game, but he is ruthless with his players, he loves his players but they don’t get a margin to do what they want, they have to follow the rules all the time. The team is the star; players are not the stars, and the team is the star and he puts a real mentality into this team and a real unity and a great identity on the pitch.”

Presented with a ticking clock and the risk of talking about Arteta all day, we move swiftly on. From gushing about one Spanish manager to questioning another. Well, it’s actually Petit who questions me at the suggestion that Xavi is leaving at the end of the season.

Arteta has led Arsenal to fight for the Premier League title.

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Arteta has led Arsenal to fight for the Premier League title.TOLGA AKMENEFE

Xavi has been moaning and complaining… referees, money, not giving 100%’

“Are you sure?” he asks as a cheeky smile breaks across his face. “Are you sure he’s going to leave at the end of the season and not before?”

“I mean, he knows the club”, Petit adds after a chuckle, “he has been built into this club. He’s been so successful. It was such a great period with Xavi [in the team]. And every Barcelona fan will always love him for what he’s done for the club. Now as a manager, he knows how difficult it is, especially on the bench. I know so many managers that have been struggling, despite what they could have done before that.”

Regarding the criticism that Xavi has received, Petit acknowledges Barcelona have had “so many troubles on and off the pitch. This club is so political. This club is so difficult to get serenity. You can win the Champions League, you can win LaLiga but within the next six months, it could change; the weather can change so quickly, so fast.”

But the sympathy soon ended: “Xavi has been moaning and complaining about so many things over the last few months” he added, “the referee, the money, some players are not fit, and are not giving 100%. He has been always trying to find different reasons for the difficult season they are going through.”

“He said that he has not been valued: this is the price to pay when you manage big clubs” he stressed. “Ancelotti went through the same at PSG. There are so many great managers with great pedigrees, so many titles, but all of a sudden, the weather changes. It’s not the same anymore. So this is the price to pay when you want to manage top clubs. Simple as that.”

“You have so many top players injured for weeks and weeks and weeks, which is quite worrying. When I see [Ousmané] Dembélé here at PSG, he’s not injured at all. Basically, he arrived at PSG and he doesn’t get any injuries. He was always injured. I have no idea what’s happening with the medical staff, the training sessions, but I have no idea.”

Petit leans forward.

Xavi is set to leave Barcelona at the end of the season.

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Xavi is set to leave Barcelona at the end of the season.LavandeiraEFE

On Mbappé: ‘you never know what’s going on’

“I’ve been told that Deco has been fighting with Xavi as well on different cases… and some players as well are not happy with the way they’ve been treated by the club. It’s a big, big game against Napoli.”

Petit sits back. But I want him to sit forward again.

I have no idea what is going to happen and to be honest, we are 67 million French people who have no idea of what Mbappé will decide at the end of the season”, he says as the ‘M’ word is mentioned, leaning forward.

“Mbappé said two weeks ago that he will give his answer soon before the end of the season. So I have no idea if he’s going to stay at Paris, there is so much speculation, so much talk, agreements, things like that. So when you talk about Mbappé it’s always that you open the door and you never know what’s going on. Maybe he will go to Madrid, maybe he will stay in Paris, maybe he will go somewhere else.”

On actually fitting Mbappé in somewhere else other than PSG, Petit admits that there are not many clubs in the financial position to get the structures in place to pay the wages he would want, which “could be a problem”.

While rumours are swirling of Mbappé joining Los Blancos, nothing has been confirmed.

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While rumours are swirling of Mbappé joining Los Blancos, nothing has been confirmed.SEBASTIEN SALOM-GOMISAFP

‘So many questions and no answers’

“If Mbappé goes to Madrid” he says, “that could be a problem. Not just in terms of wages into the dressing room, but in terms of leadership as well. Bellingham has been amazing just like Vinicius Jr, and if he goes to Madrid, he will have to play as a striker, just like what he did recently for PSG. But we all know that this is not his best position. There are so many questions and no answers.

We are all tired in France” Petit continues to get it all off his chest, “every single six months, it’s always the same story on the table. Yeah. Is he going? Is he going to leave? Is he going to stay? Is he going to leave? Did he have a nice breakfast this morning? Did he have a nice poo poo? We are so tired of it as well in France.

I can understand that players are getting annoyed about this situation as well, because all the attention is focused on Mbappé all the time. We are not talking about PSG, we’re always talking about Mbappé. So it could be a problem for some players to manage this situation. And that’s why I said I’m so tired of speaking about it every three weeks.”

I feel as though not even the Parisian sun, which has just dipped behind a cloud, can keep Petit’s heart rate at sustainable levels. So we move on.

Petit won the 1997-98 Premier League with Arsenal.

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Petit won the 1997-98 Premier League with Arsenal.Mike Egerton – EMPICSPA Images via Getty Images

‘Atmospheres have changed a lot in the space of two decades’

On his favourite memories of playing away from home, Petit says “the big derbies” were always the best, as well as playing away at Liverpool, “at Anfield, with You’ll Never Walk Alone, the support from the fans, I loved those kinds of things.”

“I remember the Clásico against Real Madrid; the noise was unbelievable on the pitch. But I think most of the atmospheres in stadiums have changed a lot in the space of two decades”. Petit’s smile, something that had been an ever-present companion since the start of the interview, drops from his face: “it is not the same anymore”.

“They are clients, not supporters” Petit replies when I ask for clarification. “The passion is still there, but it’s never the same. Back in the day, we used to speak to real fans that loved that club since they were born. I think it’s quite different now. Because of the price to get tickets, but I think the Ultras are disappearing as well, the identity is not the same change. I don’t want to be an old-fashioned man, but it was better before.

The electricity before games, a couple of days before big games, you could feel it in the street when you meet people, you know, when you go to the petrol station or whatever.”

Petit (top right) won the 1998 World Cup with France, scoring the third goal in the final.

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Petit (top right) won the 1998 World Cup with France, scoring the third goal in the final.PEDRO UGARTEAFP

‘I think most people are becoming selfish in the world’

But what about football in general? “I think we can’t compare” he says.

“I spoke to some players recently and I said to them that I don’t know how I could actually manage to be a proficient footballer with all the social media. Back in the day, every time when we used to speak about the club, we used to speak about the team, it was all together. Nowadays, we have more and more players that, every time they start to speak, they always use ‘I’ not ‘we’. I think it has changed a lot. We always put the team first: yes, we had personal ambitions, we used to talk [about ourselves], but most of the time, it was always the team. The team was the most important thing, all the time.

I won’t say it’s not like that today, but it changed a lot because the world is based on egos, it is an egocentric world.

The whole world is like that, it’s not only football, I think most people are becoming selfish in the world. They don’t think about ‘we’ but always ‘I’, all the time. I think this is the main difference. Actually, it’s not football, it’s the world that’s changed.”

Interview conducted with Betway.

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