The Wenger succession: Arsenal family connections put NYCFC's Vieira in mix

After more than 21 years as the Arsenal manager, Frenchman Arsene Wenger told his players on Friday that he will be leaving the Gunners at the end of the season.

His third and last league title came in 2004 when the Gunners, featuring future MLS players Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg and Ashley Cole and NYCFC manager Patrick Vieira, went unbeaten, earning the nickname "The Invincibles." But he remained in charge for 14 more seasons as Arsenal finished in the top four of the Premier League every year until 2017, snapping a run of 19 successive seasons in the UEFA Champions League.

With it likely to finish sixth in 2018, Arsenal's only hope of returning to the Champions League is if it wins the Europa League, where it has faces Atletico Madrid in the semifinals.

Wenger won't go out like Alex Ferguson, who left Manchester United after nearly 27 years with a Premier League title already assured when he announced he was stepping down in May. But the 68-year-old Wenger is every bit as much a legendary figure.

“Arsene who?” was the Evening Standard headline when Wenger, a complete unknown, arrived early in the 1996-97 season from Japan. But Wenger, the first successful foreign manager with no previous experience in England, revolutionized the English game, importing foreign players en masse, cutting out the drinking culture prevalent for years and introducing an attacking style just as the Premier League, still in its infancy, took off.

Three managers and a caretaker succeeded Ferguson in four seasons at Manchester United, which failed to finish higher than fourth. (It will likely finish second, but far off the pace set by Manchester City, in 2018 under Jose Mourinho.) Whoever replaces Wenger will also have big shoes to fill.

Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis says the process of looking for a successor will now begin and the club will try to keep the qualities and values Wenger brought it.

"I think we've got to be open-minded and also brave in the decision," said Gazidis on Friday. "When Arsene was appointed, I don't think he was on many people's radar screens. Now that doesn't mean we have to make another appointment that not everybody is thinking about and talking about. But it does mean we need to be bold in the appointment and get the person that we believe is the right person."

Here are four names being mentioned as possible candidates to replace Wenger.

Patrick Vieira. Vieira played nine years at Arsenal and is close to Wenger and former Arsenal executive David Dein. Wenger reportedly recommended Vieira to the Arsenal board as his successor. In March, L'Equipe asked Vieira if he was interested in the Arsenal job. He said that one day he might be interested but refused to say more out of respect for Wenger whom he said he adored and whom he felt was being poorly treated by former players critical of his situation.

It would be a huge blow if Vieira left NYCFC, which in three seasons he has built into one of the best teams in MLS and is unbeaten after seven games. But it would be a sign of respect for the improving level of play in MLS if Arsenal picked Vieira. A lot of experts in France and England have dismissed Vieira's candidacy on his lack of experience in Europe. But there are obvious MLS connections at Arsenal: owner Stan Kroenke (owner of the Colorado Rapids) and Gazidis (former MLS deputy commissioner).

What complicates the Vieira situation is that he works for City Football Group. He'd be considered a leading candidate to replace Pep Guardiola at Manchester City if the Spaniard stepped down in a year or two.

Joachim Loew. A German with a tremendous international reputation. What is different about Loew is that he has worked at the national team level, where he is the longest-tenured coach of a major national team, having replaced Jurgen Klinsmann after the 2006 World Cup, where he was Klinsmann's assistant.

Massimiliano Allegri. The longest-serving coach in Italy -- only three-plus years! -- has won three Scudetti in three years at Juventus and has Juve in first place this season but his future in Turin is uncertain. He also led Juventus to the Champions League final in 2017. If he doesn't get the Arsenal job, he could land in London at Chelsea.

Leonardo Jardim. Jardim's connection to Wenger is that he coaches Monaco, where Wenger first made a name for himself. Monaco won the Ligue 1 -- no easy feat -- and reached the semifinals of the Champions League in 2017. His young team was broken up last summer but Monaco will finish second in Ligue 1 this season.
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