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A Championship Shouldn’t Come With a Caveat, but It Does Require Context

A trophy tells a story about a team’s season and its current trajectory. The narrative changes depending on the circumstances. 

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Last weekend, in an eerily-empty Wembley Stadium, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored both of Arsenal’s goals in their 2-1 win against Chelsea in the FA Cup final. The joyful expressions on the faces of Arsenal’s players and staff as Aubameyang lifted—after initially dropping—the club’s 14th FA Cup trophy were in stark contrast to their collective mood at various points throughout a uniquely long and curious season. For Aubameyang—and many others—it was the first trophy since joining Arsenal. It was also the club’s first in the post–Arsène Wenger era, one which came just a week after the Gunners finished eighth in the Premier League, their worst finish since 1995, two seasons before Wenger arrived.

I mentioned on Twitter not long after the game that Arsenal’s win felt more significant than their previous two FA Cup wins in 2015 and 2017, both of which came under Wenger. In 2015, the 4-0 demolition of Aston Villa felt routine and retained the trophy they had won the season before, putting an end to the club’s cursed eight-year trophy drought. Two years later felt more special, with Arsenal putting in a performance few expected, captained by Per Mertesacker, who had missed pretty much the entire season due to injury. Wenger had rarely looked happier throughout his two decades at the club, but Arsenal’s triumph—a third FA Cup in four years—coincided with their failure to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since 1997.

While the FA Cup’s importance has diminished for many English fans, it’s important to remember that it’s still a singularly special trophy for those outside of the Premier League ecosystem. It retains the glow of history and tradition of English clubs and competitions. And for top-flight teams without Champions League soccer or a genuine title challenge, it’s more than a fitting consolation prize. It’s why a player such as Aubameyang, who scored 22 goals in 36 league games this season, and is entering the final year of his contract, may see an FA Cup win under a young, dynamic manager such as Mikel Arteta as enough evidence that this current Arsenal cycle is worth sticking around for, even without the prospect of Champions League soccer next season.

Arsenal’s current trajectory is another reason their FA Cup triumph differs from those of 2015 and 2017. Both came during a downward cycle in the latter stages of Wenger’s tenure when he was becoming more and more divisive among the fan base. Arsenal were by no means broken in either of those years, but they were breaking, and those FA Cups—as glorious as they were—merely papered over canyon-sized cracks. Wenger’s replacement, Unai Emery, was supposed to rejuvenate the club; he almost succeeded, as Arsenal reached the Europa League final in 2019, their first European final in 13 years. Victory would have sent them back to the Champions League, but in hindsight, such an achievement would’ve been just more paper over ever-widening cracks. The uncomfortable truth is that Arsenal needed to break, like really break, before they could begin to repair themselves. That’s what felt different about Saturday’s win: Arteta has identified what’s broken and an FA Cup triumph is some indication that he has a plan for how to fix it.

About 200 miles northwest of London, Liverpool fans are still basking in the glory of a first Premier League title in 30 years. Coming at the end of a season in which Jürgen Klopp’s side would be the reigning domestic, continental, and global champions, bringing the Premier League trophy back to Anfield was celebrated in a fashion that trumped any other success in the club’s recent history. Even Liverpool’s Champions League exit at the hands of Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid wasn’t enough to pour cold water over what has been one of the most memorable seasons for the club in decades. But, having secured that elusive first Premier League title, Liverpool will face new challenges next season, as Klopp will aim to adapt in order to push for success on multiple fronts.

Meanwhile, in Turin, Juventus secured their ninth consecutive Scudetto last week, finishing one point clear of Antonio Conte’s Inter. Maurizio Sarri won his first Serie A title in his first season at Juventus—at 61 years and seven months, he’s the oldest manager to win Italy’s top flight. Yet, while the response to the Old Lady’s almost inevitable 36th league title is a career milestone for Sarri, there are reports that the club may part ways with the former Napoli and Chelsea boss. Juventus won just six of their 14 games after the season resumed and they lost as many league games in one year under Sarri as they did in the three under Conte. Juventus also lost the Coppa Italia final on penalties to Napoli.

Three different trophies, three different clubs, and three different contexts, provoking differing celebratory moods, and raising a question about how we judge success in modern soccer and why each instance must come with a caveat or comparison to another club or context. It’s especially pertinent as the concentration of wealth and dominance filters upward and consolidates around a handful of clubs in Europe: Success in one competition can be invalidated by failure in another.

Juventus bought Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018 not to keep winning the Scudetto; his arrival was intended to help win the Champions League, which they haven’t won since 1996, losing in all five finals that they have reached in that time frame. Their season will be judged on whether they can overturn a first-leg deficit against Lyon on Friday and advance in the tournament. Failure to do so may seal Sarri’s fate as manager, despite winning the league in his first season in charge. There are similar stakes for Bayern Munich, who recently won their eighth straight Bundesliga title. Hansi Flick’s position is more secure than Sarri’s—he rescued Bayern’s season after replacing Niko Kovac as manager just before Christmas, and recently signed an extension through 2023. But Bayern’s Bundesliga dominance, much like Juventus’s in Serie A, has left the Champions League as the true marker of the club’s success. Both teams have shown this season how the very elite few can be reckless in their domestic leagues and yet still dominate over the chasing pack.

We’re in a climate where a league title, or even a double, isn’t enough for one season. Or where a domestic cup is pointless unless it’s coupled with Champions League qualification. Arsenal are an astute example of this paradox: Wenger was criticized for the club’s lack of silverware, even as he was consistently securing top-four finishes. Maybe this was because of Arsenal’s trophy-laden immediate past, but the lack of silverware was forgiven largely due to repeated Champions League qualification. Fast-forward to 2020, when Arsenal hoisted the FA Cup and some fans lamented another season outside the Champions League.

That very tournament returns this week in Lisbon with a new format: After the final legs of the round of 16 are completed, it becomes a straight one-legged knockout until a champion is crowned. For so many participants, that trophy has become the ultimate referendum of success. It’s a bit of a shame, really, because it diminishes otherwise incredible achievements. Each piece of silverware tells a story, whether it’s Liverpool winning a first league title in 30 years, or Arsenal winning an FA Cup at the end of their worst league season in 25 years, or Bayern and Juventus winning yet another league title. It has become all too easy to devalue success or to grade each case against another. Maybe we should all just try to enjoy it for what it is.