Carlos Cuesta: The impressive rise of Arsenal’s detail-obsessed young coach

The walls of Carlos Cuesta’s Hertfordshire home are papered with ideas and tactical diagrams. On the shelves are books about football, psychology and sports science. Invariably, if Cuesta is home, there is a football match on television.

It is reminiscent of the scene in Mikel Arteta’s Manchester apartment, during the Arsenal manager’s apprenticeship under Pep Guardiola. For three and a half years, Arteta immersed himself in his own football university. Visiting friends were taken aback at how Arteta’s furiously scribbled workings covered almost every inch of the available wall-space.

Presumably, Arteta sees something of himself in Cuesta: a young coach hurriedly climbing the football ladder. But while the two men share a focus on self-improvement that verges on obsession, the Mallorcan has taken a very different path. Never a professional footballer, 28-year-old Cuesta has nonetheless already worked at three of Europe’s biggest clubs: Atletico Madrid, Juventus and now Arsenal.

GettyImages 2154049631 scaled

(David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

When Arteta expanded his coaching staff in the summer of 2020, the addition of a then 25-year-old Cuesta was considered a surprise both outside and within the club.

“Of course, you are always surprised when someone of that young age comes to a big club like Arsenal,” Granit Xhaka tells The Athletic. But it did not take long for Cuesta to win the Swiss international round.

“My feeling from the first meeting with him was that first of all, as a person, he is very honest, very straight,” explains Xhaka. “But he also had great knowledge about football. He knows what he’s doing: he knows how to speak with the players, what the players need. It was just amazing from the beginning.”

“How Carlos improved — day by day, month by month, year on year — was unbelievable. The individual meetings that we had with him were always on point, very clear to understand, and I was very grateful to learn many many new things.”

The bond that Xhaka and Cuesta forged in those one-to-one video sessions transcended a typical player-coach relationship. It became a friendship — one that helped propel Xhaka to the greatest heights of his career.

“The relationship between Carlos and me was very special,” admits Xhaka. “I think how we were thinking as people was exactly the same. The honesty we showed each other, and other people, was always the same.

“And he helped me a lot. We had so many individual meetings, video sessions, and conversations. To be honest, these things helped bring me where I am today.”

GettyImages 1319462872 scaled

Xhaka and Cuesta became close during their time together at Arsenal (Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Cuesta grew up in the bay of Palma, on the south coast of the Balearic Island Mallorca. As a teenager, he played for local team Santa Catalina Atletico, coaching their younger age groups on the side.

By the age of 18, Cuesta realised that his playing career was unlikely to satisfy his ambitions of reaching the highest level of the sport. Although he had represented the Balearics under-18 team, he knew he was unlikely to play in Spain’s top two divisions.

Cuesta reasoned that if he switched focus to coaching, and pursued it aggressively, he felt he could find a pathway to the top. He made the background on his iPhone a picture of the Champions League trophy: a constant reminder of where his sights were set.

The first step was to enrol in a sports science degree in Madrid. Naturally academic, Cuesta sought to deepen his knowledge of the game through every available avenue.

He also harnessed the power of social networking to build his profile and make valuable contacts. He followed every member of staff who listed Real or Atletico Madrid in their profile on X (then Twitter). Just two members of Atletico staff followed him back, but that was enough for Cuesta — it was a chance to exchange direct messages and build a relationship. It was a way in.

Cuesta volunteered himself for a role in Atletico’s academy. He wasn’t motivated by the money or the job title — he knew the value of the club badge. A position with Atletico was a significant step forward. This 19-year-old from the islands was now wearing the tracksuit of one of Spain’s most famous clubs.

Alongside completing his degree, Cuesta worked his way up to become coach of Atletico’s under-14s. He was just 22. Cuesta has always achieved things ahead of schedule: he finished his four-year sports science qualification in three years.

GettyImages 1813710226 scaled

Cuesta is described as a bridge between the staff and the changing room (Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

His next step was to embark on a gap year. The idea was to travel and watch other elite coaches at work. His mantra was simple: “Listen and improve”. Cuesta identified a list of coaches he wanted to observe up close: Massimiliano Allegri, Thomas Tuchel, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino.

He attended a seminar at the University of Porto led by Vitor Frade — the coaching guru who had been a mentor to Jose Mourinho. Cuesta admired how Mourinho had broken the managerial mould, opening the door for coaches without an extensive playing background. In Porto, he studied Frade’s coaching philosophy of tactical periodisation.

Pep Guardiola was an obvious name to pursue, but Cuesta also recognised the potential of his young assistant, Arteta.

Through a mutual friend, Cuesta sent Arteta some tactical presentations on City’s team. Arteta was sufficiently impressed to invite Cuesta to their Manchester training complex.

“On that visit, I realised how important it is to surround yourself with the right people,” Cuesta told El Pais in 2019. “Pep has a staff of great quality, both professional and human. I highlight Mikel Arteta. He is going to be a great coach. He was also able to see the importance of details in elite training and game analysis.”

It was the start of a relationship that would one day see Cuesta and Arteta working together at Arsenal. Before that, though, there was Juventus.

“I remember when Carlos came to Turin for the first time,” Juventus chief of staff Federico Cherubini tells The Athletic. “He came with our head of academy, Massimiliano Scaglia, to visit the training centre.

“They came into my office and the head of the academy introduced me to Carlos, and I don’t know…. You know when you feel something special? I looked at this guy. He was so young, so curious, and with an incredible passion for football.

“When Carlos left, I said to the head of academy, ‘Massimiliano, please — we have to sign this guy. We need him in our group of coaches. He came from abroad, he has a different mentality, he has an amazing passion.’ So in just a few seconds, I looked at Carlos as someone with a very big potential as a coach.”

And so it was that a brief visit to Turn turned into a job with Juventus. At the time, Cuesta was the only non-Italian on the staff. He was still in his early twenties and, naturally, there were questions.

“When he arrived, I’m sure the other coaches wouldn’t have come to me with their doubts, as I decided to hire him,” says Cherubini. “But I’m sure they’d say, ‘Who is this guy, he has come from Spain, he is 22’. Everyone in every country thinks that they invented football.

“But Carlos — with his empathy, his character — made sure that, day by day, all the other coaches accepted him.”

Cuesta’s skill was to balance courteousness and respect with challenging the status quo. Each day, he introduced new ideas and concepts to the academy — and the players responded.

“Carlos speaks six languages fluently,” says Cherubini. “For this reason, I think he has a direct connection with all the players. I think it’s a good thing for a coach: sometimes you have a good coach with good ideas but he can’t explain it directly to the players.”

Cuesta is also closer in age to many players, something Cherubini believes enables him to build an easy rapport with the squad. “Carlos is the bridge between the staff and the changing room,” he says.

“I know some players who were in the team with Carlos who always remember him in a good way. When we played a friendly match against Arsenal in December 2022, I saw some of our young players were very, very happy to see Carlos.”

“He stayed one year with us, but he is a travelling man,” says Cherubini. “He wants to work in Spain, in England, in Italy; he wants to know everything, he is curious. So when he told us that at the end of the season he wanted to move for another experience, we understood it was impossible to keep him at the club.”

In the spring of 2020, Cuesta got the call he had been waiting for: an offer to join Arteta at Arsenal.

GettyImages 2150044908 scaled

Cuesta (right) celebrating a goal at Spurs last season (Nigel French/Sportsphoto/Allstar via Getty Images)

When Arteta took the job at Arsenal, he initially hired Albert Stuivenberg and Steve Round as his assistants, with Inaki Cana joining as goalkeeper coach.

After his first six months as head coach, Arteta was keen to extend his coaching staff. He hired Andreas Georgson as his set-piece coach. Georgson had succeeded Nicolas Jover at Brentford, and inherited some of his methodology. Then he turned to Cuesta, who had made such a strong impression on him in Manchester.

Arteta also wanted an analyst to round out the group. Cuesta recommended Miguel Molina, whom he had worked alongside at Atletico Madrid.

In their first week in England, Arsenal won the 2020 Community Shield. It was an auspicious start.

Cuesta already spoke good English. Since the outset of his coaching career, he had focused on learning English, Portuguese, French and Italian. Add that to his native Mallorquin and Castilian Spanish, and he has most of western Europe covered.

His initial title was ‘individual development coach’. Cuesta was tasked with helping players improve specific areas of their game. This meant working closely with developing talents Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe — but his responsibilities were not limited to younger players. He spent time one-on-one with most of the squad, including experienced players like Alexandre Lacazette, David Luiz and Cedric.

While staff were impressed by his work ethic — it was not unusual for Cuesta to work 12-hour days at the training ground — his one-on-one sessions soon became popular among the squad. Before long, players were seeking him out with areas of their game they wished to improve.

Cuesta is a firm believer in the power of self-improvement. “The players have to interpret all situations as something positive to overcome them,” he told El Pais. “No excuses, but solutions. There are no buts. The complaint or the excuse is just another lost opportunity.”

The focus of these video sessions is often on tiny details: body position, technique, positioning. Most elite athletes want to get better. Over time, Cuesta is able to use video to demonstrate improvement to the players. The benefit becomes self-evident.

When Round and Arsenal parted ways last summer, Cuesta was effectively promoted to Arteta’s third in command, behind Stuivenberg. It’s now common to see Arteta deep in conversation with his younger compatriot during an Arsenal game.

His responsibilities have naturally grown. Now he does a bit of everything. He prepares analysis, works with individuals, and assists Arteta as required. He takes an active role in developing the training-ground culture and has built strong relationships with many first-team players.

In England, Cuesta’s profile has risen considerably. There has been much curiosity among the fanbase over this young coach who has swiftly won Arteta’s trust. When Cuesta was featured in Arsenal’s All or Nothing Amazon documentary, supporters were struck by his communication skills and confidence.

GettyImages 1862906037 scaled

Albert Stuivenberg and Cuesta are now effectively second and third in command of the first team (David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Perhaps inevitably, he has begun to be linked with managerial posts.

“I am sure that one day he will be a manager for a big, big, big club,” Xhaka tells The Athletic. “I say this because he knows what he wants, he has clear ideas, and he has clear goals that he wants to achieve.

“I am certain that one day we will see him on the touchline as a manager.”

Right now, Cuesta’s focus is on taking the next step with Arsenal: winning silverware. Having spent years gazing at the Champions League trophy on his lock screen, he is itching to get his hands on the real thing.

(Header photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top