Mikel Arteta first came across Carlos Cuesta while at Manchester City. Now, the 27-year-old is one of the Arsenal manager’s most trusted confidantes
Mikel Arteta knew the person for the job. He was 24 years old but spoke six different languages, held a university degree and had played with a Champions League winner. He had been the youngest coach at Atletico Madrid and dazzled the directors at Juventus. He offered tactical analysis to Pep Guardiola and went to Porto to study the methods of José Mourinho. His name was Carlos Cuesta and he might have been Arteta’s most obvious signing of the summer.
When Cuesta joined Arteta’s coaching team in August 2020, the news barely made a ripple. Willian had just arrived on a free transfer from Chelsea and Arsenal were weighing up Thomas Partey’s £45 million release clause at Atletico Madrid. Few had their attention diverted by the arrival of a fresh-faced coach from Mallorca, who was less than four years out of university.
But in Europe, and particularly Spain, where his nascent career began, Cuesta is already being circled as one of the most talented young coaches in the game. A senior figure at one of his previous clubs described their academy coaches were blown over by his sessions. Another said they expect him to be a manager by the time he is 30.
At Arsenal, Cuesta is already one of Arteta’s most trusted confidantes and a key component behind this season’s unexpected Premier League title push. He is one of a select group of coaches that sit down with Arteta for meetings after every game and leads sessions in training that have an emphasis on tactics and technique.
But if Cuesta has a specialism, it is talking to players, his one-on-one meetings with members of the Arsenal squad now an essential cog in the Arteta machine. These sessions are often centred round video analysis, the tweaking of details and correcting of errors, and sometimes they are more personal, an exchange about confidence or morale. With his capacity to speak freely, in their native tongue, Cuesta is the one to step in.
When he was growing up, Cuesta idolised Mourinho, not just for his success and charisma, but his path to the top. Like Mourinho, Cuesta gave up early on his playing aspirations. Like Mourinho, Cuesta believed there was an academic route to coaching, that listening and learning could be as valuable as playing. Like Mourinho, who absorbed the subtleties of management as Bobby Robson’s translator at Barcelona, Cuesta is now assimilating in the shadow of Arteta, himself a protégé of Guardiola.
As a youngster, Cuesta was a useful central defender. He played in Mallorca for Santa Catalina Atletico and by most estimates could have gone on to enjoy a decent career around Spain’s third or fourth tiers. He played with Real Madrid’s Marco Asensio for the under-18 Balearic side but by then was already three years into coaching, having recognised at the age of 15 his own dream of winning the Champions League would only ever be realised from the bench. For many years, Cuesta had a photo of the Champions League trophy set as the screensaver on his phone.
Such was his determination to succeed, Cuesta explored every possible area he could improve. He began a university degree in sports science in Madrid, did his first coaching badges and paid to have lessons in Portuguese, which he now speaks along with Spanish, French, Italian, English and Catalan. He studied handball and rugby, and wrote six articles for the Spanish magazine, The Tactical Room, in which he admired Diego Simeone’s leadership skills, marvelled at Guardiola’s attention to detail and quoted Charles Darwin and Groucho Marx.
One recurring theme in Cuesta’s pieces was his insistence, not in one way of playing, but the ability to adapt. “In football and in life there are two large groups of people,” he wrote. “Those who are closed, who believe that only one idea is valid and who criticise everything that is not what they believe, and then more open people, who believe that any idea is valid if it is well argued, a group in which I include myself.”
The key, Cuesta said, is to convince people completely of your idea. “It is about believing in an idea from day one,” he wrote. “Knowing how to convey it to the players and making them believe in it, infecting the fans with your enthusiasm, getting your players to play each game as if their lives depended on it, mastering the media to convey the message that you want and knowing how to manage the success of a team that is not used to it.”
Yet for all his words learned and written, Cuesta needed a foot in the door. He searched every Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid coach he could find on Twitter and sent all of them the same message, each with the same sign-off. “If you need someone to put out the cones,” he wrote, “I’m here”.
Nobody replied, except one, a youth team coach at Atletico Madrid, who invited Cuesta to help with the club’s under-9s before letting him take sole charge of the under-13s. Cuesta took the roles seriously. “We used to ask Carlos if he wanted to go out in Madrid and he would always say no, because he had a match in the morning,” says Estan Rodriguez, one of Cuesta’s closest friends. “We used to tease him that while we were out drinking, he was changing nappies, because the teams were so young. It was always serious for him, always a passion.”
After four years with Atletico, Cuesta left to embark on a European tour, intent on meeting and watching as many top coaches as he could persuade to let him in. Cuesta studied at Porto University with Vitor Frade, whose holistic approach had influenced a young Mourinho. He visited Roma and Granada and then, through a mutual friend in Mallorca, began speaking to Arteta, who was impressed enough to invite Cuesta to visit Manchester City.
Cuesta watched training sessions, produced an in-depth analysis of City’s attacking play and predicted Arteta would go far. “He will be a great coach,” Cuesta told El Pais in 2019.
Arteta did not forget Cuesta but it would be three years before they linked up again at Arsenal. Juventus came first, offering Cuesta a role with the under-17s and under-23s after a memorable meeting between the young coach and the club’s directors. “They were about 40 or older and Carlos, who was 22, just sat with them talking about football,” says a source who was at the meeting. “As he was explaining things, more and more people just kept coming into the room to listen. As soon as he started talking, I knew they were going to offer him a job.”
Cuesta will be on the bench on Sunday at the Emirates Stadium, with Arsenal looking to extend their eight-point lead over Manchester United in the Premier League. After the match, when others unwind and switch off, Cuesta will head home, sit down on his sofa and flip open his laptop. The game will be loaded up, its mistakes and imperfections waiting to be found. Cuesta calls it his motto: “No excuses. Only solutions.”