Albert Stuivenberg is the 'brilliant coach' helping run Arteta’s revolution
For Albert Stuivenberg, the origins of a 30-year coaching career that now has him playing a key role in Arsenal’s relentless pursuit of a first Premier League title for nearly two decades can be traced back to a freak accident as a teenager in his bedroom. Mikel Arteta’s right-hand man was a Netherlands youth international and aspiring midfielder when, one day, he fell out of bed and sustained damage to a knee that would eventually force him into premature retirement aged just 19, and which still causes him issues now.
A strong-willed, straight-talking, forthright individual, Stuivenberg was never the sort who was going to sulk, and instead he threw himself into coaching with the intention of reaching the top of the tree.
At the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, Manchester United observers will be familiar with the man sat in the dugout next to Arteta, AirPods doubtless in both ears, carefully surveying and scrutinising everything before him. Stuivenberg, 52, was Louis van Gaal’s assistant for two years at Old Trafford between 2014 and 2016.
But now, the man Arsenal fans affectionately like to call “AirPods Albert” is a central cog in Arteta’s revolution and every bit as important and influential as the Spaniard was as No 2 to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.
The Dutchman may be big on detail and structure, and innovative, too – tactically, technically and when it comes to encouraging use of the latest technology – yet he also pays as much attention to a player’s character as what he can deliver on the pitch.
Take, for example, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, whom Stuivenberg was just as insistent on pushing towards the exit door as Arteta. The Gabon striker would rock up at Arsenal’s training ground in his £270,000 hologram-wrapped Lamborghini Aventador and challenging attire, and the fear for Stuivenberg was always of the knock-on effect such a persona would have on the club’s emerging talents. Developing the Bukayo Sakas, Eddie Nketiahs and Emile Smith Rowes in the right environment with the right people was a non-negotiable, and potential obstacles such as Aubameyang had to be moved on.
But there was no impulsive, inflexible purge at the first sign of trouble. Some who know Stuivenberg well were convinced a player such as the hot-headed Granit Xhaka would not last long. Yet, the management pair were united in their belief that the Switzerland midfielder would be a valuable asset if elements of his on-field temperament could be harnessed, given his willingness to listen and take instruction, aptitude and personable nature.
Arteta values Stuivenberg on many levels. A student of the game and different trends, the Dutchman is open-minded about varied ways of winning. Leicester’s title success in 2015/16, playing a fast counter-attacking 4-4-2, excited him at the time, for example. But it is Stuivenberg’s willingness to always speak his mind that he admires as much as anything.
Direct and, at times, plain abrupt, Stuivenberg has never been afraid to express an opinion and that can lead to plenty of rows – something Van Gaal and Ryan Giggs, who worked with him at United and later appointed him as his assistant with Wales, would doubtless vouch for. Yet, those who have seen Stuivenberg at work insist there is never any lingering resentment and he is always someone a manager can trust implicitly.
“Albert might have different thoughts to the manager on the team and he’d argue his case – often forcibly – but if the manager went with his ideas, Albert could always be trusted to be right behind him and go with what was decided,” one source said.
Not that Stuivenberg was often wrong, it seems. “You’d resist him sometimes just for the sake of it,” the source said. “But then you’d reflect on it and think, ‘Actually, he's ---ing right, again’. He’d never miss a trick.” Another source agreed but added, with a chuckle: “It was gold dust then when he made a mistake and you could go to town on it. The problem was that happened once every two years, if that.”
As the likes of Gareth Bale and Wayne Rooney found in training with Wales and United respectively, Stuivenberg did not care for reputations. If he saw something he did not like, he would tell that player – in no uncertain terms. Arsenal’s players have come to realise it is coming from a good place. It would be no different in wider meetings with departmental heads.
'He will never be a yes-man'
“Albert can be quite direct, which isn’t a bad thing – takes some getting used to,” Giggs said in an interview in 2020. “If someone is not doing what he wants in training, he’ll tell them. It doesn’t matter who they are. He would always tell me what he thought. He will never be a yes-man. He’s a brilliant coach.”
As Netherlands Under-17 manager, Stuivenberg won back-to-back European Championships in 2011 and 2012 and later became the Netherlands Under-21 coach.
There he came to the attention of Van Gaal, who used him as a scout at the 2014 World Cup finals and then made him part of his coaching staff at United. Seven months after leaving Old Trafford following Van Gaal’s dismissal, Stuivenberg was handed his first senior No 1 job, with Belgian side Genk. Away from his partner and two boys, it did not go to plan and he lasted just 12 months. Some think he may still have unfinished business and fancy another crack at management – he is thought to have needed some persuading by Giggs to accept another assistant post, with Wales, in 2018
But the Genk experience has had its benefits. He worked with Leandro Trossard and the Dutchman’s character references were an important factor behind Arsenal’s decision to move for the Brighton winger. Stuivenberg filled in for Arteta on the touchline when, with the manager absent because of Covid, Arsenal lost 2-1 at home to City last season, but now they lead the way.
It has been some season and Stuivenberg’s expertise has been a crucial component.