Mauricio Pochettino’s Espanyol exit was as inevitable as it was regrettable. Upsetting as it is to see La Liga’s longest serving boss leave a club he felt such devotion to that he refused to accept a severance payment, there’s no getting away from Los Pericos’ dismal state.
Rooted to the bottom of the table, Joan Collet’s first major act after winning the Presidential election was to find a new tactician. The rot had set in at the end of last season with just one win in 10 games and even Pochettino, so adept at making a little go a long way, was left unable to keep rebuilding his team as the cash-strapped club continually shed its assets.
The two main candidates for the Espanyol bench were former Racing Santander and Sevilla man Marcelino Garcia Toral and ex-Mexico boss Javier Aguirre. The choice was simple – the calm, steady presence of Marcelino or the maverick Aguirre.
Understandably, Collet opted to roll the dice. Aguirre has a reputation as a firefighter. He made his name by leading minnows Osasuna not only to survival, but to qualification for the 2005-06 Champions League. More pertinently, two years ago Aguirre took over a financially bereft Real Zaragoza side denuded of their best players with the spectre of the Segunda Division looming large and led them to safety.
This is perhaps an even greater challenge for Aguirre, but he has the necessary characteristics for a man taking on Mission Improbable. The man nicknamed El Vasco – The Basque – is famed for his psychological prowess, coming aboard sinking ships, working with the resources at his disposal and injecting a new sense of purpose.
The most famous example of Aguirre’s unconventional methods came at Zaragoza. Ahead of a daunting trip to Real Madrid, Aguirre secretly approached the entire squad’s wives and girlfriends and persuaded them to take part in a video appeal to the team to get a win at the Bernabeu. He showed them the tape the evening before the game and Zaragoza went on to record a heroic 3-2 win.
Some have likened Aguirre’s teams to a cult. The Mexican revels in getting under the skin of his charges, working on building a unit that is much more than the sum of its parts. Players are treated as equals but must dedicate themselves completely to the cause. It’s a mindset well suited to Espanyol, who have few stars to speak of and may be just the tonic for a side that have looked deflated to the point of fatalistic in recent weeks.
Of course a character like Aguirre isn’t without his detractors and it’s not hard to find them in his native Mexico. Despite being brought by El Tri as a troubleshooter in 2002 and 2010 and successfully ensuring World Cup qualification on both occasions, El Vasco baffled and frustrated many during the 2010 finals with his odd team selections, such as such as repeatedly opting for ageing, ineffective striker Guillermo Franco over Javier Hernandez.
It also needs to be noted that Aguirre’s great success at Zaragoza was followed by a sacking a year later – a pattern that he had mirrored from Atletico Madrid. There are question marks over his ability to take a project to the next stage. Patience also isn’t his strong suit. Aguirre’s celebrated passion often spills over into a temper – which notoriously surfaced in the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup when he kicked out at Panama player Ricardo Phillips – and has led to the odd training ground brawl or row with a journalist.
But Espanyol aren’t thinking about next season, they are looking for a quick fix and Aguirre is the man to shake things up. Trying to mould a team that plays the fluid, attractive possession football he instilled in Mexico is a project for the future. He inherits a technically limited squad and there will be no January shopping spree, but his major revolution will take place on a mental level. Espanyol looked shell-shocked under an increasingly forlorn Pochettino – if nothing else Aguirre will ensure they don’t go down without a fight.