Sometimes in a relationship, the hardest thing is to know when it's time to call time. Mauricio Pochettino had worked wonders in his four years at Espanyol. Adored from his time there as a player, and respected for his ability to keep the team punching above their weight while having his best players sold at every turn, the decision to part company was a painful one.
They began the season with an injury list longer than his arm, and a run of rotten luck coupled with wilting confidence that made it clear by the time autumn drew to a close they were in serious trouble. Bottom of the table and rock bottom in morale, it looked a task too far for the well-spoken Argentine. As the pair parted company, the club looked longingly towards the new man as it beckoned him to step forward.
The contrast couldn't have been any greater. Nor could the subsequent run of results. In came the former Mexico manager, Javier Aguirre, pictured right. Aguirre's record in La Liga is a little on the mixed side, but this bruiser is never one to shirk a good fight. Where his credentials stand out the most is in fire-fighting. And he's doing it all over again with Espanyol, fighting fire with fire.
He took Osasuna from the foot of the table to a barely believable Champions League qualification. He took Zaragoza from the same position to safety two seasons ago, memorably defeating José Mourinho's Real Madrid in the process. Now in just two months he's taken Barcelona's second side from the foot of the table to five points above the relegation places.
Aguirre's forbidding appearance brings to mind a character from a spaghetti western. Whether he's the good guy or the bad guy isn't clear, but if you were backed into a corner, chances are you'd want him on your side. With his military haircut and coarse tongue, his demeanour is that of a man who'd continue the fight long after the last bullet has been discharged.
Although warm and even genial at times, there's a definite no-bullshit side to El Vasco's character. "You're going to make that son of a bitch cry," he once told his charges at Osasuna. "You're going to make him wish he'd never become a footballer". Sometimes he's overstepped the mark. While in charge of Mexico in the 2009 Gold Cup, he kicked a Panamanian player looking to retrieve the ball to take a quick throw in with the scores level and the clock ticking down. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPUxBBRpJEA)
For once, the uncompromising Aguirre even apologised.
There's been nothing to apologise for thus far in his tenure at Espanyol. Rather, his biggest task now will be to keep his players' feet on the ground. Draws have turned to wins, and wins to more still, four on the spin at home as Cornella once again becomes a fortress.
In his nine games, they've won four, drawing another four. The only defeat in that time came at the Camp Nou a month ago. A man who marks out the battles he deems winnable, he'll hardly have lost sleep over that solitary reverse.
All of this has been achieved with a back to basics approach. It helps that the injury list has dwindled, and that Sergio García has been firing on all cylinders up front. Off the menu is the passing football that Pochettino espoused, in is a grittier more stripped-down style. More importantly, it's working.
He was only half joking when he once said that as most players only have the ball for two minutes per game that it's what they do for the other 88 that matters most.
When in charge at Zaragoza he poured scorn on formation fetishists and tactics porn. “4-4-2's grand, but that's often a 4-3-3, a 5-3-2, a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-5-1. This formation lark's like a bloody phone number in the end really. It all depends on which girl you're looking to call.”
On Saturday they played the league's most efficient side, those masters of economy Levante. They can be thankful that Obafemi Martins spurned a couple of glorious openings - before finally finding the net three minutes from time - but they set out to deny their opponents space for the counter-attack while pressing them aggressively from the front. García excelled in epitomising this workhorse approach, but also capped a fine performance on the attacking front with what proved to be the crucial goal.
When they were on top, they made it count; precisely what had been their biggest failing in the season's opening months. “The second and the third goals really hurt us,” said Levante's boss Juan Ignacio Martínez. “The difference between the sides was efficiency.”
The midfielder Raúl Baena was quick to point to the secret behind his side's turnaround in fortunes after the game. “He's an excellent motivator. He knows exactly what to say to get us performing at 100% every time. Behind all this work is the commitment of us, the players. He gives us the framework we need to succeed on the field.”
Elsewhere, Valencia’s revival under Ernesto Valverde continued with a 1-1 draw against Barcelona, the side word had it he'd be taking over before Tito Vilanova was confirmed as Pep Guardiola's successor. Vilanova was absent again as the home side put it up to the Catalans. The visitors registered just two shots on target; their joint lowest of the campaign to date.
That figure was matched in their draw to Real Madrid in October, but the champions were unable to take advantage this weekend. It was hard to imagine a performance as abject as that which they turned in at Osasuna a fortnight before, but they managed just that in a meek defeat at Granada where Cristiano Ronaldo's own-goal further highlighted their weaknesses from set-pieces.
It was also a week to forget for Deportivoa, who remain rooted to the foot of the table. Despite having a numerical advantage for a full hour, they couldn't break down Getafe. Once they too lost a man, they lost their heads, leaking two goals in the final ten minutes. But as misery loves company, they can seek consolation in the fact that their joined in the relegation spots by their bitter rivals Celta Vigo. Mallorca are the remaining side in the bottom three and it's likely that Joaquín Caparrós has overseen his last game in charge of the islanders.
*Follow Joseph Sexton @josephsbcn