Javier Aguirre was sitting at home when they called, reading, studying, listening to classical music and indulging the love of his life: not football, although he was watching plenty of that too, but baseball. Mostly he was just getting in the way and his wife had had enough. It had been almost a year: he had been out of work since Real Zaragoza sacked him in December 2011. It was November 2012: time to get back to work. Espanyol were on the phone, they were desperate and they were in trouble. Bottom of the table and heading for relegation, with just nine points from 13 games, they'd picked up two measly wins in three months. Could you help?

Could I?! Looking at the table then was depressing; looking at the table now is different. In third place: FC Barcelona. In second: Real Madrid. And top of the table: RCD Espanyol. Now, that's not the actual table, of course, but it is the form guide and the actual table doesn't look bad either. Over the last six games, Espanyol have won five and drawn one: no one in Spain can match that record. Since Aguirre took over, they have lost just once in 11, winning six of their last eight, and on Sunday night they defeated Real Betis 1-0. It was their fifth consecutive victory at home and it took them, bottom when he arrived, 11 points clear of the relegation zone and six from Europe.

It is a familiar path: when Aguirre took over Zaragoza they were bottom, five points from safety, and they survived. At Osasuna he took them to their first ever Champions League place and he took Atlético Madrid there too. "Insatiable!" cheered the headline in Marca. Espanyol's website called them "unstoppable." Safety draws closer.

Javier Aguirre didn't want to be a footballer, you know. Nicknamed El vasco because his parents crossed the ocean from the Basque country in the 1950s, he was brought up in Mexico City. A fan of the Oakland Athletics, he told El País that he wanted to play baseball but he wasn't good enough. "I didn't [have the talent] for football, either," he added, "but I was better at conning them." As a player, he describes himself as "mediocre, a hacker ... I did the dirty work. I talked to the referee and threatened opponents", and jokes that there is no footage of him from Mexico's goals at the 1986 World Cup – although it was his touch that laid on that volley from Negrete - but that there is footage of him on the bench talking to the coach Bora Milutinovic.

It feels appropriate somehow; a manager from the start. A player close to his coach, a coach close to his players.

Sunday night's goal was scored by Sergio García. It was his fourth of the season; all of them have come since Aguirre arrived and put him back in the centre-forward position – a role Aguirre insisted was García's natural position but one he had not occupied since he was at Zaragoza – with Christian Stuani moved wider and Joan Verdú, as ever, at the heart of their creativity, behind the striker.

Joan Capdevila has been returned to the team. Kiko Casilla has kept his apparently temporary place in goal after Cristián Alvarez returned from injury. And last night Raúl Rodríguez was moved into midfield. That worked, too.

When Aguirre arrived, among the first things he told his players was that he wanted them to be brave but that he didn't want them to take any risks they didn't feel happy taking: if needs be, go long. They dropped a little deeper but sought to pressure to get the ball back quickly. Swift transitions were fundamental – and it is there that García's mobility has proven so vital.

They have not exactly dominated games – Aguirre noted that, with the exception of last week's 4-0 win at Bilbao, they have "suffered" every week – but they have become tough, aggressive and focused. And bit by bit, they're developing; playing more with each passing week. He demanded greater intensity from his team, repeating a discourse he has used before: for most players, 88 of the 90 minutes are spent without the ball but those minutes matter even more; that was where he really judged players. On the runs they made, the support they offered, the positions they occupied, the concentration they showed.

And that has been vital: the difference is as much about emotion as tactics. Aguirre called for communication and he has communicated. Some players felt that they had little voice under Mauricio Pochettino; Aguirre, by contrast, has invited them to speak and has listened. Especially to the older players: men who may not, at first glance, produce as much on the pitch but who can lead others. Simão Sabrosa, Capdevila and Diego Colotto have all been handed more important roles than under Pochettino. They feel like protagonists again.

Those that are played out of position, who make sacrifices are lauded – on Sunday night Aguirre singled out Raúl Rodríguez, a message aimed not just at him but the whole squad – and those that are not playing at all have the door left open to them. Aguirre knows that they must be kept on-side, too. "I'd like Fifa to change the rules and play with 18," he said. "All of my players concern me, all of them. I would like to put my arm around all of them, hug them, give them affection. Because they deserve it, because they work." There, in a nutshell, is his manifesto: there's something in Aguirre's playing style that is reflected in his managerial approach. Not just in the toughness, the intensity, the concentration, the hard work. Read those words again: "I conned them."

Often, it is about conviction. It's hard not to like Aguirre and in Cornella they have found it hard not to like him. He is direct and funny. He is close to his players. He says he sees no reason why he should not be their friend. Honesty plays a part and so does affection. "Aguirre looks you in the eyes," Simão says. "He's honest and loyal," says Juan Forlín. Those he does not want were told immediately – Ernesto Galán and Rui Fonte – and if he has to act, he will. Wakaso Mubarak has been left out of the squad and fined after returning late from the Africa Cup of Nations.

Aguirre has proven an expert in motivation: his greatest ability may be the ease with which he succeeds in getting under their skin, touching a nerve, bringing them together. His ability to convince. And that's not as easy as it may seem: footballers are often cynical and they see through weak coaches and vacuous speeches. Players call his team-talks the best they have heard, the kind of thing they wish they had on video. Speaking of videos, an example: this column has mentioned the video he produced with the players wives at Osasuna before. Since he has been at Espanyol he has succeeded in changing the atmosphere. "They're training with huge enthusiasm and that makes it easy for the coach," he said on Sunday night.

They're winning, too. Over the last six games, no one has won more. Europe is just six points away. Espanyol almost certainly won't get there – not least because next weekend they travel to the Calderón and there are four teams between them and the final European slot – but the real target is in sight. Four wins in 14 games and they're there. "The most important thing is that we're getting closer to those 42 points," Aguirre said. "But until we're mathematically safe we will keep on fighting."

And with that he excused himself; time to go home. "It's a pity there's no baseball on tonight," he smiled. "Luckily there's basketball at 3am and I want to watch that."

Talking points

• It is less than a fortnight since Celta de Vigo's vice-president said that the club's faith in the coach Paco Herrera was "unlimited". It is less than a week since Celta de Vigo's president said that the club still had faith in Paco Herrera. And it is less than a day since Celta de Vigo sacked Paco Herrera. His replacement is the former Atlético goalkeeper and manager Abel Resino. His No2 will be the qualified fighter jet pilot Salva Ballesta.

• When sacking is not the solution: Osasuna are now five points clear of the relegation zone, having stuck with José Luis Mendilíbar. Deportivo, on to their third manager of the season, are bottom and eight points adrift. Oh, and the taxman says their debt is twice what they were admitting. And they were admitting not far off €50m.

• 42 seconds. That's all it took Sergio Ramos to get two yellow cards – the first a joke, the second a handball – and get sent off. He is the 15th player this season sent off for a handball (that handball being the second yellow). Spain has a major problem. Ramos had scored too. And so had Álvaro Morata, who was immediately taken off in the post-card reshuffle. Morata accepted it; Ramos rather less so. "It's easy to send of Sergio Ramos," he said. There was a dig at José Mourinho too: "My education and my style do not allow me to single anyone out," he noted.

• Until two seasons ago, the all-time record for goals in a First Division season was 38. Ronaldo then got 41. Messi then got 50. Messi is now on 37 after getting two in a 2-1 win over Granada. With 14 games left. Not that Barcelona were very good. In fact, if they don't resolve their current problems – conceding easy goals, lack of concentration, missing chances and Alexis Sánchez – they may have difficulties when the really big games come round. Unless, of course, it is the really big games that they miss, the games that will bring the best out of them.

• "Willy! Willy! Willy!" Willy Caballero was, not for the first time, Málaga's best player as they held on to a Champions League place that they may not be allowed to occupy next season.

Results: Sevilla 3-1 Deportivo, Getafe 3-1 Celta, Málaga 1-0 Athletic, Granada 1-2 Barcelona, Osasuna 1-0 Zaragoza, Real Sociedad 1-1 Levante, Valencia 2-0 Mallorca, Valladolid 0-3 Atlético, Real Madrid 2-0 Rayo, Espanyol 1-0 Betis