Quique Sanchez Flores was awestruck. For 95 long and torturous minutes in early February, the Watford manager had watched his team get battered and asphyxiated by Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham Hotspur.
When the ordeal was finally over, the scoreline read just 1-0, but Watford hadn't gotten close. Not at all. This was the most ludicrously lopsided 1-0 you could ever wish to see.
Tottenham had enjoyed almost 65 per cent possession, per WhoScored.com. The shot count read 25 to three. Watford goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes made eight saves. On another day, it could have been a colossal rout, a very well-drilled Watford side rendered utterly powerless.
"It was impossible," said Flores in the aftermath. "It was impossible because they are like animals."
Being present at White Hart Lane that afternoon was an eye-opening experience. As Spurs walked out of the tunnel—the press box at Tottenham, unlike at most grounds, is at pitch level—the first thing that struck you was how physically imposing they were.
Pochettino's players are muscular to the point of being ripped. They have big legs, protruding chests and broad shoulders. And they're tall—really tall. Up front, Harry Kane is almost 190 cms; in midfield, Eric Dier and Dele Alli are, too; out wide, Nacer Chadli is the same, and so is Toby Alderweireld in defence; Mousa Dembele and Erik Lamela are only fractionally shorter.
Immediately you're made aware this is a group of genuine athletes that the extremely demanding Pochettino has pushed and moulded.
And then they start playing.
Within seconds, Tottenham are swarming and suffocating Watford. The visitors are somehow outnumbered everywhere. There's no time. No space. Tottenham hunt in packs like this is some sort of Jurassic Park scene, two and sometimes three white shirts present at every contest. The extent of their superiority and tactical advantage is striking, just as it would be eight days later against Manchester City.
Fast forward to now, and Tottenham sit second in the Premier League table and ahead of every single one of the division's traditional powerhouses. Perhaps the most complete side in the division, Spurs rank second for goals scored, first for goals conceded and are among the favourites to claim the title.
This is so totally Pochettino's team, one built entirely is his image: relentless, disciplined, furiously hard working, fit and united.
Before it, Pochettino's Southampton was just the same. At times before that, his Espanyol was, too. Now, the Argentinian—at just 44 and only three years after his appointment at Southampton as an "unknown" was widely condemned—is unquestionably the most promising manager in the country.
And you know what? In La Liga, the place he arrived from, there might be more of his kind, too.
Outside the division's heavyweights, La Liga is currently blessed with a very strong crop of emerging Spanish managers—managers who, like Pochettino once was, are largely unknown to the Premier League-watching public.
At sell-their-finest-every-year Sevilla, Unai Emery has captured back-to-back UEFA Europa League titles; at fire-sale Malaga, Javi Gracia continues to take points off the big boys like no other; at don't-spend-a-cent Rayo Vallecano, Paco Jemez is leading the club through its most successful period in history; at Deportivo La Coruna, Victor Sanchez has completely transformed what was a woeful side.
Jemez and Gracia are just 45. Emery is 44. Victor is 40. There are others as well, who, even if they aren't exactly "emerging" given their lengthier careers, are still youthful in managerial terms.
At Villarreal, Marcelino, at 50, has his side rubbing shoulders in the table with Real Madrid; at Athletic Bilbao, the 52-year-old Ernesto Valverde propelled his side to Spanish Super Cup glory over Barcelona earlier this season; at Eibar, Jose Luis Mendilibar, the oldest of the bunch but who's still only 54, has a club with the budget of a local hairdressing salon competing for European places. And though he's not Spanish, the 46-year-old Argentinian Eduardo Berizzo is thriving at Celta Vigo.
Premier League clubs take note: These men might be more "Pochettinos."
In Spain, a belief exists that Spanish managers are a step ahead of their rivals from elsewhere, particularly those from England. The country's coaching pathway and academy model are perceived as vastly superior, producing managers who are viewed as more rounded and more complete.
The current strength of La Liga supports such a notion. At the top, Barcelona and Real Madrid have assembled staggering squads thanks to unprecedented and continually soaring revenue figures. In 2014-15, Madrid's was €660.6 million; Barcelona's was €608 million. Theoretically, the two behemoths should be pulling away from the league's "other" clubs at pace, but they're not. The complexion of the league has shifted slightly; Madrid and Barcelona are now recording lower points tallies than they were three or four years ago as others grow stronger and more competitive.
Spain's changing fiscal picture has played a role here, but it's hard to shake the sense that a strong coaching crop has also been a major driver. A look around La Liga at present reveals a bunch of adept tacticians, innovators and man-managers who are successfully fighting financial realities to usher in an increased evenness across the league.
At Sevilla, Emery is probably the best-known of the bunch.
Last summer, after leading the Andalusians to a second straight European title, the Basque was discussed as a potential option for the then-vacant Real Madrid post, and rightly so. Under him, Sevilla have thrived despite a financial model that dictates the best must be sold. In 2013-14, the club had to let go of Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Gary Medel; in 2014-15, it was Alberto Moreno, Ivan Rakitic and Federico Fazio; in 2015-16, it was Carlos Bacca and Aleix Vidal.
Each year the setbacks are big, but each year Sevilla recover, reload and go again. Critical in the club's ability to do so has been a renowned scouting structure led by sporting director Monchi, which has maintained a remarkable success rate in the transfer market, but it's still Emery's job to put it all together.
And he does.
Relentless, demanding and insanely analytical, the Basque has continued to fashion a side of personality, intensity and functionality despite the perpetually shuffling deck and the annual removal of his foundations. It shouldn't really be possible, but somehow it is; Emery's tactical acumen and attention to detail is immense, the extent of his preparation impressive. His players will tell you, too.
"Emery put on so many videos I ran out of popcorn," joked Joaquin, who played under the manager at Valencia, ahead of last season's Europa League semi-final, per Sid Lowe of the Guardian. "He's obsessed by football, it's practically an illness."
That obsession is paying off, though. Sevilla continue to claim titles and could do so again this season. In the Europa League, Emery's men are still on track for a third straight crown, and in May will contest the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona. In the league, meanwhile, they've won 12 straight at home—a run that includes victories over Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Such is the admiration Emery has developed among his players, some are even to prepared to admit that he's the reason they're still there. "Unai's decision to stay [in the summer] was crucial for me," said midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak in September. "If he had left to go to another club it's probable I would have seriously considered doing the same."
Not far away at Malaga, Gracia should be capturing similar attention in similar circumstances.
At the beginning of the season, his team essentially had its heart and stomach ripped out and its legs cut off as the cash dried up. Sergi Darder went to Lyon; Samu Castillejo and Samuel went to Villarreal; Juanmi went to Southampton. They were perhaps four of Malaga's best six players, and more recently, Nordin Amrabat followed suit with a move to Watford.
And yet, Gracia's Malaga has matched it with the best of them anyway.
So far this season, the Albicelestes have beaten Atletico Madrid, taken points from Real Madrid twice and made Barcelona sweat like no other. Twice.
At the Camp Nou and the Santiago Bernabeu, Gracia's men absorbed pressure and conceded the flanks, ambushing Madrid and Barcelona in the central corridor. When those sides visited them at La Rosaleda, Malaga did the opposite, pressing the life out of their glamorous guests and causing chaos.
Barcelona escaped thanks to Lionel Messi. Real Madrid didn't. Somehow, Gracia, stripped of his best and with a bunch of free transfers and loanees, has made Malaga among the most difficult opponents in the division. They're clear in their identity. Organised. Feisty. Versatile. Malleable.
And he, Gracia, is brilliant.
Just like Marcelino.
Just like Jemez.
Just like so many of their counterparts.
At El Madrigal, Marcelino has Villarreal on track for UEFA Champions League football next season and, incredibly, within touching distance of Real Madrid. "Warning," said pro-Madrid outlet AS, "Villarreal threatens La Liga third place and U.S. tour."
At Rayo Vallecano, Jemez has the small community club of south-east Madrid playing some of the most entertaining football in the league behind Barcelona. In fact, when Rayo went to Barcelona, they went punch for punch: Jemez's men had almost 60 per cent possession and took 22 shots to 14 against the Catalans, per WhoScored.com. Though they left with defeat due to some typically cavalier defending, Rayo showcased their essence under Jemez—creativity, technical proficiency, vision and ingenuity.
For a club that has spent less than €1 million in the transfer market since the current manager's arrival in 2012, their standard is remarkable.
"Rayo wouldn't be what it is without Paco. He's a big team coach," said midfielder Roberto Trashorras. "I would definitely recommend [Real Madrid president] Florentino Perez hire Jemez."
Jemez would almost certainly be too left-field for Madrid, not to mention too outspoken. But Madrid have previously considered some of the others: club director Emilio Butragueno enquired about Emery last summer, per AS' Alvaro de la Rosa, while an approach for Athletic Bilbao's Valverde was made before that, according to AS' Javier G. Matallanas.
In Spain, the excellence and diligence of these men—of Emery, Gracia, Marcelino, Jemez, Valverde, Victor, Mendilibar and Berizzo—is being recognised.
Three years ago, that of Pochettino was, too.
Now at Tottenham, the Argentinian has driven Spurs onto a new plane of existence, their Premier League rivals suddenly taken aback by Pochettino's outfit of tactical acumen. Of discipline. Of athletes. Of animals.
Those rivals should know, though: There are more where Pochettino came from.