Neil Humphreys: How Koeman transformed no-hope Saints to top-four contenders
Ronald Koeman seemed to be a dead man walking. Everything was just slightly off.
His tubby, smiling, slightly cartoonish appearance already made him a figure of fun back in Holland. At Southampton, he risked becoming a joke.
The new manager had barely got comfortable in the hot seat when he tweeted a photo of an immaculate training pitch. "Ready for training," the tweet cried.
There were no players in the photo.
The subtext was lost on no one. Koeman later claimed he wasn't joking, merely observing that he was eager for his Southampton training session.
But the egg rolled down his face. His timing was awful.
The Saints had just watched in horror as £170 million ($344m) worth of talent left through the St Mary's exit.
Southampton's exodus already made the club a laughing stock. Fans didn't appreciate their new manager providing the punchline. After Mauricio Pochettino, the Saints had seemingly sent in the clown.
But he who laughs last, laughs longest. And Koeman could be laughing all the way to the top four.
At the start of the season, the English Premier League welcomed a Dutch master and his former apprentice.
When Manchester United entertained Southampton last weekend, the roles had reversed. Koeman made a fool of Louis van Gaal, along with those who continue to question Southampton's staying power.
Quiet and unassuming, the 51-year-old's remarkable achievements have either been downplayed or overshadowed by events elsewhere.
There was always something else to focus on. Jose Mourinho's tantrums, Arsene Wenger's smoking revelations or the macabre pantomime being played out weekly at the Theatre of Melodrama; there was always a daft distraction.
Besides, the Premier League laws of gravity would surely take care of Koeman. He had to fall. He was flying without wings, deluding himself and his supporters.
Southampton would succumb to altitude sickness in the end.
But Koeman knows better.
When the club lost four of their seven highest-rated players in pre-season, he never panicked. He pivoted. He changed course slightly.
Pochettino earned plaudits for his high-pressing game, which was often easy on the eye, but increasingly hard on the defence.
Koeman was one of the finest, ball-playing defenders of his generation, instinctively knowing when to press and when to pull back. With little fuss, he built a side in his old image.
TOUGH TO BEAT
Toby Alderweireld proved to be an inspired signing, forming an immediate cohesive partnership with Jose Fonte, who now relishes his seniority (while his former partner Dejan Lovren dashes around the Liverpool box like a traumatised Bo Peep looking for her sheep.)
Koeman's defence, marshalled by Fonte and the excellent Nathaniel Clyne, displays greater discipline, happy to sit and hold the line.
Eleven clean sheets in 21 games and only 15 goals conceded have validated Koeman's safety-first approach. His predecessor, incidentally, has shipped almost twice as many at Tottenham (29).
Koeman has also thrown a belt around the midfield three and tightened. He squeezes the sides like a bridegroom tucking in his potbelly.
Pulling Morgan Schneiderlin and Steven Davis towards the centre circle offers Victor Wanyama and the back four greater cover. They are seldom exposed.
The narrower line-up may be less expansive than Pochettino's winged wonders, but it's more effective.
Last season, the Saints succumbed against the leading sides. Koeman's men endure. In recent games against United, Arsenal and Chelsea, Southampton conceded just a single goal.
Schneiderlin, in particular, has joined the EPL's highest ranks of defensive midfielders. All sorts of carrots will be dangled in the coming days. His head must not be turned.
Up front, Koeman navigated a similar course. While Southampton's top-four rivals signed superstars and branded goods, with varying degrees of success, the Saints boss shopped for the tried and tested.
He went home and brought back Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle from the Eredivisie, known quantities in the Dutch top flight with the stats to match.
Tadic created more chances than any other Eredivisie player last season (133).
Pelle found the net 23 times in 28 appearances.
Koeman didn't sign potential. The Southampton academy takes care of that with the likes of James Ward-Prowse and Matt Targett. Nor did he purchase petulant misfits or fork out millions for fading icons. He bought proven pedigree.
More importantly, he has stayed the course.
When the season began, Southampton broke into the top four. Then they went six games without a victory.
Then they went a further six games without defeat. Through it all, Koeman didn't falter. Nor did he fall for the hype.
He remains the same smiley, mild-mannered manager who failed to see the fuss when he tweeted that photo of an empty training pitch.
He doesn't speak of projects or silence dissent with tiresome talk of a mythical "philosophy".
Koeman goes quietly about his business of winning and speaks seriously about finishing in the top four.
Only this time, no one is laughing at him.