Twelve months ago Rangers sat third in the Ladbrokes Premiership, 11 points behind Celtic, who they had held to a goalless draw at Parkhead in the final fixture prior to the winter break.
Despite surviving defeat at their rivals, December had not been a great month for the Ibrox side. They had lost 3-1 at home to St Johnstone and 2-1 at Kilmarnock. Even the most delusional Rangers fan would been unable to envisage the transformation in the intervening period.
Steven Gerrard is now the manager, the team have recently recorded their first win over Celtic in 90 minutes since March 2012 and they sit level on points with their Glasgow neighbours at the summit of the Ladbrokes Premiership, albeit Celtic have a game in hand.
Now fans have been boosted by the arrival of Jermain Defoe and former player Steven Davis. The duo have played more than 800 games between them in the Premier League.
On paper, from the squad which started the season, Gerrard has effectively replaced Ovie Ojaria and Umar Sadiq, both having had their loan deals cut short, with Davis and Defoe. But how exactly can Gerrard use each player?
It is not often that the signing of a 36-year-old excites, but then again it is not often teams in the Scottish Premiership sign a player of Defoe’s cachet: nearly 300 career goals, the seventh top scorer in Premier League history and 20 goals in 57 England caps.
Goals are Defoe’s currency and it is nearing on impossible that he’ll have even less of an effect than Sadiq. In fact, it is more likely that the Collatz conjecture maths problem will be solved by the finest minds than Defoe flopping to Sadiq standards.
The big question, aside from the player’s age, has been ‘can the veteran striker coexist with Alfredo Morelos?’
The duo share similarities. That low-centre of gravity, the solid base, the crafty use of their gluteus maximus and the ferocious finishing, especially when slipped in on the right-hand side of the box.
The 4-3-3, morphing into a 4-2-3-1, has been Gerrard’s favoured formation since taking over at Ibrox. Defoe may not offer the same focal point qualities as Morelos, the selfless running, the roughing up of defenders, but he is a more than adept replacement from the bench or starter when the Colombian is in need of a rest.
It is hard to imagine Defoe or Morelos being asked to fill in a wider role and it would be a waste of their talents if they were to, which means if they were to play in the same team it would require a two-pronged attack.
Gerrard has previously dabbled with a back three, although it didn’t quite have the desired effect with the team conceding three in a draw at Fir Park.
Yet, Gerrard has the personnel available to play such a system. In James Tavernier, Lee Wallace and Borna Barisic he has a trio of full-backs who would suit a wing-back role, while a three of Connor Goldson, Nikola Katic, Gareth McAuley and Joe Worrall would provide defensive solidity.
The Rangers boss is spoilt for choice in the centre of the pitch when it comes to a midfield three.
With the wing-backs having increased freedom and bombarding the box with crosses there would be two strikers to aim for with Scott Arfield adding forward runs and penetration from midfield.
An alternative is the traditional fans’ favourite: 4-4-2. Again, with the options available to Gerrard, it is do-able.
Very few proponents of the system field two out-and-out wingers. Ryan Kent can play one the left with Andy Halliday in a more defensive, supporting role at full-back. On the other side Gerrard can play a midfielder narrow on the right with James Tavernier overlapping. Such a position can be filled by Davis or Arfield.
It paves the way for two strikers but increases the pressure on the midfield. The Rangers boss wants to dominate the central area, while exerting pressure on the opposition out of possession. Defoe and Morelos would have to be alert to their defensive responsibilities.
The Defoe-Morelos axis is one which may take a few games to get up and running, to develop that understanding. The common sense approach would see Morelos being the link man and Defoe playing on the shoulder of the last defender.
A key issue is when the ball goes wide. Rangers are the most prolific crossers in the league, whether that is getting to the byeline and cutting it back or whipping it in from deeper positions. It is here where work and communication will need to take place as to which runs to make.
It will likely be a more natural fit for Davis. He’s in familiar surroundings with a few familiar names and offers versatility in midfield.
As stated previously he can play the narrow position on the right of a midfield four. His intelligence to take up the right positions and bring Tavernier into the game further up the pitch would benefit Rangers and, as with his set pieces he possess a dangerous cross.
He would also be useful in a central role of a 4-4-2 at Ibrox, where Rangers dominate possession. One of the criticisms of the team in the first half of the campaign was their predictability. When the game wasn’t going in their favour there was a tendency to funnel the ball and cross ad nauseam.
Davis offers more penetration with his forward passing. In the past three seasons for Southampton he was in the top five for through passes and passes into the final third. The 34-year-old will provide the same qualities in a midfield three, a diamond, a two or wide of a four.
Gerrard may be keen to add more creativity to the final third but in Davis he has recruited a proven operator, one who will provide better solutions to Rangers’ problems.
Defoe and Davis aren’t long-term signings and since both are on loan offer nothing in terms of sell-on value. Yet, what they contribute is goals, experience, intelligence, creativity and genuine quality. And Rangers fans will hope it will yield the most valuable thing of all, a league title to stop Celtic’s march to 10 in a row.