There should be nothing to give Steven Gerrard sweaty palms about his Rangers team going into this evening’s encounter away to Hibernian with Jermain Defoe performing the understudy role for the banned Alfredo Morelos.
After all, while the Colombian’s 27 goals may have been the outstanding feature of the Ibrox men’s impressive form this season, with 13 goals in little more than a third of the minutes Morelos has spent on the pitch, Defoe boasts a marginally better strike-rate.
And yet, Morelos hasn’t just become the man that makes Rangers tick; he dictates their tactics. And Gerrard acknowledged yesterday that adapting to Defoe’s presence as the central striker will be crucial to Rangers claiming the win that Celtic’s faultless progress demands of them in order to push the Scottish champions.
Gerrard will hope necessity delivers productive modifications as it has in two other areas. Nikola Katic has only appeared to strengthen the Rangers backline since being drafted in due to an injury to Filip Helander that, Gerrard revealed yesterday, could sideline the Swede until February.
Meanwhile, Steven Davis’ loss to a problem with bruising on his foot – which it is hoped he will shake off in time for next week’s fixtures with Kilmarnock and Celtic – has resulted in Joe Aribo gaining influence through being pushed forward on the right of a front three. In turn that has allowed Scott Arfield to rediscover his drive in a deeper midfield slot.
These tweaks are, in part, why the Ibrox manager can sound relaxed about missing Morelos, while the obvious value of Defoe can also offer comfort. “I’m just as excited by the potential of the front three we can put out at Easter Road as I would be if Alfredo had been available,” he said. “The players in the wide positions have a responsibility to supply the No 9, as have the midfielders behind him, but I’ve no doubt that, given the right service, we will score goals.
“I’ve given Joe Aribo more responsibility and he’s benefited from that. I also think that’s had a knock-on effect with Scott because he’s now playing as a midfielder facing the opposition goal, which is what we want him doing.
“The players need to understand that and they have to make sure they provide a different kind of service to Jermain Defoe. Every player is different, whether it be a centre half or a full back. If we were to bring Jon Flanagan in for James Tavernier there would be a different style of play. Jermain is different – he is probably not as mobile as Alfredo, as you would expect with his age. But Jermain Defoe is a box player. He has got really clever, subtle movements. If you have played with him or you have watched him as closely as I have over the years, you appreciate what kind of forward he is. Jermain coming in does make it different.”
The encounter at Easter Road provides Defoe with the moment, Gerrard believes, the on-loan 37-year-old will have been waiting for, intent as he is on signing when his deal with Bournemouth expires in the summer. And it’s a moment the forward has warranted, after starting only one game in the past seven weeks, and scoring only once in the past two months.
“Jermain probably deserves a bit more game time but it’s very difficult, when you’ve got a forward like Alfredo and he’s scoring such important goals and the team’s in decent form, to make those type of changes,” noted Gerrard.
“But I’m confident over the course of a 60-game, or 60-game plus season, Jermain will be satisfied with his opportunities. We’re not talking about a 26, 27-year-old here.
“We’re talking about a guy that does need looking after and used at the right times. But I have to praise his professionalism and his patience. But now it’s over to Jermain because there will be options from now before the break. We play a run of fixtures with something like ten home games out of 16 when we come back after the winter break. So, there will be plenty of opportunities and game time for Jermain to get his numbers even better than they are now.”