The Rangers signing who is now key to stopping Celtic winning 10-in-a-row

Ask any Celtic supporter which player was the most important factor in their club denying Rangers a record-breaking 10th consecutive league title back in 1997-98 and the answer will be instant and unequivocal.

Kemar Roofe scores Rangers' second goal in their 4-0 win against Aberdeen in the Premiership at Ibrox on Sunday. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)

But in pointing out that the signing of Henrik Larsson from Feyenoord at the start of that season was undeniably the key to Celtic’s ultimate success in an historic and closely contested title race, there is also the considerable benefit of hindsight.

Because Larsson didn’t exactly hit the ground running at Celtic with an error on his league debut gifting a goal to Hibs in a defeat at Easter Road raising initial doubts among many fans over the wisdom of the £650,000 investment in the Swedish forward. The rest, of course, is history with Larsson now revered as one of Celtic’s greatest players of all time.

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It is a considerable stretch to even begin to suggest Kemar Roofe could go on to enjoy similar status at Rangers. But there is a growing sense that another summer signing from a club in the Low Countries is starting to emerge as the most crucial piece of business conducted by Steven Gerrard in a campaign when he is entrusted with the task of preventing Celtic reaching that Holy Grail of 10-in-a-row.

Off the pace

Like Larsson, Roofe had a slow-burning start to his time in Glasgow following his £3.5 million move from Anderlecht. The Englishman arrived lacking fitness, having not played since just before the Belgian League was curtailed by the coronavirus crisis.

There were glimpses of his quality, including a goal on his first starting appearance in a 2-0 win over Kilmarnock at Ibrox on August 22, but it was clear Roofe was some way short of finding his optimum levels of physical conditioning.

His progress was then disrupted by a calf injury sustained in the 5-0 Europa League qualifying romp against Lincoln Red Imps in Gibraltar, forcing him to miss Rangers’ next six games. Roofe returned to action with a bang on October 22, coming off the bench to score that remarkable goal from inside his own half as Rangers opened their Europa League group stage campaign with a 2-0 win over Standard Liege in Belgium.

In his appearances since then, there has been a growing body of evidence that Roofe brings something to Rangers’ play which is both different and highly effective. The 27-year-old has an outstanding first touch and a sharp football brain, usually identifying the correct next pass or move instantly and executing it precisely.

The variety show

Roofe can operate anywhere along the attacking front three in Gerrard’s preferred 4-3-3 system. In Sunday’s 4-0 win over Aberdeen at Ibrox, which saw Rangers stretch their lead over Celtic at the top of the Premiership table to 11 points, he started notionally on the right. But his movement and understanding of the variety of angles Rangers are currently utilising to break down opposition defences saw him pop up as a number nine on occasion, allowing Alfredo Morelos to drop deeper, or even switch sides with the outstanding Ryan Kent.

"It’s been really enjoyable getting to play with a whole range of players who all bring their different elements to our game,” says Kent. “Hopefully it continues, as the way we are playing this year with this really dynamic football, it has been impressive how it has come from all over the pitch. It is exciting times.”

Roofe’s link-up play was of the highest order, constantly finding positions which allowed the central midfield trio of Ryan Jack, Joe Aribo and Scott Arfield to ensure the momentum of Rangers’ possession-based style could be maintained.

Building relationships

Gerrard now has a plethora of options from middle to front and has made it clear he will continue to maximise the permutations in those areas to ensure Rangers have the flexibility in attack which they too often lacked at crucial stages of the previous two seasons.

“All of our attacking players are important but I was really interested to see the relationship between Alfredo and Kemar against Aberdeen, to see how they played together,” observed Gerrard.

“We saw it a couple of weeks previously (in the 8-0 win over Hamilton Accies) with Jermain Defoe and Kemar, their understanding and relationship. It’s important that Alfredo gets that relationship with Kemar as well.

“It’s very difficult to play against because they can come short or go in behind, or come off the side as well. We have no.8s who can go beyond them. We want to give opposition teams as many problems as we can because at times in the past we have come unstuck by maybe playing in front of teams too much, being a little bit predictable and maybe not having enough answers. I’m really pleased how we are looking.”

The former Leeds United man also has an element of selfishness in his make-up, essential to any reliable goalscorer, when opportunities come his way. His fine goal against Aberdeen, which combined craft with physicality as a superb first touch was followed by forcing his way beyond the challenges of two defenders, was his sixth in just seven starting appearances for Rangers so far.

Roofe was replaced by Ianis Hagi with 15 minutes to go and admits he remains short of full fitness. It’s an exciting prospect for the Rangers supporters to consider just how much more there is to come from a player whose contribution over the coming weeks and months could make him the most vital cog in the machine Gerrard has constructed for the task of dethroning Celtic.

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