STEVEN GERRARD has been tinkering with his side’s midfield during the opening exchanges of the Scottish Premiership 2020/21 campaign as the former Liverpool midfielder looks to strike a balance between attack and defence in the middle of the park.

It is an ongoing experiment in Glasgow’s south side, and one that is perhaps the result of necessity rather than design. Injury to Joe Aribo, arguably the Ibrox club’s most impressive performer during pre-season, forced Gerrard’s hand into shaking up his system and the early indicators are that he may just have found the solution to his side’s midfield problems.

Last season’s Premiership runners-up saw their title challenge wilt at the turn of the year, with dropped points against the likes of Hamilton, Kilmarnock, St Johnstone and Hearts ultimately proving decisive in the club’s doomed attempt at their 55th league crown.

One of the underlying reasons for this collapse during the second half of the campaign was a lack of attacking threat in midfield. Playing with two number 10s and a three-man midfield, Gerrard’s side often found themselves running against a brick wall when facing opponents who liked to sit deep and constrict space, with the opposition using their numerical advantage to mark the likes of Ryan Kent and Ianis Hagi out the game.

It is an issue that has been recognised by the Rangers boss, however, and in recent weeks we have seen the 39-year-old tweak his formation and effectively give his side an extra man in attack. The 4-3-2-1 of last year has been replaced with a 4-2-3-1 on occasion, and this newly-formed Plan B has so far proved to be a handy ploy in games against defensive opponents.

Take Rangers’ last outing, a 2-0 win over Hamilton, for example. Yes, it is a game that the visitors should be winning but lest we forget, on the last occasion these two sides met in Govan, it was Accies that went home with all three points as the home side were unable to fashion a breakthrough.

Now, Gerrard could rightly feel aggrieved after that game – his team finished the match with an expected goals (xG) of 3.5 compared to the visitors’ 0.59, implying that they fashioned the better opportunities – but the difference between then and now was clear to see during Rangers’ routine win over Brian Rice’s side.

A large part of this was down to the role that Hagi found himself playing in. Rather than playing as a right-sided number 10 alongside Kent, the Romania internationalist found himself largely playing through the centre, flanked by Kent and Brandon Barker but with the trio generally fluid in behind Kemar Roofe in attack.

It is an approach that reaped immediate rewards for Gerrard. Hagi scored the opening goal – his first of the season – and was a far greater threat that afternoon than he has been at any other stage this season. The 21-year-old finished the game having hit six shots, with an xG of 1.36 – far and away his greatest tally of the campaign so far. In fact, in Hagi’s five prior league outings, his cumulative xG was just 0.81. Put simply, this means that the number and quality of the chances created by Hagi against Hamilton was greater than in all five of his other domestic appearances combined.

There has been a section of the Rangers support who have been keen to see how Hagi would fare as a traditional number 10, dropping in between the lines to receive the ball in dangerous areas without having to overly concern himself with moving outfield to occupy space on the right flank. The change in system allowed Hagi to press on into the box and become a more direct threat, and he recorded 10 touches in the opposition penalty area against Accies. In the previous five games, he had 11.

The change in system is getting the most out of Hagi, one of the most naturally talented players at the club, and freeing him up to do what he does best. Last season, Gerrard simply didn’t have the personnel to play with two wingers and an attacking midfielder but this time, the Rangers boss has the right players at his disposal to tinker with his tactics.

Kent looks like a player reborn and there is a sense that the former Liverpool man is finally delivering on the promise that Rangers saw in him when they sanctioned a £7 million move to bring him to Ibrox permanently last summer. The 23-year-old has arguably been the club’s standout performer so far this season yet it is the emergence of another winger – one who was already on the books at the club – that has added a new dimension to Rangers’ attacking play.

Fans of the Ibrox club could have been forgiven for assuming that Brandon Barker would be little more than a bit-part player after an underwhelming debut campaign in Govan but after knuckling down in pre-season, the former Hibs winger has muscled his way into Gerrard’s first-team plans. There has been a succession of wide players at Ibrox over the last few years that haven’t really worked out for one reason or another – Jordan Jones, Sheyi Ojo, Eros Grezda, Jake Hastie and Jamie Murphy all come to mind – but now Barker is keeping his name off that list after a few eye-catching displays that will greatly encourage the Rangers boss.

The versatility of Kemar Roofe, too, gives Gerrard a greater degree of tactical freedom and provides the Liverpool legend with something he has rarely enjoyed at Rangers: options in attacking midfield. The emergence of Barker and the addition of Roofe allows Rangers to move to a more attack-minded formation in games where they must find a way through a tight, compact defence and effectively gives them an extra man in attack – something that Gerrard simply didn’t have the squad for last season.

Having multiple options to call upon does not necessarily guarantee that Rangers will push Celtic all the way in the race for the title but it certainly does little harm. Tactical versatility is what Rangers have often lacked under Gerrard and while pushing an extra man further up the park is hardly reinventing the wheel, it is a fairly significant development that could make the difference as the Ibrox club look to end their 10-year wait for a top-flight title.