For the first time in a long time, Rangers started this week top of the Premiership table.

That’s a sentence that felt so very far away when Philippe Clement arrived at Ibrox in October inheriting a team shot of confidence and seven points behind Celtic in the league.

Rangers’ 3-0 win over St Johnstone in Perth on Sunday was in keeping with many victories of late under Clement - comfortable, professional and without any real impending sense of doom. It was the lowest open play-xG recorded under the Belgian during a single game (0.9) with two late penalties boosting the underlying numbers, however, the away side fashioned several quality chances that lacked a final shot such as Cyriel Dessers’ one-vs-one. St Johnstone recorded no shots on target, just as Livingston failed to make an attempt at Ibrox weeks ago.

Here is a closer look at the key tactical decisions and moments that earned another vital three points in the title race.

Cantwell’s influence on the first half

“It was not a surface where we can play our normal football,” Clement explained post-match. “We had to adapt, and the team is ready for that now.”

Unlike in midweek during a dominant 3-1 win over Ross County, Rangers didn’t bring their full-backs inside the pitch. They tried to go over and around the home defence given the uneven and unpredictable playing surface made passing through the pitch so risky. Buoyed by this fact St Johnstone were able to commit a little more aggressively in their press. Take a look at the visiting side’s passing network which charts where players released the ball. Notice greater distances between the midfield three, Tavernier wider than usual and Lundstram isolated in the centre.

While Rangers adapted to a more direct style to access the opposition half, when they got there the more they found Todd Cantwell the better they played. The No.13 received just 14 attempted passes in the opening 20 minutes (red successful and yellow unsuccessful)…

…But Cantwell was found in higher central locations far more frequently as the game wore on, with 36 attempted passes coming his way from 20 minutes until his substitution just after the hour.

As depicted in the below GIF sequences, Cantwell created three or four dangerous openings dropping into pockets with his back to goal. He describes his dribbling style as “basing touches off of defenders” and the midfielder’s problem-solving in tight areas was a level above throughout. This is the best part of his game, creating openings and possibilities when playing football on instinct.

In this first example, Cantwell drops into the left half-space, adjusts his body knowing Fabio Silva is close by and is hauled down after going for the return pass.

Here receiving a pass from a further distance, Cantwell takes down a tricky pass with his back to goal and spins away from two men before being fouled.

Here’s a similar example from later in the half. Notice Cantwell scanning for the position of Wright as a forward pass is played when Silva steals the ball. Performing a similar flick to create space before lacking the correct pace of pace upon Wright’s return ball.

In this scenario we see the midfielder drop in the build-up, something he attempted increasingly throughout the first half, allowing Rangers to trigger the press and escape down the right. Only a loose Mohamed Diomande pass stopped the sequence.

In the below images, Cantwell creates an opening from nothing. Bouncing the ball off of Lundstram and moving into space to play facing the goal before attempting an intelligent pass into Wright with the wingers on his heels.

Off the ball even though he only spent an hour on the pitch, no player attempted more pressures than Cantwell’s 26.

As explored in more detail recently, Cantwell is starting to thrive in a ‘new’ No.10 role under Clement but the Belgian managed is also feeling the benefit of his No.13’s creativity that was lacking in previous months.

Additional reading ...

Dujon Sterling and a tactical tweak

Wright was a surprise inclusion and left the pitch at half-time in place of Dujon Sterling. The 26-year-old struggled when he was isolated out wide against Andy Considine and his decision-making routinely let him down before the break.

Alongside affording Ross McCausland some respite Clement likely opted for more defensively-minded wingers on the right given St Johnstone attacked with wing-backs and threatened to create a five-vs-four on the last line at points. Sterling’s impact was instant on the right, chasing down a pass behind, shoving Considine off the ball and helping create a shot for Fabio Silva. It was stark in contrast to the moments Wright had running behind before half-time.

Sterling's physicality was also the difference to win a penalty at the expense of Considine and seal the win, but look at where the moves starts. With Sterling pressing a ball infield, chasing down the pass wide and then making sure he was first to the rebound in the box.

It was an intelligent substitution from Clement who has now played Sterling right across the midfield since the winter break. As the season progresses it’s evident that the 24-year-old will play in competitive games of this nature more often than not.

Tavernier’s penalties strike again

James Tavernier is now one goal behind levelling John Greig’s 121 scored for Rangers after two late penalties in Perth. The Rangers captain found the net with both his attempts going to Dimitar Mitov’s left initially and right with the second attempt.

The StatsBomb freezeframes below shows the quality of each strike. The post-shot xG, a metric which calculates the likelihood of a goal once a shot has been taken, came in at 0.88 each time meaning Mitov saves a spot-kick 12 times out of 100.

Speaking at length about his penalty technique in a recent interview, Tavernier said: "I always do the same run-up no matter where I’m going to put the ball. That’s my style now so it’s now about just continuing to practice and making sure I hit the spot.

"I’ve got to keep it in the air. For myself, it’s a lot about technique. I’ve taken a lot of them now. You do get a little bit nervous but it’s generally down to technique.

“I’m always fixated on the ball. Some penalty takers look at the keeper but I’ve never really ventured into that scene.”

His first penalty of the day, in particular, was another high-pressure moment but the 32-year-old has made a habit of rising to these big occasions.