It’s common for Philippe Clement to converse with players after they’ve been substituted but during last night’s first half in Leith, the Belgian was doing the asking and not the telling.

Dujon Sterling, hobbling off at Easter Road prematurely clutching his hamstring, made a walk down the tunnel that his replacement, Ross McCausland, would follow in the second half. Although Rabbi Matondo’s return to the squad offered some semblance of depth to the wings pre-match, come full-time the Ibrox side had, quite literally, taken one step forward and another two back on the injury front.

“We will examine them in the next two days to see what is going on,” Clement said on the pair speaking post-match.“ It is dangerous for me to say it is serious or it is not serious if it is not the truth.”

This is nothing new. However, the injury situation does not appear to be relenting amid an unforgiving schedule with a squad, as Clement would later reveal, not ready for such a frequency of matches. This was the manager's most honest assessment of reasons behind the injury crisis to date - which has specifically impacted attacking options.

Two weeks ago came the news of Oscar Cortes’ freak, and likely season-ending, muscle injury to curtail an exciting start in Scotland. Before that, Todd Cantwell’s form of the season was stopped by knocks at St Johnstone. In January, news emerged from the Senegal camp that Abdallah Sima would require thigh surgery. In December, a clash of knees across the city at Tynecastle all but ended Danilo’s campaign.

At Easter Road last night, with Clement picking the same consecutive starting 11 for the first time, a tired set of legs earned a 2-0 victory over Hibs to reach the Scottish Cup semi-finals, just hours on from that taxing 2-2 Europa League draw with Benfica. Clement, who has made a habit of picking unpredictable teams to rotate and retain freshness, perhaps didn’t do so this time for a lack of options. With a Europa League second leg to negotiate before travelling to Dundee on Sunday, there is little time to rest beyond recovery in the immediate future. 

“It is clear for everyone if you look now and four months ago there is a huge change,” he added when pressed on Rangers’ ability to compete across multiple fronts.

“You see it also in all the stats of the team. We are not there where I want them to be but for that, I need preparation – what they missed, clearly, because still people are falling out and coming out and others falling out and coming back so there are only a few players really ready for what I want, and that is a competitive team who are there every three days with that intensity. 

“We have a few like Connor, John [Souttar], Lunny, Tav and there are a few growing in that way. But I want the total squad to be like that and for that you need more training and I cannot do that at the moment because we have so many games.  The thing is the solidarity – everyone working hard for the team in whatever position and that is why we get all these results.”

You can see Clement's point looking at Rangers' minutes played chart below in the Scottish Premiership. James Tavernier, Jack Butland, John Lundstram and Connor Goldson are the only core group of players who've consistently featured throughout the league season.

Ever since arriving at Rangers, Clement has been tasked with putting square pegs in round holes and solving puzzles week after week. He’s rarely publicly conceded the reality of the imbalance of a squad built last summer, spare a comment at the December AGM, on a recruitment footing. Attention has instead been turned to what he last night branded the “preparation” missing to improve the injury crisis.

Clement’s style is different from Michael Beale’s. There’s more man-to-man pressing, less time spent in a block as a team, a higher tempo on the ball and, likely, that translates to greater distances. Or at least different running distances. There’s little time for recovery in between matches and, of course, little relenting within games at Rangers. Asked recently if Clement is getting more out of him individually, Goldson said:  “Running-wise yes! Running-wise it is different. It is just the way he wants us to play.”

Meanwhile, you could argue that if Clement were to have an entire complement of players available then his first-choice front four is unavailable and won’t be seen together this season. Would Danilo start over Cyriel Dessers and Fabio Silva? While that’s up for debate and injury has denied the chance for that debate to ensue, a deal worth up to £6million was agreed for the 24-year-old’s services with Feyenoord for a good reason. Clement routinely picked the Brazilian during the short period he was available. 

Sima had scored 15 goals in the first half of the season and was the league’s in-form attacker. Cantwell, after a tumultuous first half of the season, was playing his best football since moving from Norwich last January. Cortes, loaned in with an eye to the future and the short-term gap that Sima vacated, started brilliantly before an injury at Rugby Park.

The minutes played by Danilo, Sima and Cantwell, players who would be in Clement's team every week if not for injury, are shown below. 


All of this makes the job Clement has done to this point far more impressive. Tellingly, never one to make excuses, he hasn't brought this fact up himself. Everything is about solutions and puzzles, problems and formulas. And it was the same last night in Edinburgh. 

Hibs, energised by January recruitment and an atmospheric home crowd, lost their heads while Rangers kept theirs in the second half and saw two men shown red as a result. Clement’s side were clearly, and understandably, leggy throughout. If the game had swung back in the home side’s direction after Lundstram opened the scoring in the first half, it would’ve taken energy that didn’t appear obvious to claw back progression to Hampden.

With that said, Jack Butland’s biggest intervention was of his own doing when overplaying and nearly conceding to a Myziane tackle before the break. 

Against Motherwell last weekend, when Clement’s men hit their wall, Celtic’s defeat against Hearts the next day provided a get-out-of-jail-free card. Defeats happen, freak ones at that, in a game sandwiched between seemingly far greater tests that, on the basis of chances created, Rangers had just a five percent chance of losing.

Last night was a further example that his team have the mentality for a title fight. But where would they be if Sima, Cortes, Cantwell and Danilo were all fit? What could Clement achieve when picking a favoured 11 instead of solving his latest puzzle?

Until there’s time for preparation, and while crossing his fingers that Sterling and McCausland will not join that quartet on the treatment table for long, the Belgian has plenty more problem-solving to do before May.