Sitting in the bowels of McDiarmid Park on Sunday afternoon, Philippe Clement chose to raise a detail from Rangers’ 3-0 win over St Johnstone that he was particularly satisfied with.

“We had a dominant performance, there was never a doubt in the game. I think we didn't have a shot on target against us.”

On the day his side went top for the first time in two seasons and won 3-0, it was telling that Clement chose to focus on another clean sheet. While the question since the turn of the year has been whether Rangers have enough goals to win the league, their defensive record and the reasons behind it merits greater attention. As Sir Alex Ferguson famously said: “Attacks win games, but defences will win you titles.”

In recent away matches with St Johnstone and St Mirren, on pitches which posed a potential banana skin, Rangers conceded only 0.73xG across 180 minutes. If they can keep opponents to such sparse figures going forward a championship is within reach.

Rangers have played 13 games away from home this season - three coming under Michael Beale and one under Steven Davis - in which they’ve conceded just four goals. Two of those came in the Old Firm defeat before New Year. In Clement’s 18 league games to date, Rangers have amassed 11 clean sheets, seven of which have come on the road.

Across the league campaign so far Rangers’ 13 goals conceded (0.5 per/90) is five better than Celtic’s 18 (0.69 per/90). Their 0.54xG conceded per/90 is far better than their title rivals’ total of 0.81. The Ibrox outfit have slightly overperformed based on the chances they’ve conceded (12 goals against from 14.13xG conceded in open play) while Celtic have allowed a far higher 21.3xG across the season and conceded 18 goals.

Although Rangers’ defensive numbers were good heading into the recent international break, their performance has taken on new levels since. In what is a small sample size, Clement’s men have conceded just 0.49xG per/90, almost half of their direct rivals’ 0.97, in six league matches since the league resumed. 

What does this all mean? xG is a number that, while imperfect, shows the quality of shots a team is conceding or creating. And while Rangers are allowing slightly fewer goals than the chances they’ve allowed suggest they should’ve - largely owing to Jack Butland - the point stands that opponents are not only scoring infrequently, they’re creating infrequently.

Take a look at the breakdown of metrics below since the winter break. 

Rangers’ xG conceded average of 0.54 this season is lower than 0.67 in 2022/23, 0.66 in 2021/22 and even the 0.63 recorded during a record-breaking defensive season in 2020/21 when Steven Gerrarrd’s side only allowed in 13 goals throughout the campaign, although that figure stood at 0.49 when the league was won. It’s also healthier than the 0.59 allowed in 2019/20 and 0.84 in 2018/19.

What’s behind this performance, then? Statistically the best since a return to the top flight which will likely be the key behind any title win.

Firstly, it’s hard to look past Jack Butland. The 30-year-old has been by some distance the best goalkeeper in the top flight this season. His Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) comes in at 1.97.

GSAA is defined as: “How many goals did the keeper save/concede versus expectation (post-shot xG faced)? This is representative of how many goals the goalkeeper's saves prevented within a season.”

For context in the 2022/23 league season, Jon McLaughlin’s GSAA stood at -3.72 and Allan McGregor’s a concerning -8.86. In 2021/22, McGregor took a tumble from the title-winning campaign (3.94) to land at 0.35. This season, in stark contrast to last, Rangers have a consistent difference-maker in goal who they can rely upon when the defence is breached.

The second reason for Rangers’ defensive record is their organisation when they attack, otherwise known as rest-defence.

“We’ve tried to cut out transitions a lot and there has been a big focus on that,” John Souttar explained when the Rangers Review posed the defensive record to him during a recent press conference.

“The manager [wants] the whole team working hard as a unit out of possession and when we are in possession thinking defensively. That comes back to the clarity he gives the whole team, what he wants defensively when we are on the ball and off the ball.”

Thinking defensively when in possession - is that not slightly negative? On the contrary. Clement’s focus on rest-defence, the defensive structure a team has on the ball to be ready to win it back or protect against transitions when they lose it, is vital in stopping attacks at source. Take it from another defender, this time Connor Goldson speaking after a recent Scottish Cup win over Ayr United.

“Now the gaffer bangs on about when we are attacking our organisation behind the ball. I think we are so much less prone to counterattacks, we manage to play in waves and keep the ball in the opposition half. Being able to strangle teams when they come here,” he said.

“That's the way he wants to play, every time a ball is cleared it has to be us first and counterpress as quickly as we can. Then at home, he wants us to strangle teams and get them as far back as we can. Making sure we get wave after wave, we're limiting counterattacks and I think that was our problem before, we were conceding too many chances on the break.”

This answer explains rest-defence in greater detail, in Rangers’ case it’s about keeping a solid structure in possession to support any moments where possession of the ball turns over. To keep pressure on the defence and build attacks while protecting against counterattacks.

In a recent exclusive sit-down with the Rangers Review, James Tavernier explained how a tactical tweak to his role under Clement has been made with this detail - protecting against transitions - in mind.

“I know the current manager doesn’t want to be too far open on when the ball is on the other side so that’s why you’ll see me tucked in. That also means I can get the ball inside the pitch, and protect against transition," he said.

“In the past, the manager wanted us high and wide no matter what side the ball was on which means centre-backs are prone to the counterattack and maybe have less cover. Now, the gaffer wants us to be a bit more secure and I am happy with that. Whatever the manager wants to do I will always adjust no matter what.”

Here's an example from the recent 3-1 win over Ross County. As the ball is on the left and Ridvan Yilmaz makes a forward run from left-back, Tavernier tucks inside.

With McCausland wide stretching the visitor's defence, Tavernier is infield positioned narrowly alongside Souttar and John Lundstram.

In Clement’s tactical set-up, it’s wingers who offer width rather than full-backs. The reason so many managers use full-backs inside the pitch is not only to progress play but ensure the back four remains closer together to guard against transitions.

Look at this pass network from the recent 2-1 win over Aberdeen and notice the narrow positioning of Tavernier.

Compare that to the last time Aberdeen visited Ibrox in Beale’s final game in charge. Notice the width exclusively coming from full-backs and the wide starting berth of Tavernier.

While last year Celtic had conceded the fewest counterattacking shots/90 in the league (0.34 to Rangers’ 0.63) this season the Ibrox side are on top (0.46 to Celtic’s 0.62). As Goldson alludes to, Rangers’ defensive structure when they have the ball has changed and they’re less prone to counterattacks as a result.

The final reason behind Rangers' defensive performance is how they choose to attack. Clement’s side are quicker offensively and go over the top of defences far more often. While at times this can prove a trade-off for control, it is exploiting spaces opponents leave and pushing them backwards. Clement is not a coach who’s obsessed with keeping the ball - he’s far more interested in attacking space wherever possible.

Think of the nature of some of Rangers’ recent goals. Cyriel Dessers’ winner against St Mirren or opener against Ross County and Ridvan Yilmaz’s strike against Hibs - scored after passes over the top. Or either goal in a 2-1 home win over Aberdeen - scored after attacking space quickly in transition.

When Rangers do lose possession, it’s rarely in the build-up or areas where a counterattack is threatening. There is more often than not time to counterpress aggressively, when at home, or fall back into their 4-4-2 and await their moment to press, when away from home.

Long-term it’s viable to suggest that Clement’s football will need to be less direct and find new avenues to attack with speed, but in the short term, the Belgian's methods are working.

They say that titles are built on defences. If Rangers are to win the league come May, as their form suggests they can, it will have been a championship earned from a solid base.

Additional reading 

James Tavernier exclusive: 'Run through walls' for Clement, captaincy and adversity

How Rangers went top: Cantwell's influence, a clever tactical tweak and Tavernier

Meet Philippe Clement: A workaholic, proven-winner according to those who know him