Rangers: Mark Warburton's reign encounters troubling times
By his own admission, manager Mark Warburton felt Rangers' 4-1 defeat by Hearts was significant. He described the second-half display as "the worst I have seen in 18 months".
It was a solitary match, and Rangers are capable of stringing together a run of results like they did prior to losing to Celtic on Hogmanay, when they suffered only one defeat in 11 games. Even so, scrutiny of the team's progress in the past 12 months makes for interesting reading.
There was a time when Warburton seemed to be building a side of promising foundations. Now, there are legitimate questions about where the team is going.
Results laid out
In 2016, Rangers played 39 league matches, across the Championship and the Premiership. They won 22 of those games, a win ratio of 56%, or just a little more than half. They won the Championship last season by 11 points, but they also lost the Scottish Cup final to Hibernian despite leading 2-1 with 10 minutes remaining.
Among the league losses were visits to Easter Road and the Falkirk Stadium, as well as at Celtic Park, Pittodrie and Tynecastle in this campaign. During his 18 months at the club, Warburton has failed to win a league game away against one of the leading sides in his division. In three attempts, including a League Cup tie last season, he has also failed to defeat St Johnstone, home or away.
It irks the manager to be constantly asked about the gap between his side and Celtic, and Brendan Rodgers' team are on a run of outstanding consistency. Warburton has pointed out the financial disparity between his budget and that of his counterpart across the city, but then that perspective would need to also be applied to the other clubs in Scotland.
Rangers have drawn both their meetings with Ross County this season - the side they face on Saturday - as well as at home to Hamilton and away to Kilmarnock. Hearts have won emphatically twice against Rangers at Tynecastle, while Aberdeen also won at Pittodrie, despite Rangers dominating possession, and Derek McInnes' side, due to their game in hand, could move into second place this month.
The context is that Rangers' budget is significantly higher than all of their Premiership opponents other than Celtic. It has almost doubled since the Championship campaign and will be four-to-five times the budgets at Hearts and Aberdeen, the next highest payers in the Premiership.
Rangers' budget ought to provide them with a competitive advantage. Warburton has spent in the region of £3m in fees since taking charge of Rangers, from development fees to £500,000 for Michael O'Halloran and about £1.5m for Joe Garner.
He insisted that Frank McParland, his sporting director at Brentford, be brought to Ibrox in October 2015, but since then the club's recruitment has been chequered.
A look at Rangers' starting line-up against Hearts tells the story, since all but three of the players were either at the club when Warburton joined, or were brought to Ibrox during his first summer in charge. Of the three others, Clint Hill was signed last summer, while Jon Toral and Emerson Hyndman joined on loan in the January transfer window.
Twelve months ago, Warburton signed O'Halloran, but the player has only started 20 games. Of the 11 players signed in the summer, Joey Barton and Matt Gilks have already left permanently, Matt Crooks has departed on loan and Phillipe Senderos has made only two appearances.
Niko Krancjar suffered a serious knee injury, but Jordan Rossiter has also been dogged with long-standing injury problems and has made only six appearances, the final one coming last August. Garner has scored only three goals in 19 games, while Joe Dodoo has started only three games.
Josh Windass has looked promising in midfield, while Lee Hodson has been a capable squad member, but only Hill has established himself in the starting line-up.
Hearts signed nine players in the January transfer window, but the capture of Alexandros Tziolis, a Greece international who has played at European Championship and World Cup finals, his countryman Tasos Avlonitis, Slovenia international Andraz Struna and French midfielder Malaury Martin tell of a wider network of contacts and a willingness to explore more cost effective markets.
When Warburton withdrew Hyndman at Tynecastle - a player who has impressively scored twice and made one assist in three games - he was booed by the away support. His explanation was that Rangers have a duty of care to the American's parent club, Bournemouth. That kind of statement will rile a fanbase who expect Rangers to win matches and challenge for trophies, not develop players for other teams.
Warburton has impressed as a coach, and the development of Barrie McKay in particular has been marked, but there have been criticisms that the tactical approach is limited to one style of play and substitutions are a matter of routine rather than an attempt to alter the flow of a match.
These are personal developments he can make, and his side may yet meet their target of finishing second, but while recruitment and results falter his job becomes more about problem-solving than building for the future.
Warburton's margin for error is diminishing.