In this time of waiting, of scouring meagre evidence for an understanding of how this season might unfold, it is to the managers we look for our reasoning. Walter Smith and Tony Mowbray stand on the verge of competition and when the old rivalry between Rangers and Celtic comes to express itself once more, they must find the means of merging expectation with reality.
Only four points separated the two clubs as Rangers won the championship last season, but the summer has served to further detach them. The Ibrox side, still bearing the heavy burden of their debts, have reduced their squad – most notably with the transfer of former captain Barry Ferguson to Birmingham – and remain unlikely to make any significant signings. They look to stability, trusting that a settled first team will provide a robust momentum, and hope that Davie Weir continues to defy the ageing process at centre-back.
Across the city, it has been a time of disruption, with Gordon Strachan departing, to be replaced by Mowbray. A former Celtic defender, he knows the contours of this place, and the nature of the club's relationship with its surroundings. He has signed three players while enduring a scattered pre-season schedule that took the team to Brisbane, Cardiff, London and, last week for a significant Champions' League qualifying round victory, to Moscow.
At his previous clubs, Hibernian and West Bromwich Albion, Mowbray held firm to a principled approach, of seeking to establish values of neat and patient passing, of movement and intelligence. His teams were admired, but always with a vague suspicion that in venerating style, he was sacrificing substance.
Mowbray pledged to instil an attacking verve to Celtic, and his signings, Danny Fox, Landry N'Guémo and Marc-Antoine Fortuné, look assured, but fully asserting his influence will take time. "This is only the start of a work in progress," he says. "In two or three transfer windows' time, my team will be hugely different. Hopefully, you will see as we go along that I'm not an idealist. I've got my beliefs on how players should play, but that's not a crime."
The temptation is to emphasise a contrast between Smith and Mowbray, and so also their teams, declaring the former a stoic pragmatist and the latter a romantic optimist. In truth, these caricatures are extensions of the managers' public personas. Smith has little time for discussing formations or style, he is a reserved – though fiercely intelligent – character, whereas Mowbray can expound on team shapes and tactics endlessly, and enthusiastically.
During pre-season, Smith adopted a 4-3-3 formation in preparation for the club's Champions' League campaign, a departure from the cloying 4-5-1 he used in guiding Rangers to the Uefa Cup final last year.
The team has looked fluid and adroit, and although the shape leaves little room to accommodate Smith's most reliable goalscorer, Kris Boyd, who is less mobile than Kenny Miller, Rangers will often revert to a 4-4-2 system in domestic matches.
"We wanted to improve on the system that we last used in Europe and we're getting there," Smith says. "We have played some decent football and the players have got to know each other over a period of seasons which helps."
This season will come down to reliability, which team is most adept at generating consistency, and an unaltered Rangers side has a head start.
Scottish Premier League: Club by club guide
In: Stuart Nelson (Norwich City).
Out: Lee Mair (St Mirren); Scott Severin (Watford); Jamie Smith (Colorado Rapids).
Why they will finish sixth: new manager Mark McGhee has little money but is tactically astute.
In: Lukasz Zaluska (Dundee Utd); Danny Fox (Coventry City, £2m); Landry N'Guemo (Nancy, loan); Marc-Antoine Fortune (Nancy, £3.8m), Josh Thompson (Stockport).
Out: Bobo Balde (free agent); Scott Cuthbert (Swindon Town, £100,000); Shunsuke Nakamura (Espanyol); Paul Hartley (Bristol City); Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink (free agent).
Why they will finish second: Tony Mowbray will implement a more attacking style but with that comes volatility.
In: Steve Banks (Hearts); Andy Webster, (Rangers, loan); Jennison Myrie-Williams (Bristol City); Danny Cadamarteri (Huddersfield Town).
Out: Lukasz Zaluska (Celtic); Danny Grainger (St Johnstone).
Why they will finish third: Strong, obdurate, improving team.
In: Brian McLean (Motherwell); Marc Twaddle (Partick Thistle); Vitor Lima (Ethnikos Piraeus); Ryan Flynn (Liverpool, loan); Alex MacDonald (Burnley, loan); Danijel Marceta (Partizan Belgrade, loan).
Out: Dani Mallo (free agent); Kevin McBride, Patrick Cregg (both Hibernian); Steve Lovell (free agent); Michael Higdon (St Mirren).
Why they will finish 10th: new manager Eddie May is inexperienced and the squad is young.
In: Marvin Andrews (Raith Rovers); Izzy Iriekpen (Bristol City); James Weslowski (Leicester City, loan).
Out: Brian Easton (Burnley, £350,000); James McCarthy (Wigan, £1.2m); Rocco Quinn, (Queen of the South); Joel Thomas (Colchester United, £125,000); Marc Corcoran, (Partick Thistle); Kenny Deuchar (St Johnstone).
Why they will finish 11th: the influential McCarthy's departure is significant.
In: Dawid Kucharski (Lech Poznan); Ismael Bouzid (Ankaragucu); Ian Black (Inverness CT); Jesus Manuel Santana Abreu (Tenerife); David Witteveen (Red Bull Salzburg).
Out: Steve Banks (Dundee Utd); Robbie Neilson (Leicester City); Christos Karipidis (Omonia Nicosia); Bruno Aguiar (Omonia Nicosia).
Why they will finish fourth: manager Csaba Laszlo instilled order but has not strengthened enough to improve further.
In: Graham Stack (unattached), Patrick Cregg, Kevin McBride, (both Falkirk); Daniel Galbraith (Man United).
Out: Grzegorz Szamotulski (free agent); Andrew McNeill (free agent); Rob Jones, (Scunthorpe, undisclosed); Denes Rosa (free agent); Steven Fletcher, (Burnley, £3m); Alan O'Brien (Swindon Town).
Why they will finish fifth: a new era under John Hughes holds promise if he can instil defensive stability.
In: Lee Robinson (Rangers); Graeme Owens (Middlesbrough); Mark Burchill (Rotherham).
Out: David Lilley (Queen of the South); Grant Murray (Raith Rovers); Willie Gibson (Dunfermline); Allan Johnston (free agent).
Why they will finish eighth: undermined by brittle finances, only Jim Jefferies' gruff managerial acumen will avert danger.
In: Michael Fraser (Inverness CT); John Ruddy (Everton, loan); Steve Jennings (Tranmere Rovers); Giles Coke (Northampton Town); Chris Humphrey (Shrewsbury Town).
Out: Graeme Smith (Brighton); Brian McLean (Falkirk); Paul Quinn (Cardiff); Bob Malcolm (Brisbane Roar); Stephen Hughes (free agent); David Clarkson (Bristol City).
Why they will finish seventh: it will take time to settle following huge upheaval.
Out: Graeme Smith (St Johnstone); Christian Dailly (free agent); Andy Webster (Dundee Utd, loan); Brahim Hemdani (free agent); Barry Ferguson (Birmingham City, £1.2m); Charlie Adam (Blackpool, £500,000).
Why they will finish first: the champions are banking on continuity, and start from a more stable position than Celtic.
In: Graeme Smith, (Rangers); Dave MacKay, (Livingston); Danny Grainger, (Dundee Utd); Filipe Morais (Inverness CT); Kenny Deuchar (Hamilton).
Out: Kevin James (Ayr Utd); Derek Holmes (Queen of the South).
Why they will finish 12th: fresh from promotion, the step up will prove too great.
In: Paul Gallacher, (Dunfermline); Lee Mair (Aberdeen); Chris Innes (Livingston); Michael Higdon (Falkirk).
Out: Will Haining; Franco Miranda; Gary Mason; Jim Hamilton (all free agents).
Why they will finish ninth: a gritty, rugged team.Reuse content