Chelsea have had a history of foreign big-money signings struggling in their first exposure to Premier League football, with both Didier Drogba and Florent Malouda looking stunningly disappointing in their initial seasons with the team only to rebuild their Blues careers later on. Ramires, an £18M buy from Portuguese side Benfica, looked to be joining Malouda and company in producing a disastrous first campaign after being dropped into the first team following a major injury to midfield stalwart Frank Lampard.
It didn't go well. Ramires was ok in his debut, if a little rusty, and while he impressed against Arsenal in Chelsea's 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge, he struggled badly against Manchester City and ultimately lost his starting place to auxilary left-back Yuri Zhirkov. Chelsea suffered another round of midfield personnel problems in November which forced the Brazilian back into the squad, but he continued making bad decisions, committing technical mistakes, and generally looking overawed by the Premier League.
Then came Saturday's match against Blackburn, where Ramires was by far Chelsea's best player (although his timing wasn't quite as good as Branislav Ivanovic's match-winning goal and assist). Ramires had been looking a little more relaxed since Carlo Ancelotti switched the midfield to a 4-2-3-1 and placed him alongside Michael Essien in the band of two, which allowed Ramires to venture forward rather than being stationed as a pure holding player or a shuttler in a 4-1-2-3. This these surging runs forward that catch defences off-guard. Ramires is far faster than he looks and has an ability to play on the flanks that few central midfielders can match, so him running from deep into open positions opens up several interesting possibilities for Chelsea - they were certainly the highlights of open play against Blackburn.
He was far more involved in the game on Saturday than he usually is, and finished the match with an exceptionally high pass completion rate. Check out his previous passes per minute plotted against pass success rate:
Figure 1: Passes per minute vs. pass completion for Ramires, 2010/11. Powered by Tableau.
Ramires finished the match against Blackburn having attempted 0.81 passes per minute - his previous high was 0.67 passes per minute against Tottenham and before Saturday his season average had been less than 0.55! He managed to play 73 passes with a 92% completion rate, which ranks amongst his best games (Ramires seems very up and down here, ranging from 94% to 74%). The biggest difference between Ramires's play on Saturday vs. the rest of the season appears to be the amount of space he regularly found himself in. With Essien hanging back and Frank Lampard occupying Blackburn's more defensive midfielders, Ramires was routinely free to surge forward, pick up passes, and play them on, integrating himself into Chelsea's short passing game.
Passing's not all he does, though. Ramires is well-known for his ability to make a challenge (and if he wasn't, poor David Hoillet being sent flying head over heels will have made sure of it) as well as his less-useful proclivity to pick up fouls. Let's take a look at the defensive aspects of his game, including tackling, interceptions, retaining the ball on a dribble, and foul count:
Figure 2: Defensive statistics for Ramires, 2010/11. Powered by Tableau.
After dwindling returns in the past few months on interceptions and tackles, Ramires has picked things up in January following Chelsea's switch to a two-man holding system. However, we can see a distinct weakness in the air (contrast him to John Obi Mikel, who dominates) and he's never going to do well in the foul count. If we include misplaced passes, Ramires tends to lose the ball more than he gets it, which is probably not great for a defensive specialist. However, he seems to be improving: He's so far break-even for this month after giving the ball away a net 20 times in December and 27 times in November.
Although signs of life were there in his previous few performances, I don't think anyone was quite expecting Ramires to put on the show he did on Saturday. Offensively, it seems to represent a dramatic deviation from his observed ability, and when a player makes a jump like that it's hard to know what to make of it. I think it's clear that his defensive work is getting slowly better, but if his passing and integration with the team has reached a new level, we could be in for a treat. On the other hand, Ramires was dire in several games just a couple of months ago, and there's very little to stop him regressing to that sort of level. Hopefully that was a mere transition period and he can become a major figure in the centre of the midfield.