I don't think there's very much doubt that Ramires was one of Chelsea's two most important players last season. As a central midfielder in Andre Villas-Boas' 4-3-3, he was one of the few players to truly excel. As a winger for Roberto di Matteo, he was brilliant as well, scoring a key goal in the FA Cup final as well as contributing heavily in every stage of the knockout rounds for the Champions League save the final.
But now the club is faced with an interesting dilemma. They're overloaded in the third band of di Matteo's favoured 4-2-3-1, boasting several ace-level talents there. Eden Hazard and Juan Mata are clear starters, which doesn't leave much space for the likes of Marko Marin, Daniel Sturridge, Oscar, Victor Moses and Ramires. So if, say, Victor Moses starts, is there room in the first-choice eleven for Ramires?
Ramires has played more or less everywhere for Chelsea and Brazil. We've seen him in a double pivot, in a three man midfield, on both wings and even at right back, from which he scored what was at the time perhaps the most important goal in club history. It seems as though it'd be easy to fit him into the lineup, perhaps even as a versatile multiple-position player who allows everyone else to rest. There's some merit to that thought.
But we should really figure out Ramires' strengths and weaknesses before we simply slot him into any given spot in a formation. He's versatile, certainly, but he also does have certain deficiencies in his game that we ought to take into account. Here's my by-no-means-definitive list of the Brazilian's pluses and minuses (as well as a neutral tendency for good measure):
- Strengths: Stamina, speed, dribbling, defensive contribution.
- Weaknesses: Close passing, long passing, discipline, positioning.
- Tendencies: Drifts right.
Given all of that, where would you play him? Ramires is an odd duck in that he's not actually particularly suited for a possession game. He's not a particularly good passer, although his off-ball movement is excellent, so when the ball gets to him it tends to result in a driving run forward rather than recycled. He is an excellent dribbler and extremely fast, so those runs can devastate static defences. Ramires is generally seen as a weapon on the counterattack, but that's not entirely true -- his speed and skill on the ball allows him to blow straight through static defences.
But he's not a passer and he doesn't hold his position particularly well, which makes him a unwise candidate for a place in a two-man midfield. He might be a box-to-box player, but for me, his strength lies in winning the ball and attacking, not the in-between part that Chelsea are so obviously missing. In fact, he's almost the very definition of a midfield 'runner' in a 4-3-3. That's where he was so influential last year for Villas-Boas. Unfortunately, it's a position that doesn't exist in our current system.
Failing that, he's probably best suited as a winger whose primary responsibility is defensive. He's not a particularly good crosser (although he's adequate), but crossing is such an overrated skill that that's not really a concern. He can get in behind the defence and cause havoc anyway, and even in an off-day like yesterday he still used his speed to create a chance. Nevermind that he then wasted it with a bad decision -- without Ramires' run there we never get to complain about his lack of a pass.
But if we don't want to use him on the wings, we're suddenly left with no real position for one of our best players. This is a real dilemma. The best solution for Ramires is to revert to a 4-3-3. For the other attacking players, it's to stay as a 4-2-3-1. Something will probably have to give.