LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 05: Ramires of Chelsea runs through to score the opening goal during the FA Cup with Budweiser Final match between Liverpool and Chelsea at Wembley Stadium on May 5, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Chelsea appear to be set on making a rather large splash in the transfer market this summer. Eden Hazard's contract is awaiting some i-dotting and t-crossing, and the Blues are still making a play for another of Europe's most exciting attacking players in Porto's Hulk.
A Hulk purchase would leave Chelsea absolutely stacked up top, which is fantastic for squad rotation, but perhaps not ideal in terms of having a clear first-choice lineup. With Hazard and Hulk added to Juan Mata and Ramires, our two best players from last season, one of those four will be pushed out of the starting role in the third band. Thanks to his versatility, it'll probably be Ramires. So what happens to him?
The most common suggestion I've seen is for Ramires to be pushed back into a double pivot alongside John Obi Mikel, a move which would see Frank Lampard dropped to the bench. That would allow Mata and Hazard to interchange down the left and Hulk to do his thing cutting in from the right, which sounds like a recipe for attacking success.
The problem for me is that I don't think that midfield works. The best pivots in the world have a dedicated ball winner and short passer as well as a distributor who can push the ball forward and to the flanks. Chelsea have been taking advantage of the fact that Mikel can win the ball, extricate himself from pressure and then feed Lampard to hit it wide - those two have been superb under Roberto di Matteo, and that combination of skills is why.
Assuming Mikel stays as a starter (and he almost certainly should unless Javi Martinez or Yann M'Vila fall into our laps), I don't see Ramires as an ideal passer. He's a great player, certainly, but it's clear that his two best attributes are speed and stamina - both more useful when he's not in possession than when he is. He's not a particularly good passer and he certainly doesn't have the vision and range of Lampard, so he can't act as a distributor or tempo player.
That's not to say I can't see him playing in a pivot at all - the tackler/passer model isn't the only way it's possible to play. Chelsea could run him out alongside a hopefully-rejuvenated Michael Essien and have them alternate bombing forward while still maintaining a reasonable midfield shield. But that's a completely different approach, using energy and strength to dominate the centre rather than more technical skills. A player like Essien complements Ramires' skillset. The rest of the central midfielders do not, although I could see a rather restrained Ramires used alongside Lampard when we feel like being super-attacking.
So where would I put him? I can see four slots that Ramires could rotate through:
Right wing. The obvious one. He's the best defensive winger on the squad and he's lethal on the counterattack. With Hulk around, it's not going to be his primary position, but he'd still be a superb option if the team's looking to lock down a flank.
Right-sided shuttler in 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 diamond. Ramires probably shouldn't be trusted to hold his position in a midfield pairing but as a roving annoyer who has the ability to blitz forward on the counterattack, he's a very handy central player.
Left wing. Turns out he can play this too! Did a superb job on Christian Maggio in the second leg against Napoli and set up the first goal too. Useful for protecting Ashley Cole or shutting down a dangerous fullback.
Right back. And here's the really interesting one. No, I don't think Ramires would be a good defensive right back, but he's a fine attacking one, as evidenced in Barcelona. If you're worried about Chelsea's depth at right back now that Jose Bosingwa's gone, Ramires would be a completely viable alternative to Branislav Ivanovic if the Blues were dealing with a team that wanted to park the bus.
Pivot midfielder alongside Essien. I guess I should throw this option in here too, but I can't see Roberto di Matteo (or another new manager) using this lineup for anything serious.
All in all, I think that Ramires will still play the majority of matches whether or not we sign Hulk. That doesn't mean it's a particularly good idea to do so, however - I don't really trust the Hazard-Mata-Hulk trio to do much in the way of defending, and I think we could end up fairly exposed if we tried it - but at the very least it won't demote our best player of last season to also-ran status.