Wolves goalkeeper Jose Sa has been one of the signings of the Premier League season – the best of the lot, according to Gary Neville when doing his end-of-year awards on Monday Night Football. Sa himself is delighted with the praise.
“I saw it,” he tells Sky Sports, a smile beaming from his face. “It is good to see a legend, a guy with a big name in football, talk about me. Of course, it made me very happy because we are in the best league in the world, in my opinion.”
The recognition is deserved. Sa has been integral as Wolves have conceded just twice in their last seven games. Only Manchester City now have a better defensive record in the Premier League.
Sa has been making saves and his presence felt with a particularly proactive approach. His predecessor at Wolves, compatriot Rui Patricio, has a century of caps for Portugal. Sa is waiting for his first, but the feeling among fans is that he might just be an upgrade.
“Rui is a very good goalkeeper so it was difficult to replace him, not easy at all. But we have a very good group here. They helped me to adapt to the league, to the football, and this not only helped me a lot but it gave me the confidence to help them too.”
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Importantly, the opportunity has come at the right time. Sa is 28, a mature goalkeeper. “Maybe one year earlier would have been good too. But I think if I had waited another year, maybe it would have been too late. It has come at the best moment.”
Three seasons of European football with Olympiacos, winning two league titles, was the making of him. “Because I played a lot,” he explains. “That helped me to grow up because I needed to play, I needed that confidence. The years there were very good for me.”
They were crucial because he had played surprisingly little prior to that. In Benfica’s academy as a youngster – at the same time as Wolves boss Bruno Lage – he went out to Maritimo as a back-up goalkeeper before deputising for the great Iker Casillas at Porto.
“Even young goalkeepers teach you something because you never know everything so you’re always learning. But, of course, Iker taught me a lot. He was an idol from my childhood so it was amazing to work with him. He was very good for me.”
Now Sa is ready for the spotlight himself. Aided by Tony Roberts, Wolves’ new goalkeeper coach, his performances have gone up a level. “Tony is a very good guy, a very good friend and a very good coach. All the goalkeepers learn from him. I have improved a lot.”
Perhaps it is worth delving into some of the statistics to underline Sa’s impact at Wolves. He has saved four out of every five shots on target that he has faced from inside the penalty box, the best of any regular Premier League goalkeeper – and it is not particularly close.
If that statistic can be a little misleading – it depends on the quality of the shots faced – consider the expected-goals data. This factors in the exact location of those shots, their type and where on the goal that they are directed. Again, Sa comes out with huge credit.
These numbers suggest that Sa has prevented between four and five more goals than the average goalkeeper. He ranks second in the Premier League behind Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsdale – another summer signing who has received much praise, but who cost rather more.
These impressive shot-stopping statistics are only part of the story. Sa also ranks second for accurate keeper sweepings – coming off his line to snuff out chances before they arise.
“Even before I came to Wolves I liked to come out of my goal,” says Sa. “I like to win the ball when it is played in behind the defence. But here we work on it a lot because the coach wants the defenders to be high so I have to be there to help them.”
He is comfortable with the ball at his feet. “We train that every day. Always. I have to.” Sometimes he can appear a little too comfortable for the crowd’s liking. “I give off the impression to people that I am relaxed. Inside, I have the butterflies,” he admits.
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But his distribution has made a huge difference to Wolves’ build-up play, not all of it being short passing. Those side-kicked volleys up the pitch have become a feature, catapulting the team up the field and helping to provide a real threat on the counter-attack.
He does not want to talk about N’Golo Kante’s unpunished handball that might have cost him an assist against Chelsea. “It is always the same against us. It was not the first time.” But he did register one against Southampton when Raul Jimenez raced clear for the winner.
“I think it was my first ever assist,” he says, still delighted. “I could have had two or three at Olympiacos but they did not score. Raul scored. I am trying to do different things. If I can help I will try to do this pass when I can because we have players who can do it.”
Those players have welcomed Sa into the group and it is easy to imagine why he has settled so quickly. He had already played alongside Daniel Podence at Olympiacos and was on the bench with Willy Boly when Ruben Neves made his final Porto appearance.
“I also know many of the guys here from the national team. They are amazing players and it was good for helping me to adapt to my new life here because when you have lots of Portuguese players you can ask them about the rules here and they can help you.
“But even the other guys, they are amazing. We have an amazing group and I think that is reflected in the table and what we are doing because we are like a family. If I make a mistake, I have my friend beside me. If they make a mistake, I am there for them.
“It is like this with all of the players. It gives me more confidence because I know they are always there for me. You need a good defence as a goalkeeper. Just like when you have a goalkeeper who can help you, it gives the defence more confidence too.
“In the beginning, we were adapting because it was a new coach with a new strategy. But we are improving and happy with our progress.”
Monday 3rd January 5:00pm
On Monday, live on Sky Sports, that will be tested when Wolves play against Manchester United at Old Trafford. For Sa, it promises to be a first game against Cristiano Ronaldo. “I have trained with him but never played against him. It will be amazingly difficult.”
Having spent three years in Madeira with Maritimo, Sa understands better than most that he will up against a Portuguese icon. The airport there is named after Ronaldo, although Sa insists he never did visit the player’s personal museum on the marina in Funchal.
The match will be a reminder of how far Sa has come. “We want to win at Old Trafford. I came here to play in these great stadiums. This was the goal.” For one of the signings of the season, the new year is also a time to think about how far he still wants to go.
He is candid about Wolves’ targets. “We can go to the European competitions and we are fighting for this.” His own ambitions are obvious as he hopes for an international debut in World Cup year. “It is a dream. I am fighting for this too. One day maybe it will happen.
“Until then, we will see. I am here to learn and to improve.
“I want to be even better tomorrow.”
Watch Manchester United vs Wolves live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm on Monday; kick-off 5.30pm
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