When Wolves replaced Rui Patricio, Portugal’s greatest ever goalkeeper, with his uncapped 28-year-old compatriot Jose Sa from Olympiakos in the summer, many saw it as an obvious downgrade.
Twelve games in and not only have Wolves made their best ever start to a Premier League season, but Sa has been integral to that success. Indeed, his proactive style embodies the approach wanted by new coach Bruno Lage.
Sa’s distribution from the back has featured some awkward moments – almost gifting a goal to Richarlison against Everton – but that willingness to receive the ball with his feet and pick out team-mates has been an asset too.
FREE TO WATCH: Jose Sa’s assist for Raul Jimenez’s winner at St Mary’s
Speaking to Lage, he explains why that is fundamental to his philosophy. “In the same way that our striker is important for our defending, our goalkeeper is important to start the game from the back,” he tells Sky Sports.
As with Ederson at Manchester City, one of Sa’s strengths is that he is able to mix it up. His long pass to Raul Jimenez against Southampton earned him the assist for the winning goal in a 1-0 victory at St Mary’s.
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That was no one-off. There was another example against West Ham when his kick arrowed its way towards Daniel Podence. He created a chance with a long throw out to the same player in the draw away to Leeds.
No Premier League goalkeeper has created more chances this season. The contrast with his predecessor is stark. Patricio not only did not register an assist in his three seasons with Wolves, but he did not even create a chance.
It is not just the range of passing that has been important. Sa’s appetite for coming off his line – he ranks second for accurate keeper sweepings in the Premier League this season – has helped Wolves to get up the pitch.
“This is one of the things that I talk about with Conor Coady and the boys,” says Lage. “When you want the game to be compact between the lines, the goalkeeper should be able to follow that line to fill that gap.
“If the goalkeeper stays in the goal, the gap is bigger than if he follows the defenders. But if the goalkeeper can be in a higher position, the defenders can be in a higher position too so the spaces between are still small.
“That way, if the ball goes forward from the opponent high with speed, we have our goalkeeper there to win it. If the ball goes high but slower, we have our defenders there to win it.”
John Ruddy, back-up to Patricio and now Sa at Wolves, once noted that Patricio “works very close to his line, closer than anyone I have ever seen” and while that buys time to save some shots perhaps it allows more than necessary.
On occasion it would invite pressure. Sa has often been able to relieve it by coming off his line to claim balls that others would leave well alone. It is working for Wolves. They are yet to concede a goal from a corner this season.
“Credit to my staff. I control the process but they have their specific roles. We discuss it but the credit goes to Tony [Roberts] and Carlos [Cachada] because they spend hours studying the opponent, how they attack and defend.”
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Of course, Patricio has not enjoyed a long career at the top without having strengths of his own. Now at Roma, he was always regarded as a reliable performer at Wolves and remains a renowned shot-stopper.
And yet, the statistics suggest that while Patricio’s approach might have helped him to avoid the more calamitous mistakes, over his three seasons at Wolves he did not save as many goals as might have been expected.
In fact, of the goalkeepers to make 50 or more Premier League appearances in that period, Opta’s expected-goals model indicates that his record was the worst of all his peers.
Factoring in the type of shots faced and their location, the model suggests that he let in almost 15 more than the average goalkeeper would have done in those three seasons. Though largely unseen, it was an issue.
In contrast, Sa’s statistics are hugely impressive so far. While Aaron Ramsdale has produced the more flashy saves, only Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy has prevented more goals this season, according to Opta.
While praising Sa, Lage does not wish to criticise Patricio. “When we look at what Jose is doing, we cannot forget what Rui did for the club,” he says. “But I knew Jose from Benfica. He never worked with me but I knew his value.”
Unlike his own predecessor Nuno Espírito Santo, Lage was not a goalkeeper himself. He puts the quality of Sa’s performances down to the player himself and his training-ground work with goalkeeper coach Roberts.
The Welshman arrived in the summer having last worked at Birmingham but the extrovert 52-year-old knew Lage from their time together on Carlos Carvalhal’s staff at Swansea. The now Braga coach was a huge fan of Roberts.
“We have a very good connection,” Carvalhal tells Sky Sports. “He is a positive, crazy guy. He knows some Portuguese words. Bad words! But Tony is perfect for that staff because he knows English football. He is an excellent goalkeeper coach, very integrated in his work.”
Clearly, Lage did not forget Roberts’ work either. “It is so important here to give credit to Jose and to Tony,” Lage explains. “When I met Tony at Swansea. I put it in my mind that one day I would work with him again.
“I did not know that I was going to come here because that was in 2017 and I was returning to work in the B team with Benfica in Portugal. But I put it in my mind that this is the right person to work with if I come to England.
“Firstly, because of his personality, and secondly, because of the way we work. That is why I am not surprised by what Jose is doing because I know what he can do, but I also believe in Tony’s work.
“If you go back to Swansea, Lukasz Fabianski was one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League, with good performances and good numbers. Lukasz is a fantastic goalkeeper but Tony worked with him.”
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Revisit those damning Patricio statistics from the 2018 to 2021 period and there is the name of Fabianski, behind only Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris for goals prevented in the Premier League.
It is a testament to Lage’s judgment and Roberts’ fine work that Sa is now threatening to repeat those numbers at Wolves. The supposed downgrade is proving anything but.
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