Wolves goalkeeper Jose Sa was one of the Premier League’s signings of the season – the best of the lot, according to Gary Neville when he handed out his year-end awards on Monday night football. Sa himself is happy with the praise.
“I saw it,” he says Sky Sports, a beaming smile from his face. “It’s nice to see a legend, a boy 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 well deserved. Sa was pivotal as Wolves have conceded only two goals in their last seven games. Only Manchester City now have a better defensive record in the Premier League.
Sa made saves and his presence was felt with a particularly proactive approach. His predecessor to the Wolves, compatriot Rui Patricio, has a century of appearances for Portugal. Sa is waiting for his first one, but the feeling among fans is that it might just be an update.
“Rui is a great goalkeeper so it was difficult to replace him, not easy at all. But we have a great group here. They helped me adapt to the league, to football, and this not only helped me a lot but gave me the confidence to help. they too”.
It is important to emphasize that the opportunity has come at the right time. Sa is 28, a mature goalkeeper. “Maybe even a year ago would have been fine. But I think if I had waited another year, it might have been too late. It came at the best time.”
Three seasons of European football with Olympiacos, winning two league titles, were his talents. “Because I played a lot,” he explains. “This helped me grow because I needed to play, I needed that confidence. The years there have been very good for me.”
They were crucial because he had surprisingly played just before. In the Benfica academy as a young man – together with Wolves boss Bruno Lage – he went to Maritimo as a reserve goalkeeper before replacing the great Iker Casillas at Porto.
“Even young goalkeepers teach you something because you never know everything so you always learn. But obviously Iker taught me a lot. He was an idol from my childhood so it was great to work with him. He was very good for me.”
Now Sa is ready for the spotlight himself. Aided by Tony Roberts, the Wolves’ new goalkeepers coach, his performance leveled up. “Tony is a great guy, a great friend and a great coach. All goalkeepers learn from him. I have improved a lot.”
Perhaps it is worth digging into some statistics to highlight Sa’s impact on Wolves. He has saved four out of five shots on goal he faced from inside the penalty area, the best of any regular Premier League goalkeeper – and he’s not particularly close.
While this statistic can be a bit misleading – it depends on the quality of the shots taken – consider the data on expected goals. This takes into account the exact location of those shots, their type and the direction they are headed into the goal. Again, Sa comes out with huge credit.
These numbers suggest that Sa has avoided between four and five more goals than the average goalkeeper. He is in second place in the Premier League behind Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsdale, another summer signing that has received a lot of praise but cost a little more.
These impressive hit stats are only part of the story. Sa is also in second place for the goalkeeper’s thorough sweeps – stepping out of his line to put out opportunities before they arise.
“Even before I came to Wolves I liked to get out of my goal,” says Sa. “I like to win the ball when it is played behind the defense. But we work hard here because the coach wants the defenders to be tall, so I have to be there to help them.”
He is comfortable with the ball between his feet. “We train every day. Always. I have to.” At times it can seem a little too comfortable for the audience’s taste. “I give people the impression of being relaxed. I have butterflies inside,” he admits.
But its distribution made a huge difference to the Wolves building game, not all of them being short passes. Those volley on the pitch became a feature, catapulting the team onto the pitch and helping to provide a real threat on the break.
He doesn’t want to talk about N’Golo Kante’s unpunished hand ball that could cost him an assist against Chelsea. “Against us it’s always the same. It wasn’t the first time.” But he recorded one against Southampton when Raul Jimenez ran for the winner.
“I think it was my first ever assist,” he says, still happy. I could have done two or three at Olympiacos but they didn’t score. Raul scored. I am trying to do different things. If I can help I will try to do this when I can because we have players who can. “
Those players welcomed Sa into the group and it’s easy to imagine why he settled in so quickly. He had previously played alongside Daniel Podence at Olympiacos and was on the bench with Willy Boly when Ruben Neves made his last appearance at Porto.
“I also know a lot of the guys on the national team here. They are fantastic players and it was great to help me adapt to my new life here because when you have a lot of Portuguese players you can ask them about the rules here and they can help you.
“But the other guys are great too. We have a fantastic group and I think it reflects in the table and in what we are doing because we are like family. If I make a mistake, I have my friend next to me. If they make a mistake , I am there for them.
“It is like that with all players. It gives me more confidence because I know they are always there for me. You need a good defense as a goalkeeper. Just like when you have a goalkeeper who can help you, it gives you more confidence in the defense too.
“At the beginning we were adapting because he was a new manager with a new strategy. But we are improving and we are happy with our progress.”
Monday 3 January 17:00
Live Monday Sky Sports, which will be tested when the Wolves play Manchester United at Old Trafford. For Sa, a first match against Cristiano Ronaldo is expected. “I trained with him but I have never played against him. It will be incredibly difficult.”
After spending three years in Madeira with Maritimo, Sa knows better than most that he will face a Portuguese icon. The airport is named after Ronaldo, although Sa insists he never visited the player’s personal museum on the Funchal marina.
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. That was the goal.” For one of the signings of the season, the New Year is also a time to think about how far it still wants to go.
He is sincere about the Wolves’ goals. “We can go to European competitions and we are fighting for it.” His ambitions are evident as he hopes for an international debut in the World Cup year. “It’s a dream. I’m fighting for that too. One day maybe it will happen.
“Until then, we’ll see. I’m here to learn and improve.
“I want to be even better tomorrow.”
Watch Manchester United vs Wolves live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm Monday; kick-off 17:30