The position of goalkeeper is often regarded as the loneliest on the pitch, as every failure is magnified and, for the most part, a keeper must watch from afar as their team wins. If that is the inherent loneliness of a keeper, then a backup keeper must be even lonelier as they will likely play only a handful of times. For that reason, it’s always impressive to see a former backup go on and become a quality starter after some time of waiting for their shot, José Sá has been a great example of this so far this season.
With every action, mistake and choice amplified to the highest level, a keeper is under more individual pressure than any other player on the pitch. In a way that’s way a backup keeper is even lonelier as they are likely to play a small amount of games and be under even more pressure.
José Sá’s rise from a career-long backup to one of the elite keepers in the Premier League has been inspiring to see, as the Portuguese keeper has helped Wolves succeed this season. Since the start of his career in Portugal, Sá was used primarily as a backup who would only be used in certain situations. After his move to Greece, he showcased that he could still be a starter at the top level, persuading Wolves to bring him in as Rui Patrício’s replacement.
It would be one thing if the story ended there and he became just a mid shot stopper, but Sá has quietly put together an impressive first season in the Prem. So far this season, he has already kept 11 clean sheets which is more than David de Gea and Jordan Pickford. Once one takes a closer look at his stats, a painting of an elite keeper in the making begins to appear.
A journey from a lonely backup to a budding elite keeper in the best league in the world, José Sá’s Premier League adventure should be seen as truly inspirational. In a position so notorious for its demanding nature, Sá has outperformed every expectation to cement himself in the Prem.
Sá was never the goalkeeping prospect of an Aaron Ramsdale or even an Alex McCarthy, as he was always seen as a great backup keeper. For most of his career, he would back up some elite keepers, dreaming of the chance that he would eventually receive in Greece.
Isolated off the coast of Africa, the Portuguese island of Madeira sits adrift in the Atlantic, a lonely island known for its historic wine and kinda dormant volcano. Nestled on the southern coast of the island is its capital of Funchal, the home of C.S. Marítimo, the club where Sá would begin his career at. Marítimo is not a giant in Portuguese soccer, as they haven’t won a major trophy since Prohibition was still active in America and hasn’t produced anyone of note outside of Pepe.
Manager Pedro Martins would bring him into the first team fold in 2013, giving Sá 8 starts in his first season where he would not keep a single clean sheet, but showed flashes as a shot stopper. After Martins left, he was sent back to the bench and was given only three more starts in the 2014-15 season. At the same time that he was sporadically playing for the first team, Sá was clearly Marítimo B’s top keeper, making over 70 appearances over three years in the second division.
After making five appearances in the 2015-16 season, Porto opted to sign him in January 2016 and was quickly sent to Porto’s B team, as Iker Casillas was understandably Porto’s first choice. One of the greatest keepers of all time, Casillas was still in top form, keeping Sá from the starting spot. The 2016-17 season was more of the same, as he continued to make appearances for Porto’s B team and played whenever Casillas was unable.
After a rough 2017-18 season where he took on a larger role, but never won the starting role, manager Sérgio Conceicão decided to call time on his career with Porto. Olympiacos came calling and Sá would be reunited with Martins in Athens, as he finally won the starting gig.
Athens is another beautiful coastal city like Funchal and it’s fitting that Sá would be given his chance by the manager who believed in him from the beginning. In his time in Greece, he would win the league title twice and be named the best keeper in the league. All this success would lead him to be called up to the national team in 2019.
After years of struggling to find his role, he had finally found one in Greece and was good enough to have Wolves sign him to be their starter. An impressive journey that started in Madeira would come to its current status in Wolverhampton, as Sá has found the gig that eluded him for years.
It would be a shame if his inspiring journey was just reduced to the story and not the performances that made him an elite talent. Sá has quickly shown that he can mix it with the best keepers in the Prem, even being truly elite in certain areas.
So far this season, Sá has a save percentage of 83.2% which already sounds impressive, but it not only puts him amongst Premier League greats, but is the best in Europe’s top leagues. If he keeps up this rate, he will have the 14th best save percentage in Premier League history. He is already ahead of players such as Jens Lehmann and Alisson and just behind some of the best seasons of Petr Čech and Edwin van de Sar.
Another area where he is in the top percentile is in post-shot expected goals, a stat which aims to judge the quality of both a shot and the shot stopping ability of the keeper. The higher the stat, the better the keeper is at stopping quality shots, helping show which keepers are elite at stopping tough shots. Sá is again the best in Europe with a score of +10.7, meaning he is the best pure shot stopper.
In many other areas he is also a top keeper, one of those is his clean sheet percentage which is impressive given how Wolves’ defense has struggled at times this season. The other two areas to focus on help shed a light on his play style, with the two being, crosses stopped and defensive actions outside the box. In both those areas he is amongst the best, but they also show him being more of a sweeper keeper who is aggressive in stopping play when his defense is unable to get a stop in.
One area that he has been below average at is giving away penalties, as he has given up three penalties by himself and has yet to save a single penalty. Not everyone can be Manuel Neuer in terms of being aggressive and not conceding penalties. This doesn’t mean that it will be impossible for him to change this aggressive play, as it can be trained out of a keeper.
Statistically, Sá is top keeper with some of his stats being elite even when compared to other top keepers in Europe’s top leagues. His excellence makes his journey even more impressive and should make fans excited for how he will continue to develop as his prime continues.
From the volcanic vineyards of Madeira to the historic streets of Athens, Sá’s roller coaster career has taken him to various places and situations as he tried to find his role. Finally at home in Wolverhampton, he has become one of the league’s best keepers as he grows into contention for Portugal’s keeper . In a lonely world and position, José Sá has found a life, a role and a club that is willing to give him the chance to be more than anyone could have ever imagined.
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