When Rui Patricio left Wolves for Roma in July 2021, he was leaving as the goalkeeper who helped guide the team to two seventh-place finishes and a UEFA Europa League quarterfinal appearance in three seasons. He had also broken the club's single-season clean sheet record twice, and had surpassed 100 Portugal caps while in Wolves colours.
Jose Sa, Patricio's replacement, was joining Wolves as an uncapped 28-year-old with no experience in the big 5 European leagues. He had failed to establish himself as a full-time starter in the Portuguese Primeira Liga with Maritimo and Porto; and his only real successes were winning the Primeira Liga in 2018 as an on-again, off-again starter, and winning the Super League Greece in back-to-back seasons in 2020 and 2021.
"I was nervous, I was worried, and I thought we were losing a real key backbone of the squad," said Dan John, co-chairman of the New York Wolves supporters' club. "I thought whoever we got was going to be a step-down."
But fast forward nearly a year after the two moves were made official, and John is singing a completely different tune. "He's exceeded in every facet; his agility, his domination of the box as well," he said. "He's definitely somebody I want to see at Wolves for a long, long time."
Not only did Sa succeed in replacing his Portuguese compatriot, but he finished his debut Premier League season with some of the best stats in Europe's top 5 leagues.
According to fbref.com, he posted the best save percentage in the Premier League this season (79.3%) and saved 9.2 goals above expected, the second-most in Europe and the most in the Premier League by a 2.5 goal margin. On top of that, Sa stopped 10.8% of the crosses he faced in his penalty area (2nd among Premier League goalkeepers with 30 or more appearances) and averaged about 1.1 sweeper actions outside of the penalty area per 90 minutes (3rd among Premier League goalkeepers).
So how exactly has Sa exceeded expectations this season? One reason is his footwork, and as you'll see, what goalkeepers do with their feet is every bit as important as how they use their hands.
A step-by-step process
"You hear about the Premier League [and] the adjustment period that's usually expected of goalkeepers, and he hasn't had any need for that at all," said Justin Bryant, North Carolina State University's Director of Goalkeeping.
Sa has been the "perfect" replacement for Patricio, according to Bryant. His distribution fits Wolves' tactical approach and gives him a leg up on Patricio; he's not afraid to take responsibility for balls played into his box; and he's exuded a level of composure that's given his teammates comfort and confidence in his abilities. "His shot-stopping is also very, very good," Bryant added.
The flashy reaction saves and the Superman-esque diving stops will dominate Sa's highlight reels, but impressive as those saves are, the key is his footwork.
"If [the goalkeeper is] making saves, then they're doing something right with the base and the foundation, and that is their footwork," Bryant said.
According to Bryant, footwork is also about organising your body in a way that puts you in the best position to make a save. "You can't be caught in the middle of a cross-step," he said. "You can't have one foot in front of the other. You can't have your weight on your heels or on the front of one foot [and] on the heel of the other foot. There has to be a sort of symmetry and organization to your body, and that's what footwork is to me."
In order to maintain that organisation, goalkeepers will use a variety of different step techniques to keep their bodies ready and their frames balanced - the most common of which being the aforementioned cross-step step, which is used to cover large distances quickly; the side step, which is used for short to medium distances; and the bounding step, which helps the goalkeeper make minimal adjustments to their shape immediately before a save attempt.
The cross-step, or the crossover step, is called so because the goalkeeper crosses one leg over the other. Bryant said this technique is often used when the goalkeeper has to cover as much ground as possible in as little time as possible.
"I think for most goalkeepers, it's probably the most naturally quick and fast way to start the body moving when you have a lot of ground to cover," he said.
Credit: @Wolves Twitter
Sa gave a textbook example of this technique's benefits during Wolves' 3-1 win over Southampton in January.
Mohammed Salisu connected on Oriol Romeu's cross, but thanks to two good crossover steps, Sa was able to quickly put himself in a position to stop this attempt. This ended up being a key save: it kept the hosts up 1-0 late in the first half, and allowed them to go into half-time with a lead and ultimately win the game.
Had Sa used a different step technique, he probably wouldn't have been able to move across in time to parry this shot away.
Credit: Wolves YouTube channel
When a goalkeeper has less ground to cover, it doesn't make sense to use a crossover step because the goalkeeper is probably going to put themselves out of position. Furthermore, it will cause the goalkeeper to become unbalanced because their legs would be in an awkward position while in motion. Without balance, the goalkeeper will have more trouble pushing off into an adequate save attempt -- they may struggle to get a good lift-off, resulting in a poor dive; or their legs could collapse underneath them, resulting in them just falling backwards.
In these scenarios, a goalkeeper may want to use a side-step instead, where a goalkeeper moves one leg at a time to one side. A goalkeeper can still cover a fair amount of distance using this technique, but will compromise less of their balance than if they'd used a crossover step.
"When the ball is on the foot of an attacker in a shooting position, the goalkeeper will move laterally with it using small shuffle steps in order to keep the feet in contact with the ground as much as possible so they [can react] immediately," Bryant said.
Credit: Leicester City YouTube Channel
In Wolves' 3-2 win over Aston Villa earlier this season, Sa used a side-step to stop a dangerous scoring chance. In the 27th minute, Villa's Danny Ings received the ball a couple of yards away from the edge of Wolves' six-yard box. As Ings set himself up to shoot, Sa used a few small side-steps to keep his body in line with the ball and the attacker's movements. In doing so, he was able to readjust his position while keeping square to the opponent, his weight equally distributed across his lateral plane, and his feet close to the ground.
This helped Sa get in an acceptable position to make a good drop-step diving save -- in which the goalkeeper pulls a leg inwards in order to drop his body to the side of that leg -- to his right side. Had Sa used a different technique, such as a bounding step, he might have moved too slowly and over-exposed the left side of his goal; or moved too quickly and gotten caught in the middle of a crossover step.
Credit: Wolves YouTube channel
Speaking of the bounding step, this is probably the most common step technique when defending a shot. This technique is less about moving the body over medium or long distances (like the previous two steps) and more about getting the body ready to react to a shot. This technique helps the goalkeeper make minimal adjustments to their body's set shape. It can also help load the goalkeeper's legs for a big dive to either side, according to Bryant.
The bounding step is usually accompanied by an arm swing. This arm swing helps the goalkeeper build power into their reaction and push off into a dive with as much force as possible.
Credit: Bundesliga YouTube Channel
One good example of Sa using a bounding step was seen in Wolves' 2-0 loss to Crystal Palace in March. Palace's Michael Olise dribbled the ball into Wolves' box and took a curling shot to Sa's far post.
This tricky shot came at Sa pretty quickly, so he had to react equally as fast. He didn't have the time to take a side-step or crossover step to his right side, nor did he need to use those steps given that the shot didn't require him to make major adjustments to his position. So instead, he used the bounding step to make a minimal adjustment to his position to his right, and then exploded into his aerial dive.
Credit: Crystal Palace FC YouTube channel
It's important to highlight just how composed Sa looks using all of these different techniques. He doesn't look like he's forcing himself to use a crossover step in the Southampton example. Likewise, he doesn't appear uncomfortable using a bounding step to set up his top-handed diving save against Crystal Palace. That's likely because these techniques are second nature to him, drilled into his subconscious after years and years of training and match experience.
According to Bryant, the intuitiveness of these techniques is a key sign of Sa's good footwork. "When we're trying to self-organize the body in these moments of chaos around the goal, it's usually in our best interest to go with what feels intuitive," Bryant said. "The body sort of knows the best way that it can do this, and we're best off letting it do that."
Speed and size
Although Sa has mastered the various pre-shot step techniques noted above, where he really lets his footwork shine is in 1-v-1 situations.
"He's putting himself in a position where he's very difficult to beat [on 1-v-1s], and it takes almost the perfect shot," Bryant said.
There are a few key things Sa does in 1-v-1 scenarios that help boost his chances of stopping these attacker-favourable chances. Firstly, Sa's initial step in these situations "is very quick," according to Bryant. "What [looks] like space in behind his last defender that's vulnerable to being attacked, he could close that down very quickly," he said.
"An attacking player who's put their head down to strike a ball would suddenly find this goalkeeper spread out right in front of him, taking away most of the goal."
Brentford's Vitaly Janelt had this exact situation play out during his side's 2-0 win over Wolverhampton in September. After receiving the ball in the box, Janelt fired a shot first-time from about 8 or 9 yards out. But his shot was denied by Sa, who had run from a position deep in his six-yard box to the edge of his small box in a matter of steps and seconds.
Not only did he time his first step well so that he was already closing down the angle before Janelt gets into a shooting motion, but his initial steps are big so that he can cover as much ground quickly.
Credit: Brentford FC YouTube Channel
Part of what makes Sa's speed intriguing is his frame. The Portuguese goalkeeper is 6-foot-4 tall. He's slightly taller than the average goalkeeper -- and Bryant said the common wisdom is that tall goalkeepers are not as fast or as agile as their shorter counterparts, like Keylor Navas and Iker Casillas.
"It's thought that they just naturally cover more of the goal and can deal with crosses and traffic ... a little bit better by virtue of their size," he said. "So it does surprise me a little bit, and it's why I think he's found himself as one of the top performers in the league this season." But Bryant said speed is "useless" for a goalkeeper if they're not able to decelerate their body under control. "It doesn't do you any good to have speed if you can't control that speed," he said.
That's why Sa's deceleration is just as important as his acceleration, according to Bryant. "We see over and over and over again ... his ability to take one or two very fast steps forward in order to close the gap between him and the attacking player ... but then decelerate into a set position where he's totally balanced," he said.
Balance is the key reason why deceleration is important for a goalkeeper to have. When a goalkeeper is in motion -- whether that's in reaction to a shot or as a way to readjust their position -- they're often in a state of imbalance. Without their weight being equally distributed, they're more likely to react in one direction over another (if they're leaning in that direction) or fail to react in an appropriate manner (if they're in the middle of a step.) Given that, a goalkeeper will want to be as balanced as possible as a player gets into shooting motion -- and that includes in 1-v-1 scenarios.
That is easier said than done, though. "The 6-foot-6 types have a little bit of a harder time decelerating back into a set position," Bryant said. "If they've started to move fast, they almost always continue to move."
Most attackers can use that commitment from the goalkeeper to either shoot the ball early (thus catching them mid-stride, before they spread their bodies) or round the goalkeeper. But that's rarely the case with Sa. "There's no more forward momentum," Bryant said. "It's almost like that's where he started and there never was a big fast step to start it off."
Credit: Wolves YouTube channel
Sa's ability to accelerate quickly and decelerate just as swiftly can be attributed to the different sizes of steps he takes in 1-v-1 scenarios.
Part of the reason why some goalkeepers only go full-force forward in 1-v-1s is that they take a lot of big steps when cutting the angle. There's a benefit to big steps -- they help a goalkeeper cover a lot of ground in one stride, and that can be useful when trying to track a cross-box pass, or when approaching an attacker on a breakaway -- but there's also a time and place for it. If a goalkeeper only takes big steps, they're more likely to get caught mid-step, which can affect their ability to react effectively to a shot coming at them at that moment.
"With a big forward step right as the ball is struck, they're going to find it -- just from a biomechanical standpoint -- very difficult to react laterally if they're asked to now dive right or left," Bryant said.
That's when small steps can play a bigger and more advantageous role -- and where Sa really excels. "He really never gets himself in that position because his steps are very small. His feet stay very low to the ground once the ball is in a position where it can be struck," Bryant said.
Credit: Wolves YouTube channel
One of my favourite examples of this came in a February match against West Ham United. After a Wolves player failed to clear the ball away, West Ham's Pablo Fornals played Jarrod Bowen in behind Wolverhampton's defensive line.
At this point, Bowen had multiple things he could do with the ball. He had two other open teammates he could've squared the ball too for a tap-in; or he could've taken the shot. Sa was aware of this and even though Bowen had a clear path to his goal, the Wolves goalkeeper kept his cool. Instead of immediately trying to close the angle with big steps forward, Sa used several small steps to creep closer to Bowen.
Sa's adjustment was correct for a few reasons. Firstly, they made sure his feet were as close to the ground as often as possible, meaning he was in a good position to react quickly to a pass or a shot. By taking small steps forward, Sa was also able to keep his body well-balanced across his lateral plane -- he wasn't leaning towards a particular side. So if Bowen took a shot, Sa would be able to react effectively to either side.
Secondly, the small steps allowed Sa to cut the angle, even if it was ever so slightly. This way, the longer Bowen delayed his decision, the closer Sa could get to Bowen and the bigger he would appear.
Finally, by staying patient, Sa was able to buy time for some of his teammates to close down Bowen and the passing outlets. It also forced Bowen to make the choice of what to do, rather than forcing a shot or a pass out of the West Ham attacker.
Credit: West Ham United FC YouTube channel
Sa's mastery of different footwork techniques is a key part of the Portuguese's game -- but at the end of the day, it's still just a part of Sa's overall quality.
"Good footwork leads to balance [and] good balance leads to good handling - it's hard to catch a ball if you're leaning backwards or your shoulders are turned counter to your hips," Bryant said. "These things are all connected. It's all part of the same kinetic chain, and it really all starts from the ground up, from the feet."
And while there's always room for improvement, Bryant believes Sa has found a formula that works for him. "He's had such a successful season -- and again, this is just his first season. It's not unreasonable to think he could be even better next season," he said.
If that happens, John wouldn't shy away from Sa getting a new contract. He said Sa should be in the conversation for the signing of the season, and there's currently no goalkeeper he'd swap him with.
"There are steps up like Alisson and Ederson, but they're not a big enough step up that I would trade somebody who is willing to commit to our club, to want to come here and to be part of the project, [away for]," he said.
"I'm more than happy to be [proven] wrong when I'm nervous about a player, and in this case, [I'm] really, really happy I was," he said.