Richard Hobbs looks at Romain Saiss’ recent run of form and the Moroccan’s time at Wolves
17th September 2016. Wolves travelled up to recently relegated Newcastle United looking to bounce back from an embarrassing home defeat to Barnsley four days previous.
The transfer window had closed with a flurry of signings joining the club after the club became rich beyond our wildest dreams over night.
Wolves signing Saiss was a true changing of the times. A midfielder highly regarded across France, playing international football for Morocco and being pushed for a move to top flight teams across Europe.
Without Premier League parachute money or Fosun’s investment, he wouldn’t be playing for Wolves.
At St James Park, a man who had been linked to Barcelona (albeit tentatively) pulled on a Wolves shirt for the first time.
That day, Saiss left the North East with Shelvey et al in his back pocket. It was a complete midfield performance and left fans dreaming of what was to come. Wolves defence was rarely troubled by Newcastle largely due to Saiss and Oniangue (yes, him) in front of them.
His tackling, pinpoint. His touch, exquisite. His passing, classy.
We’ve had defensive midfielders at Wolves before, some very good ones in fact. But few managed to display elegance on the ball to open up opposition alongside a destructive side to break up play. We had a man who could do both.
Saiss’ Wolves career would hit a stumbling block less than a month after his debut when Zenga was sacked and in came Paul Lambert.
Where fans like me saw Saiss trying to flick the ball around opposition in own half, Lambert saw a liability who wasn’t going to run as much as other midfielders at the club.
Lambert initially picked Price and Edwards in the middle and as much as I love the affable Salopians, they aren’t of the same calibre as the Moroccan. They are runners, full of tenacity and passion to put it all on the line to win. As much effort as they put in, it left Wolves with a lack of quality.
Saiss shot back into the minds of Wolves fans after playing for Morocco in the African Cup of Nations. Although he’d played most of his club career in midfield, he was deployed on the left of a back three. I mean, who plays three at the back anyway?
The spent the second half of the season back in the first team fold rotating with Price to partner Edwards and dividing fans opinions.
There were times he seems on a different wave length to some of those around him. His idea of how to play with silenced by a majority who seemed scared to be in possession and work in tight spaces. It left him looking complacent and uncommanding at times, when in hindsight he probably wasn’t in a system to suit him.
Out went the darkness of the days of Lambert and in came the shining light of Nuno Espirto Santo. The Portuguese manager arrived with a vision and the set up to bring the best out of the better players already at the club.
3-4-3 was almost tailored made for Saiss. The two central midfielders are effectively a pair of metronomes, keeping the ball moving from one flank to the other. They’re not relied on to get forward to score with three front men and wingbacks marauding forward. If he’s required to drop back in defence, there’s safety in numbers with two other centre backs and a wingback.
When Nuno’s man Ruben Neves arrived for big money to don the number 8 shirt in the middle for Wolves, Neves and Saiss struck up an almost telepathic relationship almost straight away.
Rarely seen more than 15 yards apart on the pitch, they always make themselves an option when the other is in possession. That extra movement demands their team mates to move as well and soon enough, the gaps start to open.
The fact Saiss being left footed and playing on the right side and Neves the opposition helps them open up the pitch for the duos raking passes to Doherty and Douglas is one of the many intricate details Nuno has implemented to bring out the best of the team.
Neves is as hard working as anyone and is more industrious than most outsiders perceive, but Saiss is the one who enforces the law on the pitch.
There have been points this season where teams have tried to intimidate Wolves and disrupt their rhythm. In the heat of the moment and with retaliation pumping round their bodies, many in that position could have lost their heads, Saiss has shown a controlled aggression this season and let teams now, no matter how many kicks, Wolves won’t back down.
He does the dirty unseen work. For every gif of a Neves defence splitting pass and a mesmerising Jota run, there could be one of him disposing a winger and a passing triangle with Doherty and Cavaleir, getting Wolves into the final third.
It’s impossible to deny how well pretty much every senior player has done so far this season. Bonatini and Jota have won wide acclaim, it’s hard to find two more effective wingbacks the Douglas and Neves and Coady has been nothing short of a revelation as a sweeper.
But Saiss has pushed on from last season from a player with undoubted quality who struggling to control the game with those arrange him to someone who has created a platform to help his team to dominate.
It’s safe to say that the Moroccan is flourishing around better tactics, manager and players.
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