Wolves’ players got a special present at Christmas – a day off. That was a rarity in a season in which they have already played 32 matches, successfully combining a Europa League campaign with domestic duties. Romain Saïss, who has been playing for the club since their Championship days, has enjoyed doing things differently as Wolves break new ground.
“You play a lot of games in the Championship as well but coming back from Bristol and Fulham is not the same as coming back from Istanbul,” he says with a guffaw. “Sometimes you spend more time recovering than training. You have to sleep more and do more treatments like massages, ice baths, cold chambers and so on. The details have been really important this season. Especially for me, now that I’m 29. And recovery is going to be particularly important this weekend.”
On Friday night Wolves defeated Manchester City 3-2 and then, less than 48 hours later, they take on Liverpool at Anfield. “Fortunately they are the two worst teams in the league,” says Saïss before bursting out laughing again.
There is a lot of laughter around the Wolves camp these days. Saïss explains the technical factors that have enabled them to bear their workload without losing form but he says the first reason is the atmosphere in the squad. “We spend so much time together with the travel, the hotels and everything that I think I see more of my teammates than I do of my wife and kids,” he says. “So can you imagine how things would be if we didn’t like each other? But outside the pitch we are very close to each other, and you can see that on it.
“We don’t have any different groups in the dressing room; everybody talks to everybody and you can joke with anybody. We are from Africa, Europe and South America and the mix is really good. It’s a big strength of this team. That’s what the manager wants to create. He wants good unity between everyone, the staff and the team. For us to be like a family. A wolf pack.”
The manager, of course, is Nuno Espírito Santo, whose success since arriving in the Midlands in 2017 has brought acclaim and envious glances. Arsenal considered approaching him to replace Unai Emery before plumping for Mikel Arteta but Saïss says he was not worried – “because I was sure he was going to stay with us”. Did he ask the manager? “Yeah,” he replies with another raucous laugh. “But I can understand [Arsenal’s interest] because he’s been doing a fantastic job for three years now. He won promotion, got seventh place in the Premier League last season and now we’re doing well in the Europa League and the Premier League. It’s normal that other teams want him. Like if a player does well for several seasons, all eyes are on you.”
All eyes have not been on Saïss, however, even though he, too, has contributed a lot to Wolves’ rise since arriving from Angers in 2016. Last month a group of Wolves fans voted Saïss as the club’s most underrated player. “I do the bad jobs,” he says by way of explanation. He played in midfield in the promotion season but now he is thriving in central defense, where he also plays for Morocco, of whom he was recently appointed captain.
Saïss’s versatility is one reason why Wolves have not suffered as badly as some feared since losing the key central defender Willy Boly to a fractured fibula in October. Nuno likes to work with a relatively small squad – that way it is easier to preserve team spirit – but that is only possible with players who can play in numerous positions. “That’s why we will not struggle,” says Saïss. “It was the same when Ryan Bennett got injured and Leander [Dendoncker] came back from midfield to play in his position [the right-hand side of central defense] because he can do both. The versatility of this team is another reason why we are not struggling with all the demands. Another example is Adama [Traoré]. Sometimes he plays up front, sometimes as a right-winger and sometimes a right-back.”
Traoré played up front in October when he scored both Wolves’ goals in a 2-0 win away at Manchester City. Pep Guardiola has probably spent time this week trying to figure out how to stop a player who seems to improve with every game. “It is very hard to stop him – I find that out every day in training,” says Saïss. “And he is much better than last season. This season he is more intelligent in how he plays. I think he’s more focused on the tactics and the way to show defenders. He knows he is faster than every other player in the world but sometimes, like last season, the opponents came on him with two or three players and reduce the space. Now he is trying to create more one-on-one situations and open up more space. It is very hard to stop him. Did you see what Tottenham did to him? The whole left side of their team could have been booked because of him.”
Saïss is no stranger to a booking himself and, in September, he was shown a red card for a couple of fouls on Wilfried Zaha, one of the few players in the Premier League who could be compared to Traoré. “I think Zaha may be more skillful than Adama but Adama is stronger, faster and is good with both feet,” says Saïss. “He needs space. If he gets it, you’re finished. But it’s good to play against these kinds of players because, if every game is easy for you, you stay at the same level instead of getting better.”
The Guardian Sport