Wolverhampton Wanderers have started the 2020/21 Premier League campaign in style away at Bramall Lane, with Romain Saiss's head securing an untouchable lead in the sixth minute and securing the clean sheet with a goal-line clearance in second-half stoppage time.
Statistically, Saiss' output was remarkable, leading Wolves in terms of passes (joint first, 45) and pass accuracy (89%), headers won (joint first, 6), clearances (joint first, 7) and shots blocked (2). Equally impressive was Saiss' number of attempts on goal - he managed three.
Romain Saiss v Sheffield United (team rankings)— Tim Spiers (@TimSpiers) September 15, 2020
Pass accuracy 89% (1st)
Passes 45 (=1st)
Touches 66 (2nd)
Headers won 6 (=1st)
Blocks 2 (1st)
Clearances 7 (=1st)
Shots 3 (=2nd)
Another attacking threat at Nuno's disposal
Sheffield United seemed not to have quite woken up before Raul Jimenez opened the scoring three minutes in, and by the time they had managed to get out of first gear, Saiss had doubled Wolves' advantage from an out-swinging Pedro Neto corner, heading the ball strongly as he moved backwards in the air.
It was a nightmare start for new Blades goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale.
The Moroccan threatened the Sheffield goal a second and third time in the second half. Another corner shortly after the break led to another Saiss header which flew just wide of the far post, then in the 69th minute he ventured into the Sheffield box to unleash a powerful left-footed strike, which was tipped onto the post by Ramsdale, only for Jimenez to uncharacteristically send his shot wide on the close-range rebound.
Confident and assured in all departments
Defensively, Saiss dominated from start to finish. His positioning was faultless, enabling him to mark the Blades strikers out of the game, and he was adept at dealing with long balls into the box, routinely snuffing out threats before they could properly materialise.
This is a marked improvement on last season, as long balls provided some of the few situations that visibly unsettled the Wolves backline in 2019/20. Saiss' height came in useful repeatedly, allowing him to nullify the aerial threat of Oli McBurnie.
The defensive stability that Saiss offered allowed new signing Marcal, on his debut after a £2million move from UEFA Champions League semi-finalists Lyon, to push high up the left flank and combine with the forwards.
The Brazilian's wide runs handed Wolves a numerical advantage down the left and often keeping Sheffield right wing-back George Baldock pinned down and unable to contribute much early in the transition.
With Marcal high up the pitch, Saiss tended to play a little wider on the left of the back 3, and his ability to play the ball forward became very obvious.
His straight passes sailed either over the heads of the Sheffield midfielders, between or around them, finding their targets on 11 occasions. Given that the vast majority of Wolves' long passing from the defence has been done by Conor Coady since the arrival of Nuno Espirito Santo in 2017, it is very promising to see Saiss able to put up such excellent passing numbers, especially as the long passes he played were almost exclusively directed towards the centre of the pitch or straight ahead and with his left foot - not bad for a right-footed player.
If Saiss can keep up this level of performance through the rest of the season, Wolves will have one of the strongest ball-playing defences in the Premier League.
In the 91st minute, Sheffield came close to a consolation goal, with McBurnie heading an excellent cross from Sander Berge in the Wolves penalty area. Rui Patricio looked beaten, but Saiss was on the line to head it away and protect Wolves' clean sheet.
An inspired performance overall, from a defender who just keeps improving under Nuno's watchful eye.