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  • Writer's pictureLa Liga Lowdown

Jan Oblak – Atlético Madrid’s Centurion

Written by Matt Clark

Diego Simeone’s guardian-in-chief has kept his 100th LaLiga clean sheet, in just his 182nd appearance. He is the 21st goalkeeper and the first non-Spaniard to reach three figures. Impressively, he is the fastest ever to the tally, smashing the record of Miguel Reina, who reached 100 in his 222nd match. A whole 40 fewer games.

Appreciated by LaLiga followers and loved by Atleti fans, Oblak may finally be getting the wider recognition he deserves. But just how good is he? By looking at some of the numbers and from speaking to fans who know his game inside out, that question can be answered.

As a young goalkeeper, he moved to Portugal in 2010, already too big for his homeland club Olimpija Ljubljana.

He was loaned out frequently until his breakthrough season in 2013/14. Inconsistent performances from Benfica's number one Artur gave Oblak his chance and he seized it with clinical authority. That season he kept a staggering 22 clean sheets in just 26 games, including a Europa League run where he shut out Juventus in the semi-final second leg in Turin before repeating the feat against Sevilla in the final. The Spanish side eventually won on penalties but Oblak’s displays had earned him a big-money move to Madrid. He became the most expensive goalkeeper in LaLiga history as Atleti paid Benfica €16 million for his services as a replacement for Thibaut Courtois.

With big gloves to fill, Oblak was initially forced to bide his time as fellow new arrival Miguel Ángel Moyà took the starting spot. But when he was injured, Oblak quickly established himself as the standout stopper. Moyà was forced off early in the second leg of the 2015 Champions League quarter-final against Bayer Leverkusen. The tie ended 1-1 after extra time so Oblak would face a penalty shootout in his home competition debut. He saved the first Leverkusen penalty as Atleti went on to progress. Oblak described this match as the one which “changed my life at the club” in an interview with UEFA.

From there, Oblak never looked back. He was now the undisputed number one at the club, and his performances reflected this. In just his second season, he won the Trofeo Zamora, awarded to the best goalkeeper in LaLiga. Calculated by a ratio of goals conceded per games played, Oblak recorded a coefficient of 0.47 (18 conceded in 38 matches). This equalled the all-time record held by Francisco Liaño from 1993/94. In typically humble style, Oblak told MARCA, “the Zamora is a prize for all my teammates, I am happy but what is more important to me is the team. If I am part of history, it is because of them.”

His performances on the Champions League stage were also consistent. During Atleti’s run to the 2016 final, Oblak kept eight clean sheets in 13 matches and saved a penalty in Munich as they got past Bayern in the semi-finals. Remarkably, this performance against German opposition would be eclipsed the following year.

Against Bayer Leverkusen in the knockout stages once again, Oblak produced a scarcely believable triple-save to deny Julian Brandt and Kevin Volland twice. This passage of play is regularly shared by official accounts on social media, and it is easy to see why. Atleti fans and writers Brendy Boyle (@BrendyBoyle) and Joaquin Delmar (@joaquin_delmar) have both selected that as their standout Oblak moment. Boyle described it as “miraculous” while Delmar acknowledged there are numerous to choose from: “it’s crazy how many there are.” Barcelona fan and LaLiga lover Gavin Haverty (@LaLigaGavila) concurs, citing the “consistency of Oblak when it comes to making those jaw-dropping saves.” In his typical understated style, Oblak himself played down the magnificence of his Leverkusen heroics: "these are things that happen...sometimes you save three efforts and other times they score all three. It's something that's hard to explain.”

Oblak has overtaken Abel ‘El Gato’ Resino as the record-holder for most clean sheets in Atleti history. Resino kept 117 in 299 appearances in all competitions. Oblak already has 133 in 246, shutting the opposition out in over 54% of his matches.

Clearly Oblak is a phenomenal goalkeeper, but why? What are the qualities that make him so great? With the help of Boyle, Delmar, Haverty and Jeremy Beren (@JBBeren) of Into the Calderón, a clear pattern emerges. Their descriptions were flowing with superlatives like “leader”, “standout”, “spectacular”, “extraordinary”, “the greatest”, and plenty more.

They agreed that Oblak’s shot-stopping skills and dominant command of his box are probably his greatest assets. Delmar rates the former as “second to none” with Boyle explaining he is “arguably the best shot-stopper in the world because of his incredibly quick reactions.” Similarly, Beren believes the fundamentals stand out: “His biggest strength might be his ability to catch the ball. He makes highlight-reel saves every other game or so, but his form when snagging a ball out of the air is so smooth – grab the ball, fall to the ground, hold on.” These are the basics, the nuts and bolts of goalkeeping, but having a ‘keeper that does them with such consistency is becoming rarer, and therefore more valued.

This is why he inspires such confidence among Atleti fans. He represents security and safety between the posts.

For this reason, Beren believes that Oblak is perhaps Atleti’s most important player: “I rarely, if ever, have to worry about him letting in soft goals or howlers.” This view is obviously shared among the supporters at Estadio Wanda Metropolitano, with Beren recalling the chants in the Fondo Sur: “‘Obi, Oblak, cada día te quiero más’ – every day I love you more”, playing on the lyrics of the Gypsy Kings’ 1988 record ‘Djobi, Djoba’. It is easy to see why Atleti fans adore Oblak, and Opta statistics reinforce this. In the last 10 LaLiga seasons, Oblak has kept the most clean sheets, despite only playing regularly in the last five. In that five-season period, Oblak leads Marc-André ter Stegen by a distant margin of more than 30. He has won the last four Zamoras in a row, a feat only previously achieved by Víctor Valdés. In the all-time list, only Valdés and Antoni Ramallets are ahead of him, with five awards each. Oblak needs just one more award to join them at the top. As Beren pointed out, Oblak is young for a goalkeeper at just 27 and is “a remarkable athlete…[who] could possibly get even better.” History could arrive this season, although at the time of writing his Atleti predecessor Courtois is slightly ahead.

Oblak would take it in his stride, but would thank his team-mates, as helping the team is his primary objective. In fact, this was clear in his last appearance before the coronavirus pandemic. At Anfield, Atleti pulled off a miraculous extra-time victory over defending European champions Liverpool to win 4-2 on aggregate. Marcos Llorente stole the show but it was Oblak who laid the platform. He made nine saves that night, the joint-most of any game during his time at the club. Liverpool had their intensity and created plenty of chances, but Oblak was equal to almost everything. He certainly did enough to take the tie to extra time. After the game, Simeone compared his impact to Lionel Messi: “Messi decides games with his attacking play, Oblak resolves them with his saves.”

Where does Oblak rank then? Delmar rates him as the “best in my lifetime as an Atleti supporter”. Beren says he is “probably the best goalkeeper in Atlético Madrid’s entire history…[and] the best on the continent.” Haverty goes even further, stating that Oblak is “the best I’ve ever seen.” He elaborates unequivocally: “no other goalkeeper in my eyes commands such a formidable, quiet-like respect without being heralded or lauded as the greatest of all time. But he should, as he is.” High praise indeed, and it seems entirely justified.

So why is he not more widely regarded as the best in the world? Why is he often omitted entirely in discussions about the world's best ‘keeper? There are a few theories to consider. One is the fashionable prevalence of ball-playing goalkeepers. Oblak is many things, but a comfortable passer is not really one of them. Indeed, Boyle accepts that “he lacks the footballing ability” of his peers. Perhaps it is the over-emphasis on the Premier League juggernaut. Allison, Ederson and David De Gea all regularly feature in the arguments. A third theory is one of nationality. Oblak is Slovenian, and being one of the smaller footballing nations, they rarely make waves on the international stage, let alone win anything. His rivals all play for the traditional big boys of international football. Ederson and Alisson compete for Brazil, Courtois for an ever-improving Belgium, De Gea is Spain's number one, Germany’s Manuel Neuer, Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon etc. Slovenia do not fit into that bracket and maybe that is why – wrong as it may seem – Oblak is stuck on the fringes.

One of the more frustrating responses you hear when people dismiss Oblak is that he “has the best defence in front of him.” This is only a partial truth at best. Boyle accepts that while this was the case when he joined the club, the same cannot be said now: “a rock-solid defence and overall largely conservative system meant those between the posts received great protection. This season, however, Atleti have been more fragile defensively.” Beren agrees that the defence “isn’t nearly as suffocating and Oblak has had to face more shots as a result.” It is easy to forget the changes in personnel since Oblak first joined the club. Stalwarts like Juanfran, Filipe Luís, Diego Godín and Miranda are all gone. There is now a completely different back four, with only José María Giménez remaining. Oblak has been the constant throughout this transition: “we have seen Oblak really step up and show his worth. He has become much more of a leader on the field,” said Boyle.

Technical ability and distribution are the two areas in which Oblak is behind the curve of modern goalkeeping.

But Beren is clear that “Simeone’s system isn’t predicated on having a sweeper-keeper.” If there is one area where Oblak does lack – even in the context of Atleti’s system – it is surely penalties, particularly shootouts.

According to Opta, he has only ever saved two penalties out of 32 faced. Since his save against Bayer Leverkusen in 2015, Atleti have lost the 2016 Champions League final and the 2020 Supercopa de España final from the spot, with Real Madrid scoring all nine. Oblak was also part of the defeated Benfica team in the 2014 Europa League final. His Achilles’ heel in the tie-breaker is also a heart-breaker.

It is established that Oblak is a phenomenon, and some explanations for why he is not quite so highly regarded elsewhere have been considered. But how does he compare to other big-name goalkeepers in this era of LaLiga?

This table shows the LaLiga record for a selection of goalkeepers over recent times, including household names and true legends of the game. Oblak has the best rate of goals conceded per game among these comparative ‘keepers. The gap to the others is vast, illustrating how good Oblak has been at Atleti.

Taking into account the weight of statistical evidence and the glowing appraisals from Boyle, Beren, Delmar and Haverty, it is beyond any doubt that Oblak is among the best goalkeepers in world football, if not right at the top of the tree. His value and impact on Atleti have been incalculable, he continues to break records with efficient regularity, and he has many years ahead of him. Oblak may not be the most outspoken or vocal of characters, but he lets his gloves do the talking. Underrated, understated, but undoubtedly an all-time great.

If you'd like to see more up-to-date Spanish football news, match information or are looking to better understand how Marcos Llorente's hair stays so perfect during games - you can find us on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown

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