Long Reads

Jan Oblak – The Great Wall in Atletico’s Backline

A number of eyebrows were raised when Atletico Madrid decided to make Jan Oblak the most expensive goalkeeper in La Liga history in 2014. The club from the capital decided to pay £14.5 million for the Slovenian, who was just 21 years old back then. Yes, Oblak had played a starring role in Benfica’s treble-winning campaign during the 2013-14 season. However, this was seen as a major gamble and a panic buy from Atletico Madrid, who had grown used to the services of the excellent Thibaut Courtois for a couple of years after he was signed on loan from Chelsea.

In just seven years, however, Oblak was able to prove everyone, who had doubted his potential and transfer value, wrong by being able to dominate between the sticks for the Spanish outfit. In fact, he is now regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the game. Surprisingly for a player who cost a record fee, Oblak was not able to feature in the starting line-up right away. He had to wait for his opportunities, as Miguel Angel Moya continued to remain in the number one position for several months after the arrival of Oblak. Once he was dislodged, however, Jan Oblak did not look back and he has been able to achieve success after success.

Oblak proved that he is one of the best goalkeepers in Spanish football history by lifting the coveted Ricardo Zamora trophy on five occasions. Thus, he shares a record with Victor Valdes and Antoni Ramallets. It is frightening that Oblak, who has picked up this title in five out of the last six La Liga campaigns, is only 28 years old. Apart from these individual honours, he has also been able to help Atletico to major honours despite having played second fiddle to Real Madrid for most of their history. Atletico have been able to win the La Liga, Europa League, UEFA Super Cup, and the Supercopa de Espana since the Slovenian made the switch to the Vicente Calderon.

jan oblak playing for Atletico in 2021

What makes Oblak special?

Since making his debut for Atletico Madrid in 2015, the goalkeeper has had very little time away from the starting line-up due to injuries or poor form. As a result, he has made close to 250 league appearances for the Spanish club in the last seven seasons. His overall figures for Atletico stand at an impressive 300+ games in seven seasons. It is not just appearances that have transformed Jan Oblak into one of the best in his position. He has been able to lend a commanding presence in the box with his six-foot and 2 inch frame. For a club who have relied on physicality quite often under Diego Simeone, Oblak has been a perfect fit.

There is a common misconception that dollar players make for great goalkeepers. This may not be necessarily true, as is the case with a player like Oblak. There are a number of goalkeepers who are significantly taller than the Slovenian, but he is not exactly short. In fact, Oblak might be at an optimal height, as he is able to get done quickly in order to save shots that come his way. The decision-making and positioning abilities have also been excellent and this helps make saves which are spectacular. There is not much need for movement just before making a save, as Oblak invariably finds himself in the best position.

The likes of David de Gea may make saves that make it to the bedroom posters, while the likes of Manuel Neuer are exceptional on the ball. For these reasons, it may be easy to overlook Oblak, but what the Slovenian does is simplicity at its best. He meets the minimum expectation out of a goalkeeper with aplomb on almost every single occasion. Since Oblak finds himself in a great position, there is little need for him to come out with spectacular efforts to keep the ball out of the net. One has to also mention the Atletico defence, which is solid and rugged. All these elements have combined to make Oblak as one of the best goalkeepers in world football when it comes to number of goals conceded per match.

If the positioning of the 28-year-old is exceptional, the same can be said about his ability in one-on-one situations. Despite having faced some of the best players in the world – like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – on a frequent basis, Oblak often comes out on top partly because he is able to deal with any kind of trickery in one-on-one situations. Rather than reveal all the cards to the opponent in such a situation, Oblak stays calm and composed and he does not rush out. This often forces the attacking player to make a mistake that they would have otherwise not been forced to commit.

One of the biggest areas where Oblak can make an improvement in his game would be passing. Over the last few years, there is a greater demand for goalkeepers who can play the ball out. Yet, this is not one of the biggest strengths of the former Benfica star. So far, Atletico’s style has not yet exposed this weakness of Oblak to a great extent.

Over the decades, La Liga has been the home to many great goalkeepers. In fact, every decade has been able to witness some top talent playing between the sticks in Spanish football. It would be tough to forget the achievements of players like Iker Casillas. Yet, Jan Oblak has been spectacularly good in such a way that he has made the record of such players look quite mediocre. For example, Casillas was able to reach 100 clean sheets in Spanish football history after 306 games, but Jan Oblak achieved this feat in less than half the number (178 matches).

One of the greatest moments for Jan Oblak in his Atletico career would be the Champions League game against Bayer Leverkusen in March 2017. It is not unusual for goalkeepers to come out with multiple saves during a game, but the Slovenian made an incredible three saves in the space of just three seconds to keep the opposition out in the knockout game. There have been several such great moments with his save to keep out a penalty from Thomas Muller in the semi-final of the 2016 Champions League living long in the memory of Atletico supporters. Oblak was also able to single-handedly keep out Liverpool in the round of 16 game at Anfield.

Importance at Atletico

Atletico are keen to accept that Oblak is one of the greatest in his position. For this reason, a player who had been signed for €16 million from Benfica just under a decade ago has a release clause of €120 million in his current contract. Back in 2018, Chelsea were very keen on signing Jan Oblak as a replacement for Thibaut Courtois, who was returning back to Spain with Real Madrid. However, Atletico refused to budge even a single penny on their asking price of €100 million and Chelsea never came close to the goalkeeper. If not, Oblak could have been winning honours in the Premier League.

The club also quickly made him the highest-paid player apart from handing him the vice-captaincy after Koke. Atletico have had to show a lot of promise in order to convince Jan Oblak to stay at the Wanda Metropolitano. Amidst interest from a number of top clubs, the Slovenian decided to stay at the club where he has become one of the leaders. The team has been able to benefit greatly not just from Oblak’s skill between the woodwork, but he has also been a great motivator and leader in the squad. The player commands natural authority even if he is not known to speak a lot.

The presence of Oblak has already helped Atletico break the dominance and the La Liga duopoly by picking up a La Liga title in the 2020-21 season. In doing so, Atletico became the first team after Valencia to achieve this feat.

Oblak is not the greatest when it comes to playing the ball out of defence like Manuel Neuer. This has never been his biggest strength. Instead, he is one of the greatest shot stoppers that any team can ask for. This has been alluded to even by Diego Simeone, who has labelled Jan Oblak as a player who is as significant to Atletico as Messi is to Barcelona. Such is the high praise that the young goalkeeper has received for his accomplishments in almost a decade in Spanish football. Yet, it is clear that he still has a long way to go before he decides to hang up his boots.

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