Why Atletico Madrid Consider Goalkeeper Jan Oblak to Be Their Leo Messi

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportMarch 17, 2020

B/R

In March 2017, Atletico Madrid played Bayer Leverkusen in a UEFA Champions League knockout tie. It was one of Atletico's final European Cup games at the old Vicente Calderon Stadium, and they were defending a 4-2 lead from the first leg in Germany.

Midway through the second half—with the teams scoreless—Atletico Madrid central defender Jose Maria Gimenez coughed up possession with a lax crossfield pass. Julian Brandt, a German international, took the gift and bore down on goal. Once he got inside the box, he pulled the trigger, but Jan Oblak saved his shot. 

The ball fell to the left foot of Brandt's fellow German international teammate Kevin Volland, but a despairing lunge from Oblak stopped his shot from going in, too. The rebound fell to Volland again. He controlled the ball with two touches and fired a shot across the other side of the goal, but again—miraculously—Oblak dived to save.

Three shots, three seconds, three saves. The Calderon went crazy. For Oblak, though, he was just taking care of business, as he did by famously stopping Thomas Muller's penalty in the 2016 UEFA Champions League semi-final and by pulling off several brilliant saves against Liverpool at Anfield last week. 

"Oblak thinks that to stop the ball is his job," says Ladislao J. Monino, a journalist with El Pais. "Whenever he has good performances, he always just says that he's there to do that. It's something about his character. He never puts pressure on himself. His sense of tranquillity is striking. It helps with his positioning.

"Of the great goalkeepers in the world at the moment—Ter Stegen, Oblak, Courtois, Alisson—Oblak is the best at positioning himself. If Oblak can clear his area and make a save, he does it, but he also often holds onto the ball. At Atletico, they call him 'Pincers' because he catches so many balls. Every time he can, he gathers the ball. It's a great strength.

"Here's a guy who comes from the Balkans. They've always been known for the high standard of their players—whether it's football or other sports like basketball or handball. Their mentality is perfect for elite competition. It often seems like they're older than their years.

"If you remember, Oblak moved to Benfica as a 17-year-old in 2010. He already had a lot of teams scouting him while he was playing in Slovenia by that stage. Once he got to Portugal, Benfica put him out on loan at Beira-Mar, but he was put straight into their starting XI. He has a lot of personality."

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MARCH 11: Goalkeeper Jan Oblak of Atletico Madrid during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg match between Liverpool FC and Atletico Madrid at Anfield on March 11, 2020 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Visionhaus)
Visionhaus/Getty Images

Oblak finished his Portuguese adventure in 2014 by winning a domestic treble with Benfica, although his team—which included Everton's Andre Gomes and Valencia's pair of Ezequiel Garay and Rodrigo—came up short against Sevilla in a penalty shootout in that season's UEFA Europa League final.

Atletico paid a reported fee of €16 million for him, which made him La Liga's most expensive goalkeeper in history, although it took a while for his train to leave the station. He arrived with a back injury and was unable to nail down a starting position.  

"Oblak's beginnings in Madrid were complicated," says Fran Guillen, a Madrid-based author and football journalist. "For months, he was a substitute behind Miguel Angel Moya in his first season at Atletico. He only played 11 league games that season, and when he made his Champions League debut in Greece, playing against Olympiacos [in a 3-2 defeat], he was lousy. It was probably his worst game as an Atletico player.

"Oblak had come as a bet from Andrea Berta, Atletico's sporting director. I remember seeing him in that Benfica team in the 2014 Europa League final against Sevilla, and I have to admit that he seemed like a good goalkeeper, but nothing particularly spectacular. His mission was to make us forget about Thibaut Courtois, who had set the bar very high at Atleti. It seemed like a big ask for him, but he has ended up exceeding it by far."

Oblak has helped Atletico to three trophies, including a UEFA Europa League title in 2018, though the other two are UEFA and Spanish Super Cups that wouldn't be considered major trophies.

In Spain, he's been imperious, having won the prestigious Zamora Trophythe prize awarded to La Liga's best goalkeeper—for the last four seasons in a row. In November 2018, he became the fastest goalkeeper (178 games) in the history of the Spanish league to reach 100 clean sheets. It took Iker Casillas 306 games, for example, to reach that mark.

"In the France Football Ballon d'Or awards, they included a category for goalkeepers for the first time last year," says Alfredo Relano, honorary president of Diario AS. "I selected Alisson first in the voting and Oblak second.

"They asked us to consider the titles the players had won, as well as their performance in big matches. Allison had won the Champions League with Liverpool [and the Copa America with Brazil]. This year, I will probably put them in a different order.

"The performance of Oblak in Liverpool, for example, gives him such merit when you consider the conditions. It was a very difficult match for him, very demanding. He was under a lot of pressure, but he never lost his composure. He was amazing. He's a sensational goalkeeper."

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 22: Coach Diego Simeone of Atletico de Madrid (L) gives instructions to Goalkeeper Jan Oblak of Atletico de Madrid (R) during the La Liga match between Atletico Madrid and Real Betis at Wanda Metropolitano on April 22, 2018 in Madrid
Power Sport Images/Getty Images

Atletico recognise his value. One of Diego Simeone's criteria for renewing his latest contract as manager was a commitment from the club to hold on to Oblak. When it came to Oblak's own lengthy contract renewal negotiations, Atletico tied him down in 2019 by making him the club's highest-paid player now on its books (although there is some mystery about Joao Felix's exact salary) and by setting Oblak's release clause at €120 million.

"When he signed a large contract renewal last year, it included a promise that Atletico would remain competitive at the highest level," says Guillen. "In addition, the club has emphasised the onus it has in keeping him happy, and in retaining team-mates with whom he feels comfortable alongside, and, even, keeping his agent, Miha Mlakar—who, curiously, is also the representative of [Atletico's young Serbian striker] Ivan Saponjic—happy."

Oblak, 27, has become one of the team's leaders. According to Monino, it is only the symbolism of Koke, with his homegrown "madrileno" roots, that stands in the way of Oblak being made club captain. Oblak exudes a natural authority. He speaks rarely, but his team-mates listen when he does.

His position as a shot-stopper in a team that is built on defence increases his importance to Atletico's project, as alluded to in Simeone's post-match comments after the club's heroic win at Anfield: "Barcelona has Messi who wins matches for them, and we have Oblak, the best goalkeeper in the world, who wins matches for us."

"There have been a few moments where it looked like as if Oblak would leave Atleti," says Euan McTear, author of Hijacking La Liga: How Atletico Madrid Broke Barcelona and Real Madrid's Duopoly on Spanish Football. "The problem for him is that Atletico really need to start winning silverware. It's a similar problem that they had with [Antoine] Griezmann.

"Oblak knows that winning trophies with Atletico would be more special than leaving and winning with, say, Manchester City or Bayern Munich. He knows that staying and winning the Champions League or a league title with Atletico would mean more, but there might come a point where he thinks it's not possible.

"After a few games this season, he was stressing that, 'We need to win trophies; we need a good project.' The reason he stayed last summer was because he was not only given a good contract, but he was promised that Atletico would go sign good players. They tried to do that, but the jury is out on whether they're good enough.

"I'm sure Oblak felt frustrated when there was that stretch in the season where everything was falling apart. [After winning their opening three Liga matches, Atletico won only three of their next 12.] He was looking around and he's got the likes of [new starting left-back] Renan Lodi and he's thinking: Is he going to be the real deal? Can this guy Mario Hermoso be a central defender for Atletico? Is Joao Felix up front going to deliver like Griezmann?

"I'm sure those kinds of thoughts were going through his head at Anfield as well. He must have been thinking: I'm doing all I can, but who's going to go up and score? But at Anfield they did go up and score. With the second Marcos Llorente goal, you can see Oblak sprinted from his own goal all the way to the corner where everybody was celebrating.

"There's a video from a fan in the stands, and you just see this man in yellow sprinting past some of Atletico's midfielders to get there first. You can see how much it means to him."

                  

Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz

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