Goalkeepers: Football’s Unsung Heroes

The Case of Jan Oblak

 

If someone were to ask a football fan who is the best player in the world, the answer will almost certainly be an attacking footballer. And why not? With the MSN (Messi-Suárez-Neymar) trident and Cristiano Ronaldo banging in goals on the regular, it is no surprise that offensive footballers are lauded in the modern game and dominate the best player awards year after year after year.

It is, of course, essential to score goals in order to win a football match. However, a solid defence, and in particular, a good goalkeeper, can sometimes be the difference between victory and defeat. While the likes of Gianluigi Buffon, Manuel Neuer and Claudio Bravo are well-known by football fans for being some of the best match-winning goalkeepers around (if you don’t know who they are then you are quite possibly watching the wrong type of football), there is one shot-stopper who is bossing it right now and deserves the same praise typically given to forwards: Jan Oblak.

Jan Oblak is Atlético Madrid’s first choice goalkeeper and the last line of the meanest and most miserly defence in Europe. The young Slovenian arrived at the club in July 2014 from Benfica — where he won the Best Goalkeeper award for the 2013-14 season, conceding a paltry three goals in 13 matches — as a replacement for Thibaut Courtois but was initially reduced to the role of understudy for the 2014-15 season to the more experienced Miguel Ángel Moyà who was purchased a month prior.

Having had a forgettable debut in a 3-2 away defeat to Olympiacos on matchday one of the Champions League, Oblak was an unlikely hero in the second leg of a round of 16 tie against Bayer Leverkusen after coming on for an injured Moyà. He kept a clean sheet during 94 minutes of regular and extra time, avoiding a deadly away goal that would have certainly kicked Atlético out of the competition, and saved a crucial penalty in the shootout.

After his heroics in the Champions League, which saw Atlético advance to the quarterfinal, Oblak made his La Liga debut against neighbours Getafe in a 2-0 win. The Slovenian went on to start every La Liga game since and Moyà was never to be heard of again save for Copa del Rey appearances. In the back end of the 2014-15 season, Oblak kept seven clean sheets in 11 games while only conceding six goals. Oblak had managed to fully capitalise on Moyà’s injury with a series of convincing performances to establish his position as Atlético’s no. 1.

The 2015-16 season has seen Jan Oblak become one of the most consistent goalkeepers in European football. Featuring in all of Atlético’s La Liga and Champions League games, Oblak is currently leading the clean sheet statistics in European leagues. He has so far kept 19 clean sheets in 30 La Liga appearances, conceding only 14 goals in a league that boast the most dangerous attacking trio in the world. Even more impressive, Oblak has only conceded three goals in eight Champions League matches while keeping six clean sheets. In fact, Benfica is the only team to have scored against Oblak in the Champions League so far, although one can expect that Barcelona, Atlético’s quarter-final opponent, will change this statistic.

While Oblak is without a doubt a good goalkeeper, his job is made a lot easier with the support of a solid defensive unit which includes quite possibly the best left-back right now in Filipe Luís, the calm(ish) head of Diego Godín, the young yet confident José María Giménez, and Atlético’s ray of light, Juanfran Torres. So good is Atlético’s defence at times that Oblak has gone a full 90 minutes without having to make a save in this season’s La Liga. However, Oblak can definitely come up with the goods when called into action. He is great at making saves with his feet, a good puncher of the ball, and not afraid to come out of his box to make vital interceptions. His high-quality shot-stopping ability has seen him join Málaga’s Carlos Kameni and Barcelona’s Claudio Bravo in an exclusive club of La Liga goalkeepers who have managed to shut down Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu this season.

Despite solidifying himself as one of the best goalkeepers in Europe, not enough people in the world of football are talking about Jan Oblak — a man almost certain to win La Liga’s Zamora Trophy for the goalkeeper with the lowest goal-to-game ratio. If Oblak manages to concede three goals or less in the remaining eight games, he will secure his place as the best among all Zamora winners. Such an accolade will certainly send more clubs banging at Atlético’s door to secure his services (Manchester United has already tried and failed). However, Oblak is tied to Los Rojiblancos until 2021 with a €100m release clause which shows how much he is valued by coach Diego Simeone.

Great things are to be expected of Jan Oblak. If he is able to maintain his current form he will soon be heralded not only as the best goalkeeper of his time but as a great footballer worthy to be mentioned in the same breath with the likes of (dare I say) Lionel Messi.

 

(Featured Image: clubatleticodemadrid.com)

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