In a season filled with shattered dreams and unfulfilled expectations, at the end of a season that teetered on the brink of something exceptional before vanishing before our eyes. In a lost season for many and a missed chance for the club to re-establish themselves at the top table of European football by possibly playing in and potentially winning a final in their home stadium.
A lost season but for one man — Jan Oblak, a player who continues to rise as the tide goes out. At present, he is on a level all his own within the Atlético Madrid squad regardless of the game or the circumstance.
Interest has waned in Atlético’s season. There are more pressing issues in Spain and beyond given the lack of a title race. Real Madrid are undergoing their biggest makeover ever after their worst season this century. Barcelona are chasing history as they fight off father time with an aging squad, as the twilight of many of their best players’ careers comes into view.
Atlético, meanwhile, are mired in comparative mediocrity. A modest departure from the Copa del Rey and a humiliating defeat in Turin in the last 16 of the Champions League along with a title challenge that never really got started sees them play out the remainder of their games in front of indifferent crowds and with middling motivation.
On Saturday against Celta Vigo, a team with something still to fight for, Atlético won with a clean sheet but not without the help of their best player this season. After the game, Diego Simeone said he was the best goalkeeper in the world and while asking a manager if his player is the best is like asking a barber if you need a haircut, he isn’t wrong. He’s, at the very least, the best goalkeeper in LaLiga.
As you can see, Atlético are a full +11.80 goals better off than their expected goals against (stats via understat). He makes an already world-class defence at chance concession even more formidable. Even if you do get a shot off without the leg of a hulking Uruguayan getting in the way, beating Oblak provides another layer of difficulty.
The percentage of games Oblak plays that are clean sheets is also exceptionally high (stats via fbref) and way ahead of another world-class keeper in Marc-André ter Stegen, who is lucky enough to have a fully-functioning attack in front of him. Usually when you see these charts, it’s Lionel Messi out there on his own looking back at everyone else. But Oblak is performing as well as the Argentine in his chosen position.
Oblak is doing all this with a rotating cast at the back, too. At present, Lucas Hernández (who has played his last game for Atlético after Bayern Munich announced a deal for him), Diego Godín and Stefan Savić are all out and others have missed significant time through injury. Simeone has admitted that the preseason was not adequate and the spotlight is on Profe Ortega, the strength and conditioning drillmaster with control over their fitness regimes. Changes, it seems, won’t be limited to the playing squad this summer.
Nehuén Perez, the 18-year-old central defender, should take a step forward next season to replace the potentially-departing Godín and there will be more turnover too with Juanfran unsure over whether to accept a one-year contract renewal and with Filipe Luís linked with a move away also.
But the most important piece of this defensive unit is Oblak and keeping him is paramount.
Percentage of games Oblak plays that are clean sheets
Atlético are entering an offseason of transition and they are yet to resign the 26-year-old, who has a contract until 2021. He last signed a deal in 2016 and since then has improved immeasurably. Diario AS in Spain insist a deal is just a matter of putting pen to paper and taking a picture — but it’s yet to be signed.
Allisson left for Liverpool last summer for a world-record fee (before Kepa broke that record just afterwards by €5 million) and with the Brazilian between the sticks — along with Virgil van Dijk just in front of him, of course — the Reds have answered a lot of the questions being asked about whether their attack could continue to bail out their underperforming defence. They are now both operating in unison and at the same high level. If someone, PSG for example, cotton on to the true value of a goalkeeper and make Oblak their priority, Atlético could have a problem.
To use Liverpool as the example again, their attack was never the issue while Atlético under Simeone have stagnated and even gone backwards at times. If the attack could draw inspiration from the high level the defence plays at, they truly could return to being one of the best few teams in Europe.
Simeone understands that while attacking can fluctuate, a solid defence can separate the best teams in the world, and that’s why he peppers his goalkeeper with praise. Oblak could even get better still, and if Atlético can solve their defensive injuries while finding a way to complement their defence with a consistent attack, they can become the team everyone has been waiting for them to become since they started to spend money to help their attack catch up with their record-setting backline.