Atlético Madrid’s 2020/21 season is sure to be unusual given the unprecedented circumstances, and it kicks off Sept. 27 against Granada. This series will explore three make-or-break questions Diego Simeone and co. will have to answer in order to compete for silverware amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
Question: How many games will Jan Oblak steal?
Answer: Here’s a dirty little secret about the guy I consider to be the world’s best goalkeeper:
He didn’t have a great 2019/20 season.
Now, before you bring out the pitchforks, allow me to provide context. The Oblaktopus was still awesome during the COVID-halted season, completing a third straight campaign with fewer than 30 goals conceded and missing out on the Zamora Trophy by two goals. He was the reason Atlético survived at Liverpool in March, and his leadership as vice-captain was essential in turning around a brand-new defense’s fortunes just in time for the home stretch in LaLiga.
But amidst the rebuild, Oblak didn’t put together his best individual season. The 27-year-old’s save percentage in LaLiga dipped to 77 percent — despite facing 21 fewer shots on target than in 2018/19, when he stopped 82 percent of attempts. His 2017/18 season was even more ridiculous, as he made 106 saves from 126 shots — good for an 83 percent mark.
Post-shot expected goals explain how likely a goalkeeper is to save a given shot once it’s released. Oblak rang up gaudy numbers in this category in 2017/18 and 2018/19. In the former, he was expected to have allowed 32.5 goals according to post-shot xG. The Slovene came to the rescue at a similarly-staggering rate the next year, when he should have allowed 36 goals per post-shot xG. He conceded 22 and 27 times respectively over those two seasons.
Last year, Oblak underperformed in this category. He allowed 27 goals, nearly two goals more than post-shot xG dictated.
This doesn’t mean Oblak fell off a cliff and stopped making stunning saves — au contraire. And we’ve seen him enough over the past five years to know this is who he is, that his expected goal versus actual goal discrepancy is no fluke. He is that good, so it’s easy to foresee a “bounceback,” especially as the defense in front of him improved as winter turned into spring (before fading again in Lisbon). Obi probably improves upon a 44.7 clean sheet percentage, too — his worst mark since he was a teenager in Portugal.
Atlético’s 2015 defense isn’t walking through that door, so Oblak will probably face 100-plus shots on target for the fourth straight season. Saving more than 80 percent of said shots will help Atleti’s 2020/21 edition get closer than 17 points off first place — as will anticipated growth from an attack that just welcomed Luis Suárez to its ranks. I think Oblak gets back to that magic 80 percent mark, which could have quite the bearing on a season in which Barcelona and Real Madrid have a few vulnerabilities.