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Jan Oblak’s inconsistency: Should we worry about Atlético’s legendary shot-stopper?

Is Oblak’s shakiness a function of Atlético’s unstable defense, or is it a sign of things to come?

Atletico Madrid v Deportivo Alaves - LaLiga EA Sports Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Halloween is in the rearview, but Jan Oblak’s 2023/24 season is getting spookier nonetheless.

On Friday night, Oblak shipped two goals at Estadio Gran Canaria as Las Palmas upended Atlético Madrid. It was Atlético’s first loss on Gran Canaria since 1987, and the defeat snapped a six-game winning run in LaLiga for Diego Simeone’s men.

Las Palmas skipper Kirian opened the scoring five minutes after halftime with a right-footed laser from outside the box — a shot that Understat registered as worth 0.03 expected goals. To be fair, Antoine Griezmann’s poor ball loss along the boundary to begin the sequence did the Slovene no favors. But Oblak had a clear look at the chance, and he was somehow still woefully out of position, too late to react.

The second goal was a defensive disaster. Atlético were torched on the counterattack, and the pass from Munir El Haddadi’s boot to Benito Ramírez played out almost in slow motion. But to put the cherry on top, Oblak left too much space at his near post for Benito to shoot into — the Las Palmas native even seemed a bit surprised after scoring.

Oblak has conceded from each of the last three shots on target he’s faced, including Ander Guevara’s long-range drive deep into second-half stoppage time of the 2-1 win over Alavés last weekend. Of the past seven shots on target he has faced, five have ended up in the back of the net. He’s kept one clean sheet from Atlético’s past seven games — the strength of the Griezmann-Álvaro Morata partnership has powered Los Rojiblancos to five wins in that stretch.

Having watched Oblak save his teammates from catastrophe many times over the years, my initial reaction to this recent dip in form was a shrug of the shoulders. We’re talking about a player who was LaLiga’s MVP in 2021 and a goalkeeper who has been considered among the world’s best for the better part of a decade thanks to his superhuman reflexes and ability to organize a defense. And ordinarily, conceding twice from 0.45 xG — as Oblak did Friday — can be chalked up to bad luck or some other systemic failure (more on that later).

But then I remembered Oblak’s 2021/22 season. And I looked at some numbers. Folks, they’re not painting a pretty picture.

You might remember that two seasons ago, Oblak statistically was among the worst goalkeepers in LaLiga. Atlético’s vice-captain conceded 43 goals from 32 expected — one-and-a-half times worse than any of his previous seasons in Spain. His post-shot xG mark of negative-7.7 — an indicator of a goalkeeper’s proficiency at, well, preventing goals — was the second-worst mark among all eligible keepers. Atleti’s squad imbalance and extreme defensive frailty that season had an apparent effect on Oblak’s confidence, which was restored once the rojiblancos hit form in the spring.

Oblak rebounded in 2022/23, his save percentage rising from 66 percent to 76 percent, in line with his career average. He shipped 20 goals from 22 expected and kept seven clean sheets in a 13-game stretch between Jan. 21 and April 23 — but he missed the season’s final six weeks with a neck injury.

Fortunately, Oblak recovered in time for preseason. But rather unfortunately, the 30-year-old has not been able to carry his spring 2023 form into the new campaign. Right now, by the numbers, he is perhaps LaLiga’s worst goalkeeper.

Entering Sunday’s games, only two goalkeepers with more than 10 starts have a lower save percentage than Oblak (70.3). Those two keepers — Antonio Sivera of Alavés and Iván Villar of Celta Vigo — play for teams in the bottom half. The three-goal difference between Oblak’s xG allowed (8) and actual goals allowed (11) is already the largest discrepancy of any goalkeeper in Primera. This is despite Oblak facing a post-shot xG per shot on target of 0.22 — the second-lowest figure in the league. And we’re not even one-third of the way through the season!

More than that, though, Oblak’s lack of polish with the ball at his feet is a real problem now in a way that it wasn’t necessarily in the past — it runs counter to Simeone’s stated effort to build an Atlético side that plays the ball neatly out of defense.

There has been a clear attempt to enhance this underdeveloped facet of Oblak’s playing style. Oblak’s average pass length sits at 30.7 yards — his lowest dating back to 2017/18 (the earliest season for which FBRef has data). The average length of his goal kicks is down to 38.8 yards — also his lowest across any of the past seven seasons. It’s the third-lowest average in LaLiga this season behind only Marc-André Ter Stegen and Kepa Arrizabalaga — the goalkeepers at FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.

But just taking the sample size of Atlético’s past four games, Oblak remains inaccurate when launching the ball (eight completed out of 34 attempts), and he has long been less-than-reliable when restarting play from a goal kick. This is especially true when Oblak is pressed, and — here comes the part about systemic problems — he is more likely to be pressed aggressively and subsequently give away the ball in central areas due to Atleti’s lack of mobile, ball-playing defenders. That means a midfielder or a full-back sometimes has to scramble into position to build an attacking move.

UEFA Champions League 2023/24Atletico Madrid v Feyenoord Rotterdam Photo by ANP via Getty Images

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn this has been a failure of the club’s recruitment. Simeone’s best all-around center-back is the oft-injured José Giménez, who has made two substitute appearances since returning last weekend from a foot issue. The others are:

  • Stefan Savić, who is not a particularly inventive passer and looks to be declining fast as he approaches his 33rd birthday;
  • César Azpilicueta, who continues to read the game superbly — but at 34 years old, he lacks athleticism and pace. He didn't play against Las Palmas;
  • Axel Witsel, whose passing and improved positional sense have made him a fixture in the 11 of late — but at 34 years old, he lacks athleticism and pace;
  • Mario Hermoso, who has athleticism, pace, and an exemplary passing range. He also unfortunately suffers from a brutal, at times devastating, lack of concentration (perhaps a contributing factor to his stalled contract renewal);
  • Çağlar Söyüncü, who has missed much of the season through injury and is yet to make a start for the club, though he has shown promising glimpses on and off the ball;
  • and Reinildo Mandava, who hasn’t played this season as he continues his recovery from an ACL tear.

Atlético will soon have more viable options to plug into the back three than at any point in the previous two seasons. But questions dog each and every one of these players — which, combined with Oblak conceding some soft goals, is a potentially-lethal cocktail for Atleti’s pursuit of silverware.

All this to say, Oblak’s reputation and track record suggest another bounce-back is possible. Some would say it’s likely. He could reel off four consecutive clean sheets entering the Barcelona game on Dec. 3 and few would bat an eye.

Besides, Atlético did just string together six wins on the bounce in league play prior to Friday’s debacle. That pesky game in hand against Sevilla looms larger now, though, seeing as Barça, Madrid, and Girona keep on adding points.

However, this isn’t the first time Oblak’s form has flatlined since Atlético last won LaLiga, and thus it’s worth monitoring to see whether it improves. While his defenders haven’t done him many favors lately, Oblak needs to make the routine saves after spending so long making the extraordinary stops look ordinary.

Otherwise, the unthinkable could occur — the club’s legendary goalkeeper could become a liability well before 2028, when his contract expires.

(All stats culled here are from FBref dot com.)