Jan Oblak clearly doesn’t believe in New Year’s resolutions.
While most of us are spending our first days of 2020 living through our “new year, new me” fantasies, Oblak continues doing what he does best; pulling off logic-defying saves.
Levante, who visited Atletico Madrid for a Spanish league match on January 4, were the Slovenian’s latest victims. With Atletico Madrid up 2-1 in second half stoppage time, Levente’s Hernâni Fortes delivered a deep cross from Oblak’s wing. Teammate Enis Bardhi broke free at the far post and connected on the delivery, using his head to drive the header goal-bound.
It looked like a certain equalizer, but Oblak stretched his left arm and miraculously palmed the ball over his goal. Bardhi and his teammates could only put their hands on their heads.
Thanks to Oblak’s stop, Atletico Madrid emerged victorious at the full-time whistle. The win is their first of the new year and their fourth in as many games. It also ensures that Atletico Madrid move to within five points of both FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, who share the lead atop La Liga’s table.
Unsurprisingly, Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone was full of praise for his shot-stopper. He called Oblak the “best in the world” and commended him for being there “when it mattered most”.
Oblak’s quick reflexes will grab all of the attention, and why wouldn’t it? For the Slovenian to react in such a short timeframe and get just enough of a palm behind the shot is absolutely stupendous. There’s such a small amount of time to react in, but it was just enough for Oblak to get a clean deflection on the attempt.
But this stop is so much more than just simple reflexes. The real crème de la crème of this save happens before Oblak even makes contact with the ball.
There are four things Oblak maintains leading up to the stop. These qualities — which are staples of the Slovenian’s style of goalkeeping — set Oblak up for this stunning save. Without them, it’s likely Oblak would’ve conceded on this play.
The first thing Oblak has to do in this situation is to get himself into the best position to stop the attempt. To do that, he must transport his body from his starting point to his endpoint as quickly as possible.
Footwork is arguably a goalkeeper’s most important skill. If a goalkeeper does not have good footwork, an argument can be made that all of their other traits are irrelevant. Mastering the different techniques — bounding, shuffling, crossover step, etc. — can go a long way between a goalkeeper having no chance at stopping a shot and having a favourable chance at turning it aside.
In this scenario, Oblak uses two crossover steps to move across his goal. This was an excellent decision by the Slovenian goalkeeper. The crossover step — called so because the goalkeeper crosses one leg in front of the other — allows the goalkeeper to move over long distances as quickly as possible. If you want to, say, get from one post to the other in a short timeframe, you use crossover steps.
This is why Oblak was correct to use crossover steps. Other techniques, such as bounding or shuffling, would’ve seen Oblak move too slow across his goal and be out of position for Bardhi’s attempt. But by using the crossover steps, Oblak moved from point A (his left post) to point B (between the centre of his goal and his right post) as efficiently as possible.
By crossing his left leg over his right leg while moving to his right, Oblak also ensured that he remained balanced and ready to get a strong push off of his right leg if needed. Had he crossed his right leg over his left leg, Oblak’s centre of balance would be leaning backwards and he would not be able to get a good, controlled push off to his right.
With his footwork down, Oblak’s next worry was positioning. This is another aspect the Slovenian got spot-on.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise. As I’ve said many times before, Oblak is the best goalkeeper in the world when it comes to positioning. His positional awareness — in open play and on set pieces — is undisputed by any current goalkeeper. He processes the position of the ball, his teammates, and his opponents almost instantly, and he uses that information to constantly readjust his positioning.
Nonetheless, this is a situation that could trouble even an elite goalkeeper like Oblak. When moving from one side of the goal to the other, it’s easy for a goalkeeper to over-step or under-step their movement, which puts them in a bad position to handle a shot. Usually, the goalkeeper would not have enough time to recover or readjust their positioning either.
In Oblak’s scenario, given Bardhi’s position relative to the goal, under-stepping would’ve resulted in the Slovenian being too close to his left post, which would’ve hindered his chances of saving a shot at his right post. But, had Oblak over-stepped, he would’ve been positioned too close to his right post and thus would be in a bad position to stop a shot going across his goal.
But Oblak used his strong positional sense to set himself in the best place relative to Bardhi; between his right post and the centre of his goal. This meant that Oblak wasn’t positioned too far to his left to the point where he’d be caught out by a near-post attempt, and he wasn’t positioned too far to his right post to that point where he couldn’t handle a cross-goal shot.
Oblak was in a position where if a header was directed to his right, he could cover his near post with a dive, and if a header was directed to his left, he could still get to the attempt. That’s why, when Bardhi directed his header towards the centre of the goal, Oblak was able to react in time and stop the shot.
Yet, despite his great positioning, Oblak still would not have stopped this attempt had it not been for his sense of balance.
Balance is very important for a goalkeeper. If a goalkeeper’s weight is evenly distributed, they’ll be able to generate enough power behind a push or dive to make a save. Proper balance also allows a goalkeeper to effectively react to a shot going in any direction; left, right, under their body, or over their head.
Proper balance is always a game-saver, but especially in a situation where one’s momentum is working against them.
When moving across one’s goal, it’s easy for a goalkeeper’s momentum to take over. If one’s moving to their right, they’re more likely to drop or dive in that direction because of their momentum’s impact on their sense of balance. Likewise for a goalkeeper moving to their left.
This is why you’ll usually find goalkeepers dropping or diving in the direction they’re moving in on these attempts. They’re unbalanced — their body is leaning in that direction and their weight is not evenly distributed — so their momentum carries them into that direction.
As an example, take this incredible save Sergio Romero made vs. Wolverhampton on Saturday.
Despite Matt Doherty’s attempt going to his right, Romero dropped to his left. This is because he was moving to his left, and his momentum carried his unbalanced body in that direction as the shot approached his goal.
Had Romero been properly balanced, he likely would’ve been able to react in a more efficient manner and not have to rely on his trailing right hand to stop the attempt.
Now take a look at Oblak. Despite moving across his goal quickly, Oblak remained balanced and kept his body weight evenly distributed. This allowed him to counter his momentum and react in an appropriate manner to a shot going in the opposite direction of his initial movement.
Without his sense of balance, Oblak’s momentum would’ve dropped him to his right side and hindered his chances at stopping this shot.
The last quality I’d like to bring up is Oblak’s focus in this situation. In Saturday’s match, the Slovenian only faced three shots on target. The first was a 15th-minute goal off of an unfortunate deflection. The second was a diving stop on Bardhi in the 83rd minute. The final shot was the 93rd-minute save that’s been the star of this piece.
Between the first and second shots, the Slovenian experienced nearly 70 minutes — over an hour — of inactivity (with a half-time break in between). That’s a lot of time spent doing nothing (from a shot-stopping perspective).
In situations such as this one, it’s easy for the average goalkeeper to become bored or distracted. We’re only human; we naturally lose focus during long periods of idleness.
Unfortunately, because of our roles as goalkeepers, losing focus often means that we get rusty as the game goes on, which leaves us prone to conceding a goal late in the match.
This is another area where Oblak separates himself from most other goalkeepers. Despite the lack of action, Oblak was able to remain focused on the task at hand. He didn’t allow himself to be distracted or get lost in his thoughts; he remained fixated on his duty and ignored any sense of boredom which might’ve crept in. This allowed Oblak to keep his instincts sharp late in the game, which contributed to the two big saves he made in the match’s final 10 or so minutes.
Had Oblak become distracted, his footwork, positioning and balance likely would’ve been affected, and that would’ve hindered his chances at making this late stop.
Oblak’s save will go down as one of the best saves of the year, possibly even of the decade. And while his reflexes will get the majority of plaudits, it’s Oblak’s other qualities — footwork, positioning, balance, and focus — which set him up for such a successful stop.