Conor Bradley, who the Liverpool full-back is and how he plays

At just 20 years old, the Northern Irish winger has already made his place at Liverpool.

Conor Bradley he appeared in Liverpool’s lineups completely unexpectedly, perhaps by chance. As one of the regen that appear in Football Manager saves over the years. The moment in which more or less everyone, even those least interested in what is happening in England, became aware of him was at the end of February: the Liverpoolwith him and four other youth boys on the Wembley lawn – Jarell Quansah, Bobby Clark, James McConnell and Jayden Danns – beat the Chelsea in the League Cup final.

In reality, Bradley had already been in the Liverpool first team for a few months: Klopp had brought him on the last summer tour, in theory as Alexander-Arnold’s reserve. At that moment, the young Northern Irishman was coming off his first real experience away from Liverpool, on loan at Bolton in League One, where he had scored 5 goals and offered 6 assists in 41 games. With the Wanderers he raised the League Trophy to the skies – the league cup for the lower categories – being awarded player of the year by both his teammates and fans.

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Conor Bradley is a product of Liverpool in the deepest sense of the word: he joined the Belfast section of theAcademy of the club when he was nine, while also playing at Gaelic football with the team from Aghyaran, in one of the border counties between Ulster and Ireland. His former coach at Aghyaran St. Davog, Anthony Devine, spoke about this experience The Athletic: “Liverpool were happy he played Gaelic football when he was younger. To do this you have to be ready, fast and resistant and these are attributes that you can transfer to football.”

According to the stories of former coaches and teammates, Bradley was also a special talent in Gaelic football. One of those players, says a former teammate, “so fast that he took the ball and went to score without anyone even managing to touch him.” Words not too different from those spoken by his former youth coach at St. Patrick’s, Conor’s first eleven-a-side football team, or by the head of the youth sector of Dugannon Swift, his latest in Northern Ireland. Throughout this journey, Bradley was constantly followed by Liverpool observers until he moved to the club’s headquarters in 2019. From that moment to his debut with the first team, as a starter and for 90 minutes first against Norwich, a couple of years passed, in which Liverpool’s youth manager, Vitor Matoshe constantly backed up Jürgen Klopp.

Bradley’s path in Liverpool was quite linear and calm, at least until the summer of 2023. Even until his debut in the Premier League, at the end of January against Bournemouth. Arguably, listening to Klopp himself’s words, it’s not hard to believe that Bradley could have made his debut even earlier, if it hadn’t been for the injury he suffered at the end of July – a stress fracture that kept him in the infirmary until November . Since his return, however, Bradley has taken little time to build up his playing time.

At the end of November he came on for the first time against LASK; two weeks later he started against Union St. Gilloise in the Europa League; six days later, again from the 1st minute against West Ham in the League Cup. At the beginning of January, however, the opportunity of a lifetime arrived for him: Alexander-Arnold’s knee injury promoted him to the starting line-up also in the FA Cup against Arsenal. Since then, with the sole exception of the round of 16 of the Europa League against Sparta Prague – in which he came on as a substitute in the 45th minute, scoring an own goal to boot – he has always played as a starter.

Conor Bradley’s impact on the Liverpool first team has been positive beyond all expectations. Even before making his debut in the Premier League, at the end of January, he had played with great personality in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final against Fulham, brilliantly managing the duel with a very insidious player like Willian and also showing a fair amount of courage in playing the ball . After just a few minutes we see him close a beautiful triangle with Elliott on the right, arriving to look for the cutback from the bottom line.

Also in non-possession phase manages to leave a very interesting mark. Defensively, Bradley is a player who seems to have a clear understanding of his functions. In the Premier League he manages around 11 defensive duels per 90′, coming out on top in over 70% of them, but he is also very effective in winning the ball back: with around 10 recoveries per game – only Luke Shaw is better than him among Premier League full-backs – of which 4.25 are in the re-aggression phase, its adherence to the principles of gegenpressing of Klopp is out of the question.

In that same semi-final we see him come out great from a delicate situation, having to manage it alone, both Willian and Robinson on the edge of his penalty area. In this case the imprecise support of the Brazilian helps him a lot, but on his part one cannot help but notice the speed with which he anticipates the American winger, then comes out with a beautiful vertical pass on Elliott.

On Fulham’s opening goal, it must be said, Bradley doesn’t make a good impression, slipping badly in an attempt to anticipate Willian. In his partial defense, he probably didn’t expect van Dijk’s mistake either, who instead of heading it away ends up putting it at the feet of Andreas Pereira. His game, despite this, is a continuation of useful plays: re-aggressions brought with perfect timing; ran up the field; even a tunnel – with a foul taken on the edge of the area – against Joao Palhinha, the most difficult midfielder to dribble in England.

The latter is one of the most interesting aspects of Bradley’s game. Even on a statistical level it is one of the wingers who dribbles the most in the Premier League: his style is a discreet hybrid of technique and athleticism. We don’t see a disruptive progression or Velcro control but a great reactivity to what happens around him: in his dribbling you can see very light moves but also less conventional touches.

However, Conor Bradley is not just an excellent ball carrier. The Northern Irishman is among the best full-backs in the current Premier League for progressive passes attempted (8.69 per 90′), key passes (1.55) and crosses attempted (4.06). These numbers are inflated by the limited sample of matches played – currently six, all as a starter – all with very positive results, but they give a clear indication of the great completeness of his repertoire. A substantial hybrid of those of his two role mates: Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Bradley, in fact, seems like a player who grew up watching videos of them every day, having borrowed the more strictly athletic side of his game from the former and the distribution of the ball from the latter. The strategy implemented by Liverpool clearly played a central role in this, which led the entire youth sector to work with the same tactical approach as the first team. For Bradley, therefore, the inclusion in the first team was essentially immediate: in fact, the injury took away almost all of his settling-in phase.

The speed with which he adapted to Klopp’s demands became even more evident in the Premier League match against Chelsea at the end of January. In one of the first plays we see him receive the ball in an open position, just before mid-court, and quickly launch diagonally with his right foot, perfectly finding Nunez’s cut inside the area. Shortly after, he received a ball kicked away from the left just outside his area, controlling with his right foot and puncturing Chelsea’s mild pressure with a left-footed touch to find Szoboszlai’s run. We can also see him using his body to resist pressure and carry the ball across the pitch with his strides, while still showing a very respectable athletic structure for a player in his first games in the Premier League.

Seeing certain plays on Liverpool’s right side can only immediately make you think of Alexander-Arnold. Or rather, at Trent in the early stages of his career, before Klopp removed him from the wing to transform him first into a dominator of the half space and then into a real playmaker. The association between Bradley and Trent is really easydespite the fact that the former now tends to start more out of the way than the latter, who for several months now has often found himself building between the two power plants.

The heatmap and distribution of passes in the two matches against Chelsea between Conor Bradlet and TAA, just over 5 months apart: it is quite easy to realize that there is some similarity, especially in the search for vertical and diagonal traces ( in blue and light blue).

The differences emerge in the most advanced area of ​​the field: Bradley prefers to remain more crowded on the outside, preferring to attack the area with crosses from the back or carrying the ball on the run rather than with crosses from half space. Yet, although this is his ideal situation, it is not uncommon to see Bradley following the flow of the action, quickly reading and recognizing the spaces to be occupied, attacking them with his elegant runs.

The 2-0 goal – his first in the Premier League – against Chelsea arose from a situation in which Liverpool’s re-aggression had left space to attack on the right side. On Luis Diaz’s ball it is Bradley who occupies that space, running into the area and crossing with a low right-footed shot to the far post. Of that goal, Conor Bradley admitted “don’t remember anythingas his vision was blocked by an opponent.

I had good feelings when I kicked but I didn’t see the ball go in,” he will say after the match.

About a quarter of an hour earlier, Bradley had found his second assist of the Premier League. About half an hour later he would find the third, serving Szoboszlai with a cross from the outside edge of the area. A series of cherries on a perfect cake, in which he had also served four other key passes, won eight duels and completed 25 passes out of 31 attempted. Such a spectacular match that, when he was replaced just before the seventieth minute, all of Anfield sang to him “One Conor Bradley / There’s only one Conor Bradley.”

Bradley appears as some kind of synthesisin terms of style, of his companions, with a part of the game more from quarterback to Alexander-Arnold and another more from running back below Robertson. This, clearly, could create an interesting tactical doubt for Klopp: with the readjustment made on the role of Alexander-Arnold, could he easily exploit the presence of both on the pitch?

We are faced with a fairly recognizable but still very young talent, who has yet to fully form. In these two months as a starter he has not yet had any of the physiological moments of difficulty that are normal to experience at 20 years old in a championship like the Premier League and in a team like Liverpool. Yet Conor Bradley’s talent seems so clear and vivid that it remains difficult not to see it assert itself. Even in the most demanding championship in the world.

2024-03-20 08:00:00
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