What impact can Conor Bradley make for Liverpool in 2023/24?

Liverpool’s right-back position, like goalkeeper and right-wing, is near on impossible to get sustained minutes in.

Trent Alexander-Arnold is a generational level passer of the football, he is key to how the team plays, he’s also affectionately known as “the Scouser in our team” and is the newly appointed vice captain. He’s also rarely injured (he missed one game through injury in the 2022/23 season). That leaves the club in a tricky situation when trying to recruit a backup. Do you go with a young player happy to get any minutes they can? Or do you look to an older, more experienced option who is willing to sacrifice consistent gametime to be a squad member at the highest level?

Jürgen Klopp has tended to do the former. Last summer, Calvin Ramsay was brought in from Aberdeen with high promise and a stylistic similarity in some ways to Alexander-Arnold. Injuries derailed any major impact he could have – despite impressing in a limited number of minutes. To get his development back on track, Ramsay is spending the 2023/24 season on loan at Championship side Preston North End. The void left in the squad looks set to be filled by academy talent Conor Bradley, who spent last season on loan at Bolton Wanderers and has also been rewarded with a new contract.

Bradley – who as recently as last month turned 20 – is already a fully established Northern Ireland international. In his first full season of senior football in League One, the Castlederg native won his clubs Player of the Year, Players’ Player of the Year and shared the Young Player of the Year award (the latter shared with goalkeeper James Trafford). He also won domestic honours in the form of the EFL Trophy and narrowly missed out on a playoff final after a 2-1 aggregate defeat to Barnsley. After an incredible season at The Trotters, Bradley has impressed in pre-season and will deputise for Alexander-Arnold this season.

So what impact he could make for Liverpool in 2023/24?

Positioning

First, let’s look at Bradley’s playing style. Below is his heat map for League One last season via SofaScore:

Bradley heat map, via SofaScore

As we can see from the above, Bradley is much more of a ‘traditional’ full back than Alexander-Arnold, in the sense of where he operates. Rather than inverting into the half space and midfield areas, Bradley likes to get up and down the line and hold width. We’ve already seen the two co-exist in pre-season, with Alexander-Arnold starting in midfield and Bradley bombing up and down the line.

That isn’t to say that Bradley isn’t able to come into central areas, he has the passing ability (more on this shortly) to do so, and while it isn’t a regular occurrence there is evidence of him operating in these spaces. Currently though, he likes to receive the ball out wide before either going down the outside or driving into the box – with overlapping runs a common theme in his game.

This isn’t a bad thing though, while Ramsay may offer some similarities in playing style to Alexander-Arnold, Bradley offers Klopp an alternative stylistic option in his backup.

Attacking Prowess

Bradley biggest strength lies in his attacking game. In 41 League One appearances last season, the County Tyrone born full back contributed to nine direct goal involvements (five goals and four assists). This ranked him second in Bolton’s squad for goal involvements last season – only trailing striker Dion Charles’ 17 goals and assists, six of which were penalties. His movement makes him incredibly threatening going forward, and if we look at his goal against Charlton back in September 2022…

Bradley breaks forward with his teammates on the counterattack and has the ability to spot the space in behind the opposite full back at the far post. The movement here is more reminiscent of a seasoned attacker rather than a full back in his second month of senior football (even if he does appear to potentially handle it into the net).

If you watch the next goal in the above video, we can see another example of Bradley’s intelligent movement. He moves inside and sweeps the ball out to his teammate; he then makes his way in the box before having the awareness to hang back slightly to generate more space for himself in the box. Whether or not he means the assist that follows is inconsequential to the point here – his awareness of the situation is spot on.

The Northern Irishman also has excellent ball striking. His technique for his first goal in a Bolton shirt is a great example of this (and another good example of how he can operate in central areas).

After receiving the ball and turning in midfield Bradley makes space for himself on the edge of the area. The most impressive thing here though, is the way he strikes the ball. Instead of the classic ‘putting the laces through it’, he almost opens his foot up and knuckles the ball into the far corner. It’s a technique he uses on a regular basis in not just his shooting but his crossing too.

Defensive Game

Bradley is an aggressive defender who likes to tackle – and that’s to both his strength and weakness. In 257 minutes of game time for Northern Ireland in the Euros Qualifiers, he averaged nearly five tackles per game. While this is a small sample size and not enough to make assumptions off, it’s backed up by watching him.

On the plus side he isn’t afraid to get stuck in, he puts his body on the line and his aggressive nature means that he will turn the ball over on a consistent basis and able to start attacks for his team. On the negative side of things, he gets booked… a lot. He received twelve cautions in total in League One last season – resulting in two separate suspensions.

This may be down to youthful exuberance and inexperience, but it is something that he needs to grow out of. Defending aggressively isn’t a bad thing and it has his positives, but being booked on a consistent basis puts him in difficult in-game situations, unable to play his natural game in fear of being sent off (and targeted by opposition attackers).

He also spent last season in a situation that didn’t provide him with an awful lot of defensive responsibility. Bolton operated often with a three at the back last season, with Bradley almost as a right midfielder rather than a full back. This allowed him to focus on his attacking game with a right sided centre back covering the space behind him. Going from this to right back at Liverpool is a completely different situation, he – despite what the media might say about Alexander-Arnold – would have to be much more defensively disciplined. While he does have senior experience as a right-back, for his country, this is a small sample size and has often been against nations of a similar quality to his own – who are ranked 64th in FIFA’s World Rankings.

Stepping up

Conor Bradley has accomplished more at 20 than most. He’s one of his country’s standout players, he stood out against fully season professionals in the third tier of English football, and he’s already made his senior debut for Liverpool. His strengths – as outlined above – are the best part of his game. If he is to be Alexander-Arnold’s deputy this season then he gives Klopp a different type of full back, an overlapping runner that will constantly get up and down the line. This will also offer, as we’ve seen in preseason, the manager the ability to start both on the pitch at the same time. Alexander-Arnold and Bradley’s skillset complement each other, as one moves inside, one bombs down the line and makes line-breaking runs into the opposition box.

Where Bradley will have to improve though, is defensively. Bolton covered him in that sense last season, and Liverpool won’t do that as much. The step up from League One football to potential Europa League starts is massive too, and dealing with better wingers one on one may be a worry considering Bradley’s aggressive defensive style.

However, sometimes the best way to learn is to throw someone in at the deep end, and the Northern Irishman has come past every challenge thrown at him in his young career so far.

Alexander-Arnold’s stellar injury record and Europa League football instead of Champions League football mean Liverpool can afford to give Bradley the measured game time to grow this season. If prior evidence is to go by, he’ll take that opportunity with both hands.

Share This Article