Win lose or draw, Conor Bradley’s Premier League debut was only ever going to end with a hug from Jurgen Klopp. When the embrace came after Bradley’s substitution, the 20-year-old looked shattered but blissful, like a sixth former returning home from his first Glastonbury. As with a wet weekend on Worthy Farm, Bradley had survived and prevailed in traumatic circumstances.
It usually takes a Monday Night Football seminar to understand a Premier League team’s plan when out of possession. No great tactical insight was required to decode what Andoni Iraola had told his Bournemouth team: target the weak link. Every time Bradley received a pass at right-back in the early minutes Bournemouth collectively stepped up and closed him down. To begin with it seemed to be working.
Bournemouth double-teamed to test Bradley’s physicality, defenders successfully muscling him off the ball when he received a pass on the touch-line in Bournemouth’s half. Marcus Tavernier zipped a pass across him towards Luis Sinisterra with cruel speed and precision. As Liverpool settled and advanced, Tavernier nabbed it from Bradley near the corner flag, disrupting the visitors’ increasing dominance.
With Mohamed Salah and Wataru Endo at Afcon and the Asian Cup respectively, the hamstring injury to Trent Alexander-Arnold has come at an already testing time. No team’s right-back is a bigger miss, so Bradley faced not just first night jitters but the pressure of playing understudy to a megastar. Andy Robertson and Kostas Tsimikas are injured, so Joe Gomez who might deputise for Alexander-Arnold is required at left-back.
Bradley is therefore a break-in-case-of-emergency option, as you might have guessed from his squad number of 84, surely one of the highest ever to start a Premier League match? But he has performed credibly in the Europa League and both domestic Cups so far this season. As with most of his team-mates he emerged for the second half transformed.
There was no hiding after his faltering first 45, asserting himself in challenges and offering a useful passing option to nearby team-mates. With the cushion of Darwin Nunez’s opening goal, Bradley began to play. He came from another dimension to nick a ball from Lewis Cook, then his team-mates steamed in to protect their debutant after he was fouled in the aftermath.
At 2-0 up when Liverpool were slow getting back from a corner, Bournemouth had a hint of a break available. Bradley checked his blindside, saw Tavernier too far off his shoulder for comfort and stepped back a couple of paces. Moments later he intercepted a pass towards Tavernier on the wing.
Soon afterwards, showing a Trent-esque disregard for right-back convention, Bradley arrived late in the box and it looked for a second like his mishit cross might fluke its way over Neto into the far corner. The keeper recovered to catch but it was a sign of a young player beginning to work things out. In just over an hour of Premier League football he had gone from callow novice to self-expresser.
He also has a top-flight assist to his name, setting up the goal which made the game safe, mopping up a loose cross and finding Diogo Jota in space in the box. As Jota initially miscontrolled before lashing it in, Bradley stood behind arms outstretched, wanting a pass back. That assertiveness should serve him well, but he was all deference after the game. “This has been my dream since I was about five years old,” he said to Sky Sports. “To make my Premier League debut is a very proud moment.”
Of course Bradley cannot replace hybrid post-positionalist Alexander-Arnold, who is due back soon. On this evidence he might be able to free him up, providing a platform for Alexander-Arnold to play even further forward. It was an encouraging night, but no one is getting carried away. “He should have scored in that situation,” said Klopp of a missed header when his team were 1-0 up.
This was Klopp’s only criticism. “He’s a wonderful kid, a really hard worker and a good footballer. He’s a defender but he can attack as well. Sometimes you have to forget your first game, but this was a good start.”