Bradley Barcola: Lyon’s versatile forward starting to make a name for himself in Ligue 1 by Vuyo Ndebele
Name: Bradley Barcola
Preferred foot: Right
As far as domestic dominance in the first decade of the 21st century goes, very few teams in Europe could compare to Olympique Lyonnais. The club in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of France won seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles between 2002 – 2008 and as a result were at the pinnacle in terms of riches. By April 2008, business magazine Forbes ranked them as the thirteenth most valuable football team in the World. Most of their initial investments were straight back into the club, especially with the aim of developing home grown players who would go on to achieve greatness not only in France, but also abroad and internationally – Eric Abidal, Hatem Ben Arfa, Florent Malouda, Samuel Umtiti and current Ballon d’Or holder, Karim Benzema are all examples of talents who made it to the top from their highly esteemed academy.
However, frequent changes at the helm over the last few seasons have left them in a mid-table slump, struggling to compete with Paris Saint-Germain for one, and even missed out on Champions League qualification in the 19/20 campaign for the first time in 24 years. Recently though, newly appointed manager Laurent Blanc, who arrived in October of last year seems to have somewhat steadied the ship in the last couple of months, with Lyon winning six of their last ten games (two draws and two losses) but there’s still a lot of work to be done to improve the mood around the club. Positive results and trophies certainly go a long way towards winning hearts, but sometimes something as simple as a young academy player breaking into the First Team and performing well can be just the spark needed to get the fans back onside. That’s exactly what 20 year old forward Bradley Barcola has brought with a good run of form that has seen him become a key member of the team heading into the second half of the season – his liveliness, composure coupled with the clairvoyance to intelligently anticipate the movements of his markers and beat them has certainly enticed the OL faithful.
Born on the 2nd of September 2002 in the city of Villeurbanne just northeast of Lyon, Barcola began his football journey at local club AS Buers in 2008 before taking the next step by moving to the renowned Les Gones Académie two years later. He has gradually climbed the ladder in OL’s setup, with his most notable year in the youth ranks coming in the 19/20 season, in which he scored 11 goals in 17 games for the U19 side. In January 2020, Bradley received his first call up to Clairefontaine as part of France’s U18 squad. Fast forward to the Summer of 2021, the then teenager would join the First Team for preseason, impressing from the get go in a friendly against Bourg-en-Bresse with a goal and an assist.
Barcola was soon rewarded with his first professional contract on September 13, 2021, putting pen to paper on a 3 year deal. In the ensuing months, he would be an unused substitute for the most part under Peter Bosz. He finally made his official bow in the Europa League vs Sparta Prague, as he came on in the 82nd minute to provide an assist for Karl Toko-Ekambi, who put the icing on the cake on a 3-0 victory. Now with the Cameroonian international’s departure on loan to Stade Rennais, Bradley has all but made the left wing position his own with some very consistent performances – so far in 2023 he has notched up 4 goals and 2 assists in 12 games across all competitions, directly involved in a goal every 115 minutes. The first thing that impressed me when watching him was his maturity to gradually grow into the game through simple actions such as playing the ball back into his teammate’s feet with neat one touch passes when not able to go forward; his movement both in and out of possession also stands out.
Although Barcola has been primarily deployed on the left flank by Blanc, he is positionally versatile and able to play anywhere across the front three. This factor has played a hand in him getting more game time recently as the veteran manager likes his attacking players, especially wingers and strikers, to be comfortable in multiple tactical setups – he is well known for altering formations depending on the opposition and thus, he often changes the positions of his forwards during the course of a season and even games if need be.
Standing at 6’1, the lanky youngster is blessed with a colossal stride which he more often than not uses to get past defenders almost seamlessly. This characteristic makes him a useful weapon in making runs beyond the defensive line in an opposition medium or high block and a threat on counter-attacks. He does not only use his pace to beat his man but has the trickery to manœuvre his way out of tight spaces as he possesses great balance too; currently ranked 10th in Ligue 1 for successful dribbles per game with 3.2. Such a quality is an integral part of his game and more importantly a huge asset for Lyon as they mainly look to their wingers to break down defensive lines in the final third, highlighted by Barcola’s 10.34 progressive passes received/90 which in turn translates to 3.83 progressive carries/90.
To add to this, Barcola on average creates 1.3 chances in each game, illustrating his attacking prowess in different situations. His spatial awareness is equally excellent, as he constantly finds free pockets of space to make himself an option to receive the ball and advance into dangerous areas. Usually disciplined enough to stay out wide before receiving the ball, the Frenchman is at his best when he moves inside off the wing into the half-spaces, using plenty of small touches on the ball to lure his marker in before gliding past them. Here his creativity comes to the fore; as he constantly seeks to break the last line of defense in a variety of ways (7 chances created in Ligue 1). His proficiency to create passing lanes allows him to have a fairly high involvement in attacking patterns of play, averaging just over 20 passes at a 70.2% success rate per 90. Bradley can effortlessly switch from a languid presence moving between the lines to a more dynamic style with quick changes of tempo. It is this appreciation of time, smart positioning mixed with the intelligence of knowing when to stay on the ball, when to delay the pass and when to quickly speed up the play that gives him such variation.
Furthermore, he is not particularly dependent on his own ball carrying skill in every situation, but is adept at linking-up play through combinations with team-mates and can slide runners in using perfectly disguised reverse passes – tends to favor a quick give-and-go around the box to change the speed of the play which unbalances defenses. His ability to beat his marker also allows him to get nearly seven touches in the opposition box per 90, albeit he needs to improve on his end product in said situations by finishing more efficiently as his shot conversion rate is only around 13% managing to get off 2.2 shots per 90.
Every coach relishes an attacker who tracks back in defensive phases. Having said that, there are not many offensive minded players who like doing so on a regular basis. Barcola, however, makes an active effort to stay aware and involved when his team are out of possession, pitching in with 1.51 tackles,1.97 blocks and almost an interception per 90 – all equal or above the 97th percentile compared to other wingers. He has a unique pressing style, which along with his speed, allows him to make ball recoveries across the entire field. Despite being decent when closing down while facing an opponent, he seems to prefer to do so from behind, using his gangly legs to his advantage. While this kind of defensive style is slightly unconventional, it is an effective tactic as it often catches attackers unawares. The fact that he has only been cautioned once whilst putting in a very good defensive effort just goes to show his great anticipation and discipline when committing to winning the ball back.
The talented forward without a doubt has lots of exciting qualities to build on but he is not without flaws given his age. As expected, decision making at times is one such part of his game that could use some improvement but that usually comes with more game time and experience. If he can apply the composure he shows in his dribbling to executing chances, he will become even more difficult to stop. Heading is another area of his game that could benefit him if worked on, as he only wins around 38% of his aerial duels, which is rather low taking into account his height. One other thing considering he plays out wide would be his crossing and general delivery into the box, as this would add another dimension to the team’s capacity to score goals. His ball striking technique is good so it’s just a matter of practicing and possibly improving chemistry with potent forwards like Lacazette for one in the penalty area.
Still young, his minutes have been limited in the league since he made his debut vs Marseille last May as aforementioned but have gradually been increased to his benefit lately showing the faith the back room staff have in the player. With a recent contract extension until June 2026 and considering Lyon’s struggles, one might think rebuilding with smart scouting and providing a platform for academy products like Barcola at the forefront of it will be the way forward heading into the next few seasons. Perhaps proven players who in the past the manager might have believed to have the experience to help the club finish strong and push for Champions League qualification might not be the answer at this given time. As the signs look promising towards a renaissance and change in their fortune, Bradley will definitely be one to keep an eye on.