Alexis Mac Allister divides opinion at Liverpool but he could be the missing link to getting the Reds thriving again.
Liverpool played out an extremely frustrating 0-0 draw with a Manchester United side that came to Anfield looking not to concede – and who can really blame them, it’s constantly bordering on full-on crisis at Old Trafford this season. Yet from the perspective of Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool fans alike, it was an opportunity missed.
Arsenal’s win at home to Brighton earlier in the day meant they had leapfrogged the Reds by two points before kick-off, and the relentless Aston Villa came from behind to send Liverpool third (before a point sent them ahead of the Birmingham side on goal difference).
It was my first game at Anfield for a men’s first-team game since 2012 – which just so happened to also be a 0-0, against Stoke City. So of course, it ended goalless again, sorry everyone!
The Reds created 2.38 expected goals to Erik Ten Hag’s sides 0.75. On another day, one of the 34(!) shots that Liverpool had goes in. Despite that, they still look disjointed, and the truth is, they have for the last few games. The combination of fatigue, injuries and general rotation has left areas of the starting XI looking dysfunctional. Against United on Sunday, it was the midfield and misfiring attack that was suffering.
One key injury in the last two league fixtures has been the much-discussed Alexis Mac Allister. Debate has raged on all season about the clubs’ lack of a true defensive midfielder, and the choice not to bring one in during a summer that saw four midfielders arriving on Merseyside.
During pre-season, the Argentinian was used as we saw him so often for Brighton, as one of the more advanced central midfielders, yet when the season started, and the transfer window shut it became clear that the former Argentinos Juniors player was Klopp’s go-to choice for his sides deepest midfielder.
It wasn’t a role unfamiliar to Mac Allister. It is a role he has performed for Brighton several times, and even back in his days in the Superliga Argentina. It was Roberto De Zerbi’s arrival on the South Coast that saw a more permanent shift into a deeper role, identifying the benefit of him dropping to receive the ball and his ability to spin opponents and progress the ball up the pitch.
To offset any defensive concerns (which we’ll come onto) the Italian manager partnered him mainly with Moises Caicedo – someone known for his ability to win the ball back. It worked, for the most part, and the Seagulls qualified for Europe for the first time in their history.
Which brings us on to this season. While on a FotMob or a Sky Sports formation graphic it may look like Mac Allister is playing as the lone defensive midfielder in the side, that’s not entirely accurate. It’s very clear by now what the plan of Jürgen Klopp and Pep Ljinders is. When Liverpool are building up, Trent Alexander-Arnold inverts from his right-back position and forms a double pivot in midfield alongside another, which has tended to be Liverpool’s #10.
This has presented Mac Allister with a different kind of midfield partner. Of the two, Mac Allister is considered to shield more defensive responsibility. His job in possession is to provide a situation of which Alexander-Arnold’s generational passing ability can take centre stage.
Despite complaints about his performances, Mac Allister has been extremely effective in doing what he’s asked to do, sacrificing some of his own game to benefit the team. The influence he has on the side has only been displayed more by his absence against Crystal Palace and Manchester United.
First of all, let’s look at his positioning so far this season.
Above is heatmap for the Premier League season so far, via SofaScore. This isn’t the sort of visual you’d expect to see from a more ‘traditional’ defensive midfielder. This is the heatmap of a player who is A) drifting towards the left-hand side of the pitch and B) given licence to roam.
What Mac Allister does so well is drop into the pockets of space in his own half, usually towards the left, and gives one of the defenders the angle to play the pass into him, before he swivels and moves Liverpool up the pitch. He touches the ball more than any other Liverpool midfielder on average (78.2 per ninety) and receives more passes than any of his colleagues in the middle of the park (58.3 per ninety). He also attempts the most passes in central midfield (67.8 per ninety) and is, alongside Dominik Szoboszlai, a progressive machine in terms of his passing – completing 6.67 progressive passes per ninety.
What Mac Allister does so efficiently is what I’ve mentioned above – he finds space in deep areas and is able to turn and get the ball to the more influential in attack players. That might seem like quite a small thing, but it can make the world of difference to how quickly you can build-up, and the quicker you can build-up can often mean that you are able to break down low blocks, something Liverpool come up against on a near-weekly basis.
With his absence against United – who were set up to play for a point and potentially do something on the counter – it was particularly felt. For large portions of the game, Liverpool’s double pivot was Alexander-Arnold and Wataru Endo. Endo is more of a defensive-minded player, which suits the role, but he’s much slower on the ball than Mac Allister, and even if he can generate the space to receive the ball from a Virgil van Dijk or Kostas Tsimikas, he is slow to turn and doesn’t release the pass quick enough.
This allowed United to get back into their defensive structure and sit with ten men behind the ball to frustrate Liverpool. While Alexander-Arnold is elite at so many things, he isn’t a natural midfielder, and he struggles at receiving the ball in the middle of the park and turning with it.
Again, against United that was clear. He was too often not generating space for himself, positioning himself behind Scott McTominay who had clearly been instructed to push up into the space where Trent likes to have the ball. This frustrated Liverpool and Alexander-Arnold, and he couldn’t really get into any passing rhythm throughout the game because of it.
With Mac Allister there it allows Klopp with more of a duel threat of getting the ball out of Liverpool’s middle third quicker and into the feet of a Díaz, Salah or Szoboszlai. If Alexander-Arnold is being marked out of the game then Mac Allister is more than capable of bringing the ball forward himself or punching it into the final third. Teams then have to adjust and Alexander-Arnold becomes less focused on, which opens up the space for him to do his thing.
Any defensive fragility that may come with the World Cup winner as the deepest midfielder has been pretty much offset by what he can offer in build-up this season. He is a key reason why the club are scoring so many goals and why they have only lost one league game. What he does is so key to the system, and getting through the next weeks without him, especially with big games like Arsenal coming up will be a struggle.
So, no, Alexis Mac Allister is not a natural defensive midfielder, and there will be question marks over that side of the game with him in the team. But what he brings to this team is such a net positive in an attacking sense, and Liverpool are missing him.