The countdown to the opening Premier League games is on.
Championship winners Burnley take on Pep Guardiola’s treble-winning Manchester City in Friday’s curtain raiser. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, however, have something of a trickier test. Their opening game is away at a new look Chelsea, with Mauricio Pochettino at the helm. While the London club had a memorable campaign for all the wrong reasons last year, Stamford Bridge is still a tough place to go at the best of times. It’s even harder going there with no defensive midfielder.
That’s what Liverpool look likely to do this coming Sunday, with no replacement (yet) for Fabinho, and even if one were to be signed by the weekend, it’s unlikely that whoever that is would be ready to play right away. That leaves Klopp attempting to put a square peg in a round hole at the start of the season, which is less than an ideal start.
Liverpool’s final friendly – against Bundesliga new boys Darmstadt on Monday night – added another potential solution to the mix. Alexis Mac Allister started as the deepest-lying midfielder in Preston. It’s not a position unfamiliar to him (more on that later) having played in similar roles at both Brighton and for Argentina. With the caveat that this is a friendly, against opposition Liverpool should be expected to beat, I’ve taken a look at Mac Allister’s performance – alongside some appearances for Brighton – to see whether he can be effective in the role.
Liverpool dominated the ball on Monday night, so the natural place to start is how Mac Allister looked while the Reds were in possession. Below is his average position, via SofaScore.
As we can see from the above, Mac Allister (number 10) is the deepest of Liverpool’s midfield three (Szoboszlai number 8 and Gakpo number 18). He is also deeper than Trent Alexander-Arnold (number 66), the player than inverts from right-back to form a box midfield.
When Liverpool were in settled possession on the ball, Mac Allister slots into a the left-hand side of a midfield pivot – alongside Alexander-Arnold. Build-up tends to begin with Alisson, when the Brazilian has the ball, Mac Allister split the central defenders and dropped into the backline to receive the ball. This didn’t tend to happen on Monday night, but the Argentinians ability to receive ball under pressure and spin (again, more on this shortly), make this an ideal situation to build out from.
What tended to happen was that Alisson would roll the ball out to one of the two centre backs, who would shift the ball out wide or punch the ball into midfield. Mac Allister would then tuck in and around the halfway line to the left-hand side – forming the double pivot, constantly generating space for himself and being an ever-present passing option for Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson. This was one of Mac Allister’s standout abilities on the night (and through pre-season) – his ability to manufacture space for himself to receive the ball. The Santa Rosa born midfielder is constantly moving, walking on the blindside of men around him and then making sharp movements to create the space.
When Mac Allister did get on the ball, he was almost relentlessly looking to move the ball forwards and into Liverpool’s attacking unit. He was often too rushed in doing this, firing more than one pass out of play or straight to a blue shirt as he played a pass first time instead of taking a touch. His passing was still good on the night, he attempted the second most passes on the pitch (74) and completed the second most too (62) with a pass completion of 84%. There were times where he was reminiscent of the best of Gini Wijnaldum, constantly buzzing around the pitch and recycling the ball efficiently, getting it to the feet of his dangerous teammates. Even in the times were he misplaced passes, the intent and idea was there.
Another thing that stood out about Liverpool’s summer recruit was how positionally disciplined he was when the side were on the counterattack. He would hold his position and go no further than midway through the middle third of Darmstadt’s half – until Liverpool were in settled, camped out against a deep block, possession. Positional discipline is key to playing in Liverpool’s deeper role and there were signs that Mac Allister can do so. He’s also adept at navigating his way out of tight spaces and beating pressure. He can do this through nimble movements and through his quick one touch passing – which was evident against Darmstadt.
Out of Possession
Liverpool’s out of possession issues have been well documented in recent months. This is down to part system part personnel. The biggest issues personnel wise is Robertson having to play an unfamiliar role and the lack of anchor in midfield areas. These issues were not really solved with Mac Allister dropping deep, for several reasons. While in a settled out of possession shape, the Argentinian was the deepest of a midfield three.
On the positive side of things, Mac Allister was strong in his duels, winning three of the six he competed in. It’s an undervalued part of his game, he doesn’t hold back when going in to tackles and his aggressive nature means that he wins the ball more often than not when engaging in the tackle (2.22 attempts per 90 with 1.22 successful tackles). In a settled out of possession structure he is smart positionally and can cut off passing lanes without ever posting excellent defensive numbers (this also down to the fact he played for a possession dominant Brighton side).
The issues, however, come from when there is chaos in the game. Liverpool’s kryptonite is often defending the transition, and Mac Allister at the base of midfield only furthered those concerns – rather than alleviating any of them. As mentioned before, he was positioned deep inside of Darmstadt’s half when Liverpool had the ball. When Liverpool turned the ball over in attack, Mac Allister would intensely press the ball high up the pitch. While this is excellent if you can turn the ball over and catch the opposition out of position. Yet Darmstadt worked out how to beat this quite early on (without ever really threatening). Mac Allister would press and get tight to his man with the ball, who would then recycle the ball out to one of his defenders. They would then play the long ball over the top towards their attacker. This then leaves the defence isolated, and for as good as Konaté and van Dijk are in the air, if the ball is good enough down the channel or the attacker then it completely isolates Liverpool’s defence with Alexander-Arnold pushed up.
Can he do it?
Alexis Mac Allister has experience as a deep-lying midfielder, he played there 20 times for Brighton in his stint with the Seagulls. Yet this was often as part of a double pivot, alongside Moises Caicedo – someone who is an elite defensive-minded midfielder. Mac Allister in this system was deployed in a deep role, but wasn’t given an overwhelming amount of defensive responsibility. Caicedo would do the bulk of the defensive work, while Mac Allister dominated the touches, asked to progress the ball while in possession and break the lines. Positionally the role may be similar to that of what he’s played at Brighton, but the responsibilities are drastically different.
Alongside Alexander-Arnold, Mac Allister would be the one shouldering most of the defensive work – allowing the full back turned midfielder to dominate the touches and flex his elite passing range. This isn’t something that suits the Argentinian, he can handle himself defensively but it’s not an area he particularly excels in. You may get away with him there against teams where you’re going to have an extreme amount of the possession share, but even then there are concerns with being hit on the transition and over the top. Mac Allister is not aerially dominant whatsoever and could be targeted in that sense.
Against the very best sides it may make sense for Mac Allister to drop into a deeper role to help with progression if Liverpool had a top-end defensive midfielder to place him alongside, but the club do not currently have that profile within the squad. Playing him with an inverted Alexander-Arnold would get killed in transition.
The Alexis Mac Allister in the pivot experiment isn’t something I’d expect to see often this season and seems more a casualty of poor squad building so far this summer rather than something Klopp is keen on. It may be an option in the coming seasons dependent on recruitment, but I wouldn’t be confident going to Stamford Bridge on Sunday with him starting there.