What will Mac Allister bring to Liverpool's midfield?

By Alex Keble 8 Jun 2023
Alexis Mac Allister Liverpool transfer

Alex Keble says signing from Brighton could be the missing link to balance Reds' defence and attack

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In eight years under Jurgen Klopp no area of the pitch has been subject to constant evolution quite like Liverpool’s midfield.  

From the workman-like trio who underpinned the club’s first wave of success, to the Thiago Alcantara-led revival last year, to the more recent introduction of playmaker Harvey Elliott in the middle of the park, the various phases of Klopp’s Liverpool have centred on the centre. 

The signing of Brighton & Hove Albion’s Alexis Mac Allister signals the beginning of the next phase: a merging of what’s come before.  

At his best, Mac Allister has the press-evading and ball-recycling powers that made Georginio Wijnaldum such a crucial part of the team.

The deep-lying creativity that Thiago introduced at Anfield, and the final-third delivery required of Liverpool No 8's in Klopp’s latest tactical incarnation. 

That’s why Liverpool fans should get excited. Mac Allister may not obviously possess the game-shaping qualities of a superstar like Jude Bellingham, but his unusual profile could offer the Reds the best of both worlds: reinstating the solidity of the old Liverpool but embracing the attacking variations of the new. 

Mac Allister to restore defensive balance? 

Liverpool’s recurring defensive issues – being caught on the counter-attack, looking dishevelled where they once had full territorial control – stem from the absence of calming central midfielders who are able to press effectively or, recovering loose balls, work in tight spaces to prevent the ball being turned over. 

This energy used to come from Wijnaldum and a Jordan Henderson, but these days Liverpool are unable to show the same aggression and togetherness in pressing the ball – or the same easy control of possession when under pressure.  

Comparing stats from this season with last, including PPDA (passes per defensive action, which measures the intensity of a team’s pressing), shows how this midfield problem translates to wobbly-looking defending in their own third.

Mac Allister's stats for Brighton v Liverpool
  2021/22 2022/23
PPDA 9.9 10.4
% possession 62.7% 60.8%
Progressive passes/90 24 29

This issue has worsened since Klopp’s recent change to a 2-3-5 formation with Trent Alexander-Arnold (No 66) moving into central midfield.

In the lopsided 2-3-5, Liverpool have plenty of bodies in the final third, but not so many back to shield against the counter, making it more important than ever that their No 8 can cover the width of the pitch in counter-pressing, tackling, and keeping the ball in a tight spot. 

Liverpool team average positions v Leicester
Liverpool's average positions v Leicester City show the lopsided 2-3-5 formation the team became, with Alexander-Arnold (66) slipping into midfield

Mac Allister, operating as one of the central midfielders now pushed higher and wider by Alexander-Arnold’s new role, fits the bill nicely. 

He made 70 tackles in 2022/23, more than any Liverpool player (Fabinho made 65) and the 16th-most in the Premier League among midfielders. He also tackled 34 dribblers, the sixth-highest total recorded by a central midfielder.  

Mac Allister ranked ninth across all Premier League players for possessions won in the final, with 29. He also finished with 558 pressures, which, at Liverpool, was only bettered by the 669 of Mohamed Salah.

Perhaps most significantly of all, his total of 213 recoveries ranks him 20th in the Premier League. 

These are, however, just the raw defensive numbers. Mac Allister’s game is defined by his ability to weave away from trouble and keep things ticking.

This should significantly decrease the likelihood of Liverpool losing the ball and becoming vulnerable to breaks.  

A direct comparison with Wijnaldum’s 2019/20 title-winning season at Anfield suggests Mac Allister has the same capacity to recover the ball, sweep things up, and distribute intelligently.

Wijnaldum v Mac Allister comparison
  Wijnaldum 19/20 Mac Allister 22/23
Touches 59.7 68
Passing 45.8 50.3
Progressive distance 131.9 176.1
Carries 43.3 41.4
Progressive carries 2.27 2.15
Successful take-ons 1.26 1.3
Recoveries 5.8 6.6

But Mac Allister isn’t a Wijnaldum replacement, a Bellingham alternative, or a workmanlike option to recapture the 2019/20 glory days.  

In Klopp’s new formation there is greater expectation on the No 8s to contribute in the final third, and in Mac Allister he finally has someone to provide a goal threat without sacrificing anything in the middle or defensive thirds. 

Mac Allister the playmaker 

Mac Allister’s non-penalty expected goal (xG) ratio of 7.4 is the third best in the division among non-forwards, behind only Bruno Fernandes and Martin Odegaard.

It is also higher than all of Liverpool's players in 2022/23 with the exception of Salah (18.5) and Darwin Nunez (12.1). 

Mac Allister is also particularly skilled at threading through-balls, with his total of 15 such passes ranking 10th in the Premier League last season. He also produced 106 shot-creating actions, a total that would rank third among Liverpool players behind Salah (140)  and Alexander-Arnold (126), and 27th across the whole division. 

Put together, Mac Allister possess the qualities of both a No 8 and No 10, capable of filling Wijnaldum’s shoes to patch up Liverpool’s defensive concerns. He will also add to the penalty-box contributions required of their midfielders now that they have been repositioned a little higher up the pitch.  

This will include dribbling away from danger, carrying the ball through the lines with that low centre of gravity, and, Klopp will hope, allow Liverpool to return again to the relentless waves of pressure that characterised their 92-point haul in 2021/22.

See: Analysis of 2023/24 summer signings

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