Liverpool have started their midfield rebuild by signing a World Cup winner, but that’s not the only reason why Alexis Mac Allister should suit Jürgen Klopp’s team.
In July 2000, Liverpool raised some eyebrows when they signed 35-year-old midfielder Gary McAllister from Coventry City. In his first season, McAllister played a key part in Liverpool winning a League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup treble, with Steven Gerrard later crediting the former Leeds United man as having a big role in his own development as a player before working with him as a manager at Rangers and Aston Villa.
The Kop adored “Gary Mac” and would sing about how they loved his goals and his “baldy head”.
Liverpool’s newest signing does not yet have a “baldy head”, so the lyrics will need amending, but Reds fans now have another Mac Allister to cheer for, two decades on. Alexis Mac Allister has arrived from Brighton and Hove Albion as Jürgen Klopp’s first signing of the summer.
It seems Mac Allister was the main man Liverpool turned to after reportedly backing out of a planned move for Real Madrid-bound Borussia Dortmund and England star Jude Bellingham, and it’s understandable why. The 24-year-old was one of the best midfielders in the Premier League this season, and even won the World Cup with Argentina halfway through the campaign.
So why did Klopp want to bring him to Merseyside?
After a 2021-22 campaign in which only a dramatic final-day Manchester City comeback against Aston Villa and Thibaut Courtois’ career-defining performance for Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League final stopped Liverpool from winning a quadruple, it was something of a surprise to see Klopp’s men plummet to a point where they were mid-table and out of every cup competition by mid-March this time around. A run of improved form towards the end of the 2022-23 campaign took them up to fifth, but it was ultimately a below-par showing.
Many blamed the midfield, who seemed to struggle to control games the way they used to and regularly failed to stop opposition players from strolling through the middle, and it seems that’s the area Klopp is most keen on fixing this summer.
Liverpool did not compete in many duels as a team, with only Manchester City, Manchester United and, funnily enough, Brighton recording fewer in the Premier League. No team had a worse record when it came to winning said duels, however, with the Reds’ 47.5% success rate putting them bottom of the pile. That was across the whole team, but one player aside, Liverpool’s midfield really seemed to struggle in this area.
Of Klopp’s options in the middle, only Thiago Alcântara (57.7%) won a higher percentage of league duels than Mac Allister (57.3%), with no other Liverpool midfielder winning even 50%.
Mac Allister has primarily been a more attack-minded player so far in his career but has shown his versatility for club and country. He’s even proven himself to be a potent ball-winner when tasked with doing so.
Despite only winning possession 149 times in 33 Premier League games in the 2021-22 season, Mac Allister did so an impressive 64 times in the six league games of 2022-23 for Brighton before manager Graham Potter left for Chelsea, which was the most in the league at that point. It appeared to be a deliberate move from Potter to get more from the player and to make use of his well-roundedness. As the Premier League halted for the World Cup, Mac Allister had recovered possession for his team 124 times in 14 games, still the second most in the league at the time, behind only West Ham United’s Declan Rice (139). Roberto De Zerbi did not immediately revert Mac Allister back to a more attacking role, but he did after the World Cup. In his 21 Premier League appearances after success in Qatar, Mac Allister won possession just 89 times, ranking him 95th in the league in that period, and seeing a reduction per 90 from 8.9 to 4.9. This appeared to be due to a role change rather than a drop in performance, with the graphic below showing how different his touch zones were before and after De Zerbi’s arrival.
He also looks after the ball well. There is some irony in the fact that a man whose brother is named Kevin Mac Allister is so adept at preventing opponents from robbing possession. The now former Brighton midfielder does not use toy cars and paint cans tied with string to ward off threats, though (yet). He utilises high-level decision-making and positioning (which Macaulay Culkin’s character also did in Home Alone, to be fair).
Something interesting that came out of our initial look at Mac Allister was how similar he is to a player Klopp knows very well: İlkay Gündoğan. Of course, the Germany midfielder is working wonders at Man City these days, but he was once a key part of Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund team. Mac Allister had similar passing accuracy (87.2% to 88.2%) and total carries (390 to 387) to Gündoğan in the Premier League in 2022-23, while both recorded 12 goal involvements each, albeit none of the latter’s eight goals came from the spot, and six of Mac Allister’s 10 did. While it only covers certain statistics, you can see from our player radar comparison below how similar their output was. Of all players in Europe’s top-five leagues, no-one profiled as closely to Mac Allister as Gündoğan (85%).
The Argentine is already comfortable playing in a team that sees plenty of the ball – with only City (65.2%) and Liverpool (60.6%) averaging more than Brighton’s 60.5% possession in Premier League games this season. The question remains how Klopp will set up his midfield next season, though, or if he will continue with the experimental formation that saw Trent Alexander-Arnold play a hybrid role between midfield and right-back. Either way, you feel Mac Allister is versatile enough to adapt.
The trio of James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keïta all exited Anfield at the end of the season, but Mac Allister’s arrival might actually be more of a replacement for someone who left in 2021. There is a belief among some Liverpool fans that a failure to adequately replace Georginio Wijnaldum ultimately led to the decline of the team, despite their success the following season. While certainly not as close to Wijnaldum in style as he is to Gündoğan, Mac Allister does have some similar traits.
As mentioned in our original article on Mac Allister last month, when comparing his performances this season to Wijnaldum’s numbers in Liverpool’s 2019-20 title-winning campaign, they both recorded four non-penalty goals and tallied similar carries (12.2 to 12.0) and dribbles attempted per 90 (2.1 to 2.3). However, Mac Allister has better dribble success (65.7% to 53.2%), while he also competed in more duels per 90 (10.7 to 9.1) and enjoyed greater success (57.3% to 47.2%).
Mac Allister registered 10 Premier League goals for Brighton in 2022-23, though as already noted, six of those were penalties. That’s not to say this couldn’t come in useful for Liverpool, who saw Mohamed Salah miss two of his four league spot-kicks. Mac Allister could put pressure on the Egyptian to take over responsibilities, though it will likely be quite a fight to convince Salah to step back from these duties.
It was not just in the Premier League that Mac Allister showed his abilities. He did so on the biggest stage just a few months ago as he lived the dream that some of the game’s greatest players were never able to.
During the 2022 World Cup for Argentina, only Rodrigo De Paul won possession more often for the world champions (42 vs. 40) than Mac Allister. But he was not simply a ball winner for his national side. Only Lionel Messi (17) and Ángel Di María (nine) created more chances from open play than his eight, while he had a better passing accuracy than Chelsea’s £100m+ signing Enzo Fernández (89.0% to 87.6%), proving how comfortable he is in possession in big games.
Messi (seven) was the one Argentina player who created as many as his two big chances in Qatar, while only Messi, Di María and Julián Álvarez took as many as his seven non-blocked shots. He also provided the assist for Di María to give Argentina a 2-0 lead in the final against France, showing how effective Mac Allister was on both sides of the ball.
How Mac Allister fits will depend on the formation Klopp goes with, but that he is the first player through the door in what’ll likely be a summer of significant investment in the Liverpool midfield suggests he’s the one the manager wanted more than any other, and it’s easy to see why.
He may not resemble his near namesake, Gary McAllister, but if he has a similar impact on Liverpool’s midfield to that of the experienced Scot back in 2000-01, the club’s fans will likely take Ally Mac to their hearts just as keenly, “baldy head” or not.