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Magic Mac Allister ‘smart’ and shining for Liverpool

Alexis Mac Allister had Roy Keane purring about Liverpool’s “sexy football” with his slick assist for Mohamed Salah’s winner against Brighton on Sunday. Impressing the former Man Utd captain while wearing a Liverpool shirt is not easy to do but Mac Allister is irresistible right now.

Across his last five games for Liverpool he has either scored or assisted a goal – he did both in the 5-1 thrashing of Sparta Prague – and his player-of-the-match performance against his former club at Anfield over the weekend was symbolic of his rising status. His penalty-kick equaliser against Man City could be decisive in the title race.

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Roy Keane was left purring by Mo Salah’s 65th-minute goal, which proved decisive for Liverpool against Brighton

Mac Allister has caught the eye throughout the campaign since his £55m move from the south coast last summer, but he is due credit for doing so in two different roles for Jurgen Klopp’s side.

Keane described him as a “smart footballer” and his tactical flexibility – on top of his technical skills – makes him a real asset for the Reds.

He began the season in an unfamiliar holding role. That had never been the masterplan – he was signed at the start of June on the back of his playmaking and attacking metrics at Brighton, which had seen him score 10 times in the Premier League last season.

But, at the end of July, offers from Saudi Arabia came in for Fabinho and Jordan Henderson and Mac Allister had to adapt. “It was clearly not the idea. But things changed,” said Mac Allister recently. “At the beginning of the season, we didn’t have a proper No 6 so I had to do the job. Jurgen likes it. So I try to do my best and it’s all about helping the team.”

He has certainly done that. Mac Allister’s impressive performance away at Man City was a rebuttal to critics who suggested his defensive skills would struggle against Pep Guardiola’s creators, while across the Premier League season Liverpool average 2.5 goals per game with him involved compared to 1.6 without. Their win percentage jumps by 10 points when he is there.

Alexis Mac Allister strains to challenge Jeremy Doku
Image: Mac Allister stood up to the test as a holding midfielder against Man City at the Etihad

A knee injury which kept him out of seven games in December highlighted his importance. In the last-gasp win over Crystal Palace and draws with Manchester United and Arsenal, Liverpool missed the fluidity he can bring in the middle of the park.

Mac Allister’s replacement at No 6, Wataru Endo – a more typical holding midfielder – found his feet during that run and ultimately helped Liverpool go top of the table on New Year’s Day with victory over Newcastle. But Mac Allister’s return in the 2-0 FA Cup win at Arsenal was a reminder of the South American’s quality.

Klopp summed up the attributes he brings to that deeper role ahead of the Man City game. “Is Macca a natural-born six? No. Did football develop in the last years in directions we couldn’t imagine before? Yes. Does that mean that a player like Macca can play the six? Definitely.

“It depends on how the whole team defends. If we do that properly then we have an incredible player in a central position who can find passes, a forward-thinking player.

“Do you want a player there who is just knocking players down and when we are in possession he thinks ‘not my job, give me a break’?”

Alexis Mac Allister has been a crucial performer for Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool this season
Image: Mac Allister has been a crucial performer for Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool this season

Looking back on those quotes, it makes it even more intriguing that – just two games on from Mac Allister starring in a 4-1 win over Chelsea – Klopp opted to move Mac Allister out of that exact role.

But, once again, Mac Allister’s position shift has come out of necessity.

Going into the week of the Carabao Cup final, Liverpool had five central midfielders in the treatment room. The absence of Dominik Szoboszlai, in particular, meant Klopp needed a solution in the No 8 position – and Mac Allister was pushed forwards against Burnley, Brentford and Luton.

The move – which included Endo coming back into defensive midfield following his return from the Asian Cup – was rewarded with a goal for Mac Allister at Brentford and he crossed for Cody Gakpo to head in against Luton after teeing up Virgil van Dijk with an earlier corner.

“When I was in Argentina I used to play as a No 10, so I know what the position means,” he said when he was asked about his well-timed run into the box and finish for Liverpool’s second goal in their 4-1 win in west London.

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Highlights from the Premier League match between Liverpool and Brighton

Initially the gains also had to be measured against the drawbacks of playing Mac Allister ahead of Endo. He was having less influence on the game as a whole when he started as a No 8, averaging fewer touches as he was edged into wider areas and losing the opportunity to run, pass or dribble his way into dangerous central areas from deep.

But as Keane says, Mac Allister is a smart footballer. He has found a way to be a key performer for Liverpool and even their biggest rivals have to applaud him.

A version of this article was published in February

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