Alexis Mac Allister is an exciting 21-year-old Argentine attacking midfielder that has recently signed for Brighton & Hove Albion in the Premier League from Boca Juniors. The attacker’s recent performance in the CONMEBOL pre-Olympic tournament, where he helped Argentina qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (now postponed) and scored four goals (2nd top goal scorer of the tournament) in five games, has caught the attention of the football world. This scout report will dive into Mac Allister’s playing style and the tactics at Brighton through an in-depth tactical analysis, and why the youngster could be an excellent fit for the struggling English club.
Creativity playing in-between the lines
As a natural free-floating player that likes to find different pockets of space to initiate attacks from, Mac Allister is most dangerous when he is utilised as a central attacking midfielder or second striker. During his time at Boca Juniors and the Under-23 Argentina National team, both of which played in a 4-2-3-1 setup, Mac Allister was cast in such roles and this really allowed both teams to get the most out of abilities.
Once his team is in possession, Mac Allister will often attempt to stretch the defence by making quick dummy runs forward towards the opponent’s goal. Although at times the long-pass is an option which Mac Allister can run unto, most times these are disguised runs that serve the purpose of pushing the backline away to widen the gap between them and the midfield line.
Having a pacey striker that plays in front of Mac Allister also helps achieve this effect if he can initiate long-runs. Once the lines are stretched, Mac Allister begins to operate by popping in and out of pockets vertically and horizontally. If he can receive in these areas and reads that there is numerical superiority in the sector, he will attempt to turn and launch the attack. In situations where he feels a midfielder or defender is too close to him, he will quickly return the ball within 1-2 touches or look to lay off a quick combination to break the pressure.
By dashing forward, Mac Allister creates a gap behind himself to check back into and receive a pass.
As the centre-back advances the ball, Mac Allister shows himself in-between the two central midfielders. As the left central midfielder works to close off the passing lane, Mac Allister shifts over horizontally into the wider gap just created from his movement and drives the attack forward with a quick combination to the striker.
If the full-back advances the ball, Mac Allister plays the vertical gaps and although he didn’t receive here, he makes himself available in the gap near the referee as the opponent’s central midfielder chooses to close the gap closer to his goal.
In sequences where the centre-midfielders are split and possession is closer to the middle of the park, Mac Allister will take the opportunity to drift into this gap, again playing quickly if he draws too close of a mark on his back. However, one of the main differences in these areas is that if Mac Allister returns the ball after receiving instead of spinning off, he’ll come deeper into his own half, open his body up to the field and ask for it again. This inevitably draws more opponents closer and sets up possible combination play to break the pressure or a long diagonal pass to a wide player to change the point of attack.
Typically, as matches progress, opponents will try to squeeze these gaps out of the play and form more compact shapes to limit the pockets Mac Allister can operate in. An intelligent mechanism that Mac Allister uses to bypass this block is to begin to drift out into wider positions. By receiving in these wide areas, the Argentine is able to create numerical superiority on the wings and slip crafty balls into the runs of the winger or full-back. If the ball doesn’t reach him and begins to travel to the opposite side, the opponents are forced to shift their shape towards the other side which reopens the gaps for Mac Allister to poke into.
Mac Allister sees his central midfielders are stretched and moves into the space they created, he draws no aggressive mark here, can turn and now has several options to launch the attack.
In this sequence, instead of turning Mac Allister quickly returns the ball and adjusts his body to face the rest of the pitch and gets it back. Here he can control the rhythm of the game, electing to go forward if the situation is favourable or, like in this instance, retain position and re-build for a better opening.
Mac Allister drifts wide to wait for an opening as the opponent’s shape is limiting the gaps. As the play shifts to the other side and runs are made forward, the opponent’s midfield line is opened up and creates a pocket for Mac Allister to drop into.
A threat from outside and inside the box
Apart from being a solid passer, averaging around ~38 passes per 90 minutes (~80% completion rate) in the Argentine League for Boca Juniors of which ~14 are forward passes (~71% completion rate), Mac Allister has demonstrated himself to have a nose for goal and has diversified his ways of scoring.
From outside the box, unlike many central attacking midfielders that try to squeeze one more pass, Mac Allister is a very active shooter, with impressive range and is deadly accurate, scoring 3 of his 4 goals in the CONMEBOL pre-Olympic tournament from outside the box. The Argentine creates these shooting opportunities in many different ways, but a very clever way he does it is to let the play advance ahead of him. As defenders get sucked into the action and forget about him, Mac Allister will look to get into the little spaces ahead in between players and get a shot off.
The young attacker has also established himself as a set-piece specialist, driving impressive deliveries from corners and is a marksman on free-kicks. Having a player that can consistently deliver quality from dead balls should be a strong asset for his new club Brighton, who have only scored two goals from direct free-kicks and three from corners this season.
Alternatively, in situations where wingers are well-positioned to beat their man 1 v 1 and get a cross off, Mac Allister is quick to crash the box and pounce on any loose ball. This again is unlike many other central attacking midfielders who often prefer to hang around the edge of the box in case the ball pops out but are often less aggressive of getting into the box for the cross. Having these striker-like tendencies in addition to his distribution qualities makes Mac Allister a multifaceted attacker and all the more dangerous with or without possession of the ball.
Mac Allister lets the play advance ahead of him and as the defender turns his back to focus on the ball carrier, he quickly gets around into the space to shoot and score in the first image and hit the post off a shot in the second image.
The full-back is able to beat his man and get a cross off. As soon as Mac Allister reads that the full-back can beat his man and deliver a ball in, he crashes the box and manages to get a flick-on to the far post player for a quality chance on goal.
Again, Mac Allister reads that the wide player has the opportunity to deliver a ball in, makes a run into the box and is able to score.
Effective cover shadowing but can improve defensive positioning
As the first line of defence, Mac Allister is effective in applying a cover shadow approach when pressing the centre-backs as his positioning often results in the centre-back having to shift the ball out wide and rarely allows for passes to go through him easily. Once the ball shifts over to a side, Mac Allister correctly avoids spending unnecessary energy chasing and falls back off into his team’s defensive shape as the opposite side presses.
However, once the first line is bypassed, Mac Allister can be hesitant to pick up a mark or reposition himself in an area in which he is in front of the ball. This unbalance can quickly break the shape of the team, expose gaps, or lead to 2 v 1 situations as players are forced out of a natural position to challenge the ball. Luckily the fix is a simple one, requiring only that the Argentine actively try to keep the ball in front of him if he is bypassed. By simply working to occupy areas, particularly central zones, Mac Allister can help force combinations away to the wings.
Mac Allister angles his approach to eliminate the central midfielder as an option and ultimately forces the centre-back to swing the ball to the right full-back.
The first line is bypassed and the opponent’s centre-midfield can swing the ball to the other central midfield player. Mac Allister is caught out of position and attempts to work back. Argentina’s winger is forced out of his position to pick up the opponent’s central midfielder with the ball. The ball is ultimately played out wide into a 2 v 1 situation.
Why Brighton need a player like Alexis Mac Allister
Brighton currently sits in 15th place in the EPL, two points on top of the regulation zone, and is tactically deploying an attractive possession-based 4-3-3 system. This can be confirmed not only by observing their style of play but through a simple quantitative analysis. Within the Premier League, Brighton is currently ranked 5th in overall possession, ahead of sides like Leicester City, Manchester United, and Tottenham. However, if we take a measure of effectiveness by dividing the number of goals scored by possession share, we find that Brighton is actually one of the least effective teams in the Premier League in terms of goals scored per possession share, ranking 18th.
Upon review of Brighton’s build-up play, we also observe that the team’s most effective way of advancing the ball forward is by quickly shifting the ball from side-to-side and having the wingers or full-backs drive the attack down the flanks. It’s apparent that there is limited combination through the centre zones and that attacks can become somewhat predictable with little creativity or variance. However, by having a player like Mac Allister that can provide dynamic options by exploiting gaps, Brighton will be able to create a better end-product from its possession. Brighton’s excellent ball retrievers, Davy Pröpper and Yves Bissouma, will also be a perfect complement to Mac Allister’s style, as the Argentine will be able to focus his efforts higher up the pitch during the build-up phases.
The ideal gap that Mac Allister likes to operate in is unoccupied during Brighton’s build-up. Pröpper instead shifts the ball to Bissouma, who then swings the ball to the other side, failing to exploit the central gap.
Brighton has done well bringing in a player like Mac Allister, who should be able to add a different dimension to Brighton’s attack, as briefly seen during his debut against Wolves. During his short ten-minute debut, the Argentine immediately began implementing his style of play: moving in and out of the lines, seeking little combinations and looking to create shooting opportunities from distance.
Brighton should be an even more exciting side to watch if the club can find a way to improve its end-product from its high possession rates, and Alexis Mac Allister might just be the answer.