Mac Allister on his rise to stardom, worldie goals, his World Cup hopes with Argentina, playing with Lionel Messi, Graham Potter's treatment on his Amex return and more; watch Brighton vs Aston Villa live on Sky Sports Premier League from 1pm on Sunday; kick-off 2pm
Sunday 13 November 2022 12:35, UK
Brighton midfielder Alexis Mac Allister has become a first-team regular with the high-flying Seagulls but it's been quite a journey - and now he's embarking on a World Cup campaign alongside Lionel Messi.
The 23-year-old arrives relaxed for his exclusive interview with Sky Sports after a quick breakfast and a cup of South American mate tea. Humble and engaged, Mac Allister is one of the Premier League's rising stars - but how did he get here?
Mac Allister has only been a regular at Brighton since midway through last season, but he has been on elite radars for most of his professional career - making his senior international debut three years ago while plying his trade in Buenos Aires.
The Seagulls had snapped him up for just £7m six months earlier and loaned him back to Argentinos Juniors for the remainder of the campaign, before sanctioning a six-month loan spell with Boca Juniors at the start of 2019/20.
So was there interest from other clubs in Europe's top leagues back then? "Not really," he reveals. "I was playing with Argentinos Juniors and Brighton came to Argentina.
"They spoke with me and my agent, and said I was one of the best U21 players with the best numbers - because Brighton work a lot with numbers and statistics. I made the right choice to come here."
Mac Allister was raised in a football family, with his father, Carlos, playing for Argentinos, Boca, Racing Club and Argentina. His two older brothers, Kevin and Francis, are also current top-flight footballers in his homeland.
"I was playing football [almost from birth]," he says. "Everything is about football with my family, we watch it and talk about it. We love football.
"Growing up, I watched Juan Roman Riquelme because I supported Boca Juniors and he played there. He was amazing. I really liked Pablo Aimar, too, and of course, Messi is a hero as well."
They spoke with me and my agent, and said I was one of the best U21 players with the best numbers - because Brighton work a lot with numbers and statistics.
The Argentine signed a new deal last month to extend his stay at the Amex until at least 2025. So what convinced him to commit his immediate future to the south-coast club?
"The people around the club are amazing, my team-mates, the new manager and the new staff," he says. "These are the some of the things that made me comfortable here.
"Of course, also the desire to win and improve as a club and as a team as well. It's a great club and you can see it in the table. We are in a good place now and playing really good football."
Did the vibrant seaside town's lifestyle also play a factor? "To be honest, I don't do much! I just go home, go to the sofa, drink some mate and watch football and listen people speak about football.
"I am a football fan, I always try to see where I can improve. Try to rest and be professional and, of course, enjoy being with my girlfriend and family when they are here."
The midfielder has Scottish and Irish descent and has a similar surname as former Premier League star and Scotland international Gary McAllister. He jokes: "When we played against Villa, he came to me and we had a chat about the surname and everything - but we don't know if we have any relation!"
Like his namesake, Alexis is growing a reputation for scoring wonder goals - but the numbers suggest his greatest strength is actually in his defensive work.
Mac Allister ranks third in the Premier League for winning back possession in the middle third of the pitch this season, surpassed only by defensive midfielders Declan Rice and Rodri.
It doesn't stop there: he also ranks fifth for tackles across all positions and 14th in the division for winning 50/50 duels. Among midfielders, only four players have outmuscled more opponents.
"I developed that part of my game here in Brighton, with Graham [Potter], especially," he adds. "The staff work really well on defensive phases, so I learnt a lot and I'm very grateful to them because I think I'm a better player [as a result]."
The 23-year-old cemented a regular place in the starting XI after netting a match-winning double against Everton last season, with the second goal nominated as a goal-of-the-month contender.
"That game was a turning point," he admits. "I was not playing much that season, but on December 26th, against Brentford, we had a couple of players out with Covid so I had a chance against them. My family was here, so that helped me to play and enjoy. Then we played Everton and I scored two goals. It was a really nice day."
And then there was the 5-2 win over Leicester in September this year when the Argentine was denied a hat-trick when VAR chalked off a sensational goal-of-the-season contender after Enock Mwepu was adjudged to be in an offside position when the free-kick was played - before Mac Allister rifled home a second ball spectacularly on the half-volley.
"That disallowed goal was the best goal I will ever score," he believes. " I don't think I will ever score a goal like that again but, unfortunately, they disallowed it."
However, he responded to that disappointment minutes later by dispatching a penalty, before capping a man-of-the-match display with a Kevin De Bruyne-esque free-kick.
Brighton's rise up the rungs was achieved with an expansive, progressive and attractive style of play under former manager Graham Potter - who was prised from the Seagulls to replace Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea back in September, with former Sassuolo and Shakhtar Donetsk manager Roberto De Zerbi drafted to replace the outgoing Englishman.
"There are a few differences [between the managers]," he says. "Both like to press high and build from the back, but Roberto wants to understand who is pressing, to then know where the spare man is. That's something we must work on. We are getting to that idea.
"With man management, maybe Graham was a bit 'nicer'," he says without criticism of either. "They are different, both really good managers. I'm really happy with Roberto as well.
"[I drop deeper under] Roberto because he wants us to build from the back and when they press, try to move quickly to goal. So maybe we play deeper to attract the pressure and then [counter]."
Potter's first return to his former club with Chelsea proved to be a rude awakening, on and off the pitch, with the Seagulls running out 4-1 winners and large sections of home fans booing their former manager and former player Marc Cucurella - who joined the Blues in a £63m deal last summer.
"I can understand why the fans did that because it's football, but I don't think Graham [or Cucurella] deserves to be [booed] because he was an important person for this club."
Brighton moved to their home in Falmer 11 years ago after years of issues at the Goldstone Ground, then at Gillingham and then at the Withdean Stadium.
Since then, the club has blasted through barriers: from the third tier, winning promotion from the Championship in 2017, and capping four successive campaigns in the Premier League with a top-half finish last term. Indeed, as the graphic below reveals, the Seagulls have rarely dropped out of the top half since the start of last campaign.
So are Brighton still punching above their weight, or are they now an established top-half side... and is there scope for one more push towards the elite rungs?
"The goal is to play at the top of this league," he explains. "We know it's not easy. We are doing well, trying to improve, every day and to finish as high as we can.
"We are in good form, the club is in a good moment, but we have to keep going because this league is not easy and you have to always be at 100 per cent."
All eyes turn to the World Cup after the weekend, and Mac Allister will be part of Argentina's squad in Qatar.
To play with Messi is a dream. It was amazing the first time. To be honest, off the pitch, I don't speak too much with him because I'm a very shy guy and I don't want to bother him!
After a two-and-a-half-year exile from the national side, Mac Allister earned a recall for the final World Cup qualification games in March this year and has played in five of their six games since.
"I think Brazil is a very strong national team, France and England has some very good players, but there are a lot of very good teams. It will be a very hard World Cup and I don't think we are favourites, but it will be hard for everyone.
"To play with Messi is a dream. It was amazing the first time. To be honest, off the pitch, I don't speak too much with him because I'm a very shy guy and I don't want to bother him! He's really nice, quiet, he has good relations with everyone there, so it's amazing to have him, that he's Argentinian and hopefully it will not be his last World Cup."
First things first, and Mac Allister and Co will host Aston Villa in front of the Sky cameras this Sunday, where three points would ensure that - bar a huge goal difference swing - Brighton enter the break ahead of powerhouse rivals Liverpool and Potter's Chelsea.