Alexis Mac Allister on his rise to stardom, worldie goals, the World Cup and playing with Lionel Messi; his thoughts on the World Cup and more; This article was first published in November 2022
Monday 19 December 2022 08:07, UK
Brighton midfielder Alexis Mac Allister has become a first-team regular with Argentina in Qatar, but it's been quite a journey...
The 23-year-old arrived relaxed for his exclusive interview with Sky Sports last month after a quick breakfast and a cup of South American mate tea - on the day his inclusion in the World squad was confirmed.
Mac Allister has earned five successive starts in Qatar since the shock 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia - winning all five and scoring his first goal for Argentina in the 2-0 win over Poland and is set to face France in the final on Sunday.
Humble and engaged, the midfielder is one of the Premier League's rising stars and, now, acknowledged on the elite world stage - but how did he get here?
Mac Allister has only been a regular at Brighton since midway through last season, but 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."
The Argentine signed a new deal in October 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 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."
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.
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 to 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 fourth for tackles across all positions and 15th in the division for winning 50/50 duels. Among midfielders, only six players have outmuscled more opponents.
"I developed that part of my game 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]."
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 played in five of their six games leading up to the World Cup. He now appears to be a mainstay in the Argentina starting XI.
At the World Cup, Lionel Scaloni has deployed Mac Allister in a slightly more advanced role with fewer defensive responsibilities - but the Argentines have also been largely dominant and pushed high upfield since the opening game of the tournament.
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!
"I think Brazil is a very strong national team, France and England have some very good players, but there are a lot of very good teams," he adds. "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, so it's amazing to have him, that he's Argentinian and, hopefully, it will not be his last World Cup."
Indeed, at 35, it appears this could be Messi's last dance on the world stage, looking to bow out with the prize which has eluded him for his entire career and, perhaps, finally ending the 'GOAT' debate.
Mac Allister is at the other end of his career journey, but winning the World Cup, alongside Messi, as a first-team regular in his first tournament would be a perfect start... and a feat few achieve.
Follow the Argentina vs France on Sky Sports digital platforms on Sunday; kick-off 3pm