Arne Slot has clear transfer priority and two players becoming Liverpool undroppables

Slot facing transfer reality

A sure sign this wasn’t the most important game of Liverpool’s season came with 15 minutes of normal time remaining. But of the four substitutions Jurgen Klopp made in one fell swoop, it was the removal of Wataru Endo that ultimately took a hard-earned victory away from the visitors.

While Endo hadn’t enjoyed the best first half, after the break he was pivotal in Liverpool wresting control and provided greater cover for a defence that had been increasingly exposed in the first half.

With the Japanese gone, though, Alexis Mac Allister, who already appeared jaded and under-par, was left to quell Villa’s late charge with inevitable results. Having been punished for a loose pass that initiated the home side’s first goal, the Argentine then lost the ball for Villa’s momentum-shifting second.

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But Mac Allister, despite filling in admirably for much of the first half of the campaign, isn’t a defensive midfielder by trade. Endo can't play every game. And with Stefan Bajcetic – here an unused substitute – still at the start of his burgeoning career, incoming boss Arne Slot will know exactly where his squad can immediately be strengthened.

For all the talk of missed chances this season, with just one game remaining Liverpool have now only scored one goal fewer than the whole of their title-winning campaign of 2019/20. Defensively, however, it's just one clean sheet in 15 in all competitions.

To take that final step back up to lasting the duration as championship challengers, the Reds need to go back to basics – starting with a new recognised number six.

Duo face season regret

While the exhausted Alexis Mac Allister will undoubtedly be among those relieved the season is almost done, both Cody Gakpo and Harvey Elliott would surely prefer if the campaign was only just getting started.

The duo have been – along with Andy Robertson, who missed out here with a minor injury – arguably the Reds’ best performers over the past six weeks.

And each made a telling impact on this game. Elliott’s goal contributions have increased markedly since the New Year and he maintained that form, his cross inside 90 seconds fumbled home by Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez before his precise dead-ball delivery invited Jarell Quansah to head in his first career Premier League goal.

In between, Gakpo moved on to 16 for the season by tapping in a cross from Joe Gomez, the versatile defender once again deputising impressively for Robertson at left-back.

But Gakpo’s sprint for the finish line and the flourish from Elliott will surely offer Slot serious food for thought. They are proving they can be part of the next Liverpool era.

Villa Park the right venue

It was wholly appropriate that Jurgen Klopp’s away adventure should come to an end at Villa Park. The stadium, after all, has hosted some of the most memorable, mystifying and frankly maddening road trips for Liverpool during the past decade.

Chief among them was the dramatic victory in November 2019 when late goals from Robertson and Sadio Mane earned a 2-1 triumph that ultimately set the Reds on their way to a first championship in 30 years.

At the other end of the spectrum came the 7-2 thrashing behind closed doors less than a year later, as comical as it was costly. Plus, of course, there was the match Liverpool were compelled to play without their senior team in the League Cup quarter-final in December 2019 and then, the next season, it was Villa who were without their first-choice side in a coronavirus-affected FA Cup third round tie.

And while there was nothing riding on it for the visitors – third place was guaranteed after title challengers Manchester City and Arsenal won at the weekend – this fixture will again have a place in the annals.

Now there’s just Anfield next Sunday. Bring your hankies, folks – it’s going to be emotional.