Jürgen Klopp offered a masterclass in rotation as his gamble in refreshing Liverpool’s quadruple-pursuing side paid off with a vital victory at Newcastle.
Naby Keïta’s 19th-minute goal ensured they continue to breathe down Manchester City’s necks at the top of the Premier League. Klopp juggled his priorities in a game sandwiched between a two-leg Champions League semi-final with Villarreal.
“The changes were cool, the selection game is so important” said Liverpool’s manager after making five changes to the side that started last week’s home win against Villarreal. “The squad is the only reason why we are where we are. All the boys buy completely into the situation.
“The boys that didn’t come on, you should have seen their faces on the final whistle. The group is exceptional, exceptionally talented and really good characters.”
With Mohamed Salah and Thiago Alcântara among those starting on the bench, Klopp included the 36-year-old James Milner in his starting XI and was left saluting his “role model” as Newcastle’s run of six successive home wins was brought to an end.
Milner, once a Newcastle player, made his Premier League debut for Leeds almost 20 years ago and excelled on this return to a former stamping ground.
Asked if he had come across a fitter 36-year-old, Klopp said with a smile: “No, but it would be interesting to look at Luka Modric. Is he not 36 as well? It was obviously a good generation. It’s difficult to fitter than Milly.
“He’s a role model. I have told him, I can tell the whole world – nothing we have achieved in the last few years would have happened without James Milner, it’s as easy as that.
“Whether he was on the pitch or not, he’s set standards in a way not a lot of people can set standards, and he educated all of us.
Milly played a great game today. I loved this game – and he played a massive part in it.”
As Milner helped Liverpool extend their unbeaten Premier League run to 15 games, Klopp, fresh from signing a contract extension at Anfield, emphasized the difficulties involved in competing on so many demanding fronts.
“It was incredibly difficult for the boys today, to be honest; we played two and a half days ago,” he said. “In the circumstances it was a top class performance. We did 100% against a team in top form in a top atmosphere. I’m really happy. For me it’s been a top week.”
As Klopp’s attention turned to Tuesday’s Champions League second leg in Spain, Eddie Howe was reminded that, for all Newcastle’s radical improvement since he succeeded Steve Bruce in November, there is still much work to be done.
“I’d say there’s been progress,” said Howe, who has steered a once apparently doomed team well clear of relegation danger. “We’ve improved in a lot of aspects of our play, but it also shows there’s a gap that we have to bridge to the top teams. But I’m not surprised by that – I don’t think anyone else is. We have work to do.
“The biggest disappointment probably is individually. I don’t think we really excelled. The team was OK, we were in the game right to the end, but to win these games, you probably need six or seven performers right at their top levels, and that wasn’t there. It was close, but it wasn’t close enough. We weren’t a genuine counter-attacking threat. We weren’t quite there.”