With 12 minutes left at St James’ Park, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp gave waiting substitute Thiago a hug and lifted him into the air. Then he sent him on to replace James Milner.
It says much about the quality in Liverpool’s squad that, as Klopp sought to see out the 1-0 win that could prove crucial in the title race, he could call up a world-class playmaker from the bench.
But it also says much about their strength in depth that Klopp could start a 36-year-old in a high-pressure game and rely on him to put in an outstanding performance, as Milner did.
As Liverpool chase a quadruple, that squad strength could prove crucial.
“It is cool, eh?” said Klopp with a smile as he was asked about the quality of players he is able to call upon. “That is the only reason why we are where are.
“The group is exceptional – exceptionally talented and really, really good character.”
Evergreen Milner provides dependability Klopp needs
That character is underlined by Milner.
It is almost 20 years since the midfielder made his Premier League debut. Against Newcastle, though, he came in for his first league start since 2 January and played with the same energy and desire as he did when making his breakthrough as youngster at Leeds two decades ago, but now with the added benefit of experience.
“He was outstanding,” said Klopp.
“Milly is Milly and is incredibly important for us and that is very important. We talk about the dressing room, he is very helpful there, especially with a manager who is not a native speaker.
“But on the pitch as well, he played a super game. I loved this game from the boys and James was a massive part of that.”
At 36, Milner is in the twilight of his career but is not alone in continuing to defy the odds despite his advancing age.
Cristiano Ronaldo, 37, is the joint second highest scorer in the Premier League this season with 17 goals for Manchester United, while Karim Benzema, just a couple of years younger than Milner, is arguably the best number nine in the world.
But Klopp likened Milner’s influence to that of another evergreen midfielder still delivering on the highest stage.
The German coach added: “It would be interesting to look at Luka Modric. Is he not 36 as well? Obviously a good generation. It’s difficult to be fitter than Milly, he’s a role model.
“I told him, nothing that we have achieved in the last few years would have happened without James Milner. Easy as that. Whether he’s on the pitch or not.
“He stands out in a way not a lot of people can stand out. He’s educated all of us.”
Everyone pulling in the same direction
In total, Liverpool made five changes against Newcastle as Klopp once again used rotation to great effect.
With the Reds at the business end of the Premier League and Champions League and also preparing for an FA Cup final, keeping his squad fresh to fight on all fronts is crucial.
Klopp has nurtured an atmosphere at the club where every single player is pulling in the same direction, regardless of the minutes they get on the pitch.
“The boys buy completely into the situation,” said Klopp. “Those who didn’t come on today, you should have seen their faces at the final whistle.”
Klopp’s changes worked earlier this month as his side navigated a tricky run of fixtures – facing Benfica away and then at home in a Champions League quarter-final, and drawing at Manchester City in the Premier League to keep the pressure on in the title race.
Apart from a 15-minute spell at the start when Newcastle’s players drew inspiration from the buoyant home fans and took the game to their opponents, Liverpool rarely looked troubled on Saturday.
That was the aspect of their display that most impressed former Manchester United and England defender Rio Ferdinand.
“Liverpool did enough with the squad rotation,” Ferdinand said on BT Sport. “Superstars were left out and it was about getting the job done. They were never ever in any trouble.
“The beauty for Liverpool is that Klopp is resting players week in and week out, and they look comfortable all the time.”
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