Ranking Best Squads in Europe by Players Under 23
What would the football landscape look like if only players aged 23 and under were allowed to participate? Who would rule the youthful roost?
We've put the concept to the test, recreating the best teams in Europe using only players born after July 11, 1993, and then presented the top 20 in order.
For the purposes of the article, loan players were returned to their parent clubs. They're only eligible for the side their full-time contract is with, so, for example, Chelsea's horde of youngsters is all allowed to represent the Stamford Bridge side, while any other early loan deals in this window have been reversed.
As you flick through, you'll realise certain clubs are exceptional at bringing youth through—the Borussia Dortmunds of this world, you might say—and others simply are not—Inter Milan's team looked pitiful in comparison to the ones ahead.
GK: Jordan Pickford
DEF: Jonjoe Kenny, Matthew Pennington, Mason Holgate, Brendan Galloway
MID: Henry Onyekuru, Tom Davies, Ross Barkley, Ademola Lookman
FWD: Sandro Ramirez, Dominic Calvert-Lewin
GK: Matt Macey
DEF: Hector Bellerin, Calum Chambers, Rob Holding, Marc Bola
MID: Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Gedion Zelalem, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
FWD: Jeff Reine-Adelaide, Alex Iwobi, Chuba Akpom
18. Schalke 04
GK: Alexander Nubel
DEF: Thilo Kehrer, Pablo Insua, Joshua Bitter
MID: Nabil Bentaleb, Leon Goretzka, Johannes Geis, Max Meyer, Alessandro Schopf
FWD: Breel Embolo, Donis Avdijaj
GK: Jamal Blackman
DEF: Ola Aina, Andreas Christensen, Kurt Zouma, Baba Rahman
MID: Nathaniel Chalobah, Charly Musonda, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jeremie Boga
FWD: Tammy Abraham, Michy Batshuayi
GK: Adrian Ortola
DEF: Sergi Palencia, Marlon, Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Digne
MID: Sergi Samper, Andre Gomes, Denis Suarez
FWD: Paco Alcacer, Munir El Haddadi, Gerard Deulofeu
15. Tottenham Hotspur
GK: Thomas Glover
DEF: Cameron Carter-Vickers, Eric Dier, Kyle Walker-Peters
MID: Marcus Edwards, Josh Onomah, Dele Alli, Harry Winks, Georges-Kevin N'Koudou
FWD: Harry Kane, Vincent Janssen
14. Paris Saint-Germain
GK: Remy Descamps
DEF: Alec Georgen, Presnel Kimpembe, Marquinhos, Colin Dagba
MID: Adrien Rabiot, Giovani Lo Celso, Christopher Nkunku
FWD: Julian Draxler, Goncalo Guedes, Odsonne Edouard
GK: Lucas Mocio
DEF: Dylan Mboumbouni, Emanuel Mammana, Mouctar Diakhaby, Ferland Mendy
MID: Lucas Tousart, Sergi Darder, Maxwel Cornet, Memphis Depay, Nabil Fekir
FWD: Bertrand Traore
12. Manchester United
GK: Joel Pereira
DEF: Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Eric Bailly, Victor Lindelof, Luke Shaw
MID: Andreas Pereira, Axel Tuanzebe, Angel Gomes, Adnan Januzaj
FWD: Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial
11. Bayer Leverkusen
GK: Niklas Lomb
DEF: Benjamin Henrichs, Jonathan Tah, Tin Jedvaj, Wendell
MID: Dominik Kohr, Kai Havertz, Leon Bailey, Julian Brandt, Ryu Seung-Woo
FWD: Joel Pohjanpalo
10. Bayern Munich
GK: Christian Fruchtl
DEF: Joshua Kimmich, Niklas Sule, Felix Gotze, Marco Friedl
MID: Niklas Dorsch, Corentin Tolisso, Renato Sanches
FWD: Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman, Fabian Benko
We had to scratch around a little to fill out this Bayern Munich XI. Sure, there are four or five star players, but after that, there's a steep drop-off.
Fruchtl, Friedl and Benko have yet to really register for the German giants at senior level, while Gotze—brother of Borussia Dortmund's Mario—was a UEFA Youth League player in 2016-17.
But then we get to the good bits: Kimmich thrusting forward on the right, Sule the rock at the back, Tolisso and Sanches running midfield and the Gnabry-Coman combination wreaking havoc up top.
9. RB Leipzig
GK: Yvon Mvogo
DEF: Benny Schmitz, Dayot Upamecano, Lukas Klostermann, Bernardo
MID: Bruma, Marcel Sabitzer, Conrad Laimer, Naby Keita
FWD: Timo Werner, Youssef Poulsen
The RB Leipzig project seems all the more intriguing and exciting when you realise the large majority of their first-team stars are aged 23 and under. What they're building could last—provided it's not sold off before it can truly blossom.
Upamecano, Bernardo, Sabitzer, Keita, Werner and Poulsen were all regular starters in the 2016-17 team that achieved second place in the Bundesliga. Bruma, Laimer and Mvogo have been brought in this summer to bolster the setup, while Upamecano is a rising star at centre-back who was drip-fed first-team chances during the second half of the campaign.
8. Real Madrid
GK: Ruben Yanez
DEF: Theo Hernandez, Jesus Vallejo, Philipp Lienhart, Alvaro Tejero
MID: Marcos Llorente, Mateo Kovacic, Martin Odegaard, Sergio Diaz, Marco Asensio
FWD: Borja Mayoral
This Real Madrid side is strong in parts but a little weak in others.
Star names pop off the teamsheet, with Hernandez, Vallejo, Kovacic and Asensio all worth their weight gold. Llorente is a good player to have sweeping up at the base of midfield too, while Mayoral is a talented player who hasn't quite put it all together in senior football.
But Yanez, Tejero, Lienhart and Diaz hold this group back when it comes to the ranking. The latter two could well go on to become good players, but this is judged on ability now, not potential.
GK: Andre Onana
DEF: Kenny Tete, Davinson Sanchez, Matthijs de Ligt, Jairo Riedewald
MID: Donny van de Beek, Daley Sinkgraven, Justin Kluivert, David Neres, Amin Younes
FWD: Kasper Dolberg
Every player here played a first-team role for Ajax in 2016-17. We're missing a few key heads in midfield because of age restrictions—Hakim Ziyech, 24, and Lasse Schone, 31, are ineligible—but overall, this looks a familiar side.
Dolberg leads the line, Kluivert, Neres and Younes supply the ammo, while Van de Beek and Sinkgraven stabilise the middle. The centre-back pairing is the same one that took to the field (and impressed) throughout De Godenzonen's incredible run to the Europa League final last season.
6. AC Milan
GK: Gianluigi Donnarumma
DEF: Andrea Conti, Alessio Romagnoli, Rodrigo Ely, Davide Calabria
MID: Franck Kessie, Manuel Locatelli, Hakan Calhanoglu
FWD: Suso, M'Baye Niang, Andre Silva
AC Milan's selection boasts both star names and balance, based in the same 4-3-3 manager Vincenzo Montella uses.
Donnarumma is the best young goalkeeper in the world, while the Romagnoli-Conti half of that defensive line is tough to top. Calabria has been forced out to the left side, but he'll do the job.
The midfield has guile and grace mixed with raw power, and Calhanoglu's set-piece mastery adds another dimension to an already excellent attack. Silva was a big-ticket, early-summer acquisition, and he'll enjoy working with Suso in particular.
5. Manchester City
DEF: Pablo Maffeo, Jason Denayer, John Stones, Angelino
MID: Leroy Sane, Patrick Roberts, Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling
FWD: Gabriel Jesus, Kelechi Iheanacho
Introducing the single most unbalanced midfield in football: our 23-and-under version of Manchester City.
Who is tracking back to help the defence? No one, but it doesn't matter. It's names on a page for a game that is played on paper, and what a glorious unit that is.
The defence looks significantly weaker, particularly on the flanks, but Maffeo is a handy player and could surprise a few. They will just have to outscore everyone. With Gabriel Jesus feeding off all that wondrous midfield creativity, there's every chance they would.
4. Atletico Madrid
GK: Andre Moreira
DEF: Javi Manquillo, Josema Gimenez, Emiliano Velazquez, Lucas Hernandez
MID: Diogo Jota, Saul Niguez, Bernard Mensah, Yannick Carrasco
FWD: Rafael Santos Borre, Angel Correa
As is arguably the case at first-team level, no team boasts a better defensive line in this concept than Atletico Madrid. Gimenez and Hernandez are stars, while Velazquez and Manquillo are reliable heads.
There is plenty of speed in this team, provided by Carrasco mainly, and there are three strong finishers in Jota, Santos Borre and Correa. The latter, in particular, can create moments out of nothing and be the X-factor who flips games in this team's favour.
Saul Niguez can reliably knit it all together and balance the side out.
GK: Emil Audero
DEF: Pol Lirola, Daniele Rugani, Mattia Caldara, Federico Mattiello
MID: Mario Lemina, Rolando Mandragora, Rodrigo Bentancur, Marko Pjaca
FWD: Paulo Dybala, Moise Kean
The spine of this team is impressive. Let's suppose it's a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond, giving us a centre-back pairing of Rugani and Caldara, then a quartet of Lemina, Mandragora, Bentancur and Pjaca (as the No. 10) in the middle. That's a rock-hard setup.
The midfield boasts legs, grit, tactical awareness and a roaming nature. Pjaca tops it off with his creativity, trickery and goalscoring instincts.
Up top is one of the finest players on the planet in Paulo Dybala and rising star Moise Kean—who beats out Alberto Cerri for a spot in the side despite being four years his junior.
2. Borussia Dortmund
GK: Dominik Reimann
DEF: Felix Passlack, Mikel Merino, Dan-Axel Zagadou, Raphael Guerreiro
MID: Julian Weigl, Mahmoud Dahoud, Emre Mor, Christian Pulisic, Ousmane Dembele
FWD: Max Philipp
Borussia Dortmund's selection has no fewer than eight first-team players, with your definition of Passlack potentially paving the way to make it nine.
You could field that entire midfield selection in a Bundesliga game and come out firmly on top; with Weigl holding, Dahoud surging and the other three causing havoc in the attacking midfield area, few would stand a chance.
Philipp is a new acquisition up front, and he's fresh off winning the European Under-21 Championship with Germany. He prevents boy wonder Alexander Isak from taking a spot in the side.
GK: Paul Nardi
DEF: Almamy Toure, Abdou Diallo, Terence Kongolo, Benjamin Mendy
MID: Fabinho, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Youri Tielemans, Gabriel Boschilia, Thomas Lemar
FWD: Kylian Mbappe
The clear strongest squad in Europe only including players 23 and under is AS Monaco's. Quelle surprise!
With Mbappe, Fabinho, Bakayoko, Lemar and Mendy still contracted to the club and available for selection at the time of writing, it tips them over the edge, allowing them to best everyone else. No other side can boast quite as many relative stars.
New boys Tielemans and Kongolo complement them, while Boschilia—whose 2016-17 season was cut short by a bad knee injury—steps in for the departed Bernardo Silva.
All statistics via WhoScored.com