With competitive, top-level football on the horizon but not yet within our grasp, we're helping wind down the time at B/R with a typical hypothetical game.
We've selected every top European club's best XI using only players aged 25 and under, then ranked them in order of strength. They're gauged on how good they are right now, as if they had to play in a tournament, not on what they could become in the future.
We ended up with more than 30 XIs from clubs across Europe, compared them and now present to you our top 16. Some excellent teams you'd usually associate with great young talent missed out, and some surprises made their way in.
A few things to be aware of:
- Players out on loan (without a permanent move agreed) have been called back to their parent club for the purpose of this exercise. So Real Madrid get Martin Odegaard back, Jean-Clair Todibo returns to Barcelona and so on.
- Loanees at clubs who have a permanent transfer arranged can stay and be counted. Examples of that are Nicolo Barella and Stefano Sensi at Inter Milan.
- Players who have agreed transfers for July 1 but have not yet moved don't count for that club. That means Francisco Trincao counts for Braga, not Barcelona.
16. Tottenham Hotspur
Brandon Austin; Kyle Walker-Peters, Juan Foyth, Davinson Sanchez, Ryan Sessegnon; Harry Winks, Tanguy Ndombele, Steven Bergwijn, Dele Alli, Giovani Lo Celso; Troy Parrott
There's a real mix of top-level experience and rookies in Spurs' XI. Ndombele, Alli and Lo Celso are star men; Winks, Sanchez, Foyth and Bergwijn have plenty of top-level experience under their belts; while Austin, Walker-Peters and Parrott are still at the beginning of their senior careers, with top-tier appearances in short supply.
It creates an uneven feel to the team and makes it difficult to place in the rankings. Ndombele and Lo Celso seem just as likely to win them a game as the weaker points in the side are to lose it.
At the very least, you can say Spurs' midfield is pretty well set for the future from here.
15. Bayer Leverkusen
Marcel Lotka; Tin Jedvaj, Jonathan Tah, Edmond Tapsoba, Daley Sinkgraven; Adrian Stanilewicz, Exequiel Palacios; Nadiem Amiri, Leon Bailey, Moussa Diaby; Kai Havertz
Leverkusen's recruitment game has been all about the prospects for several years now, meaning they've accrued quite the list of talented youngsters.
The team they can build isn't necessarily the strongest, but it is one of the deepest—we had to leave Paulinho (who cost €20 million) and Panagiotis Retsos (who cost £15.75 million) out!
Three January additions make the XI: Tapsoba, who is already a mainstay in central defence, Sinkgraven, who played under manager Peter Bosz at Ajax, and Palacios, who is being eased in after being plucked from River Plate.
Havertz is the true star and leads the line—not his ideal position, but the best alignment given Leverkusen's options—with Bailey and Diaby either side of him wreaking havoc. This team is a lot of fun.
14. Inter Milan
Ionut Radu; Valentino Lazaro, Milan Skriniar, Andrew Gravillon, Alessandro Bastoni, Federico Dimarco; Stefano Sensi, Nicolo Barella, Lucien Agoume; Sebastiano Esposito, Lautaro Martinez
Five of this XI are regulars in an Inter first team that's chasing for the Serie A title, meaning it has serious star quality. Martinez and Skriniar are the headliners, holding together an excellent spine that also contains Sensi and Barella—a sweet, technical midfield combination.
The rest of the team has been filled out by younger prospects or loanees, recalling Radu, Gravillon and Lazaro from afar and promoting Agoume and Esposito into bigger roles.
It wasn't a priority, but it felt right to align this side in the 3-5-2 formation manager Antonio Conte has stuck to this season on the real pitch; it gives it a very Conte feel.
13. Atletico Madrid
Axel Werner; Javier Ajenjo, Jose Gimenez, Mario Hermoso, Renan Lodi; Angel Correa, Saul Niguez, Marcos Llorente, Thomas Lemar; Joao Felix, Ivan Saponjic
It's notable that five of the 11 players listed for Atleti were bought last summer. It serves as another reminder that Atleti are going through a major revamp after saying goodbye to a series of club legends last June; manager Diego Simeone is completely re-tooling the team for the second time since taking the reins.
Lodi has been excellent, Felix and Llorente have flashed brilliance and Hermoso has perhaps taken a little longer to get to grips with things than expected. We've seen very little of Saponjic despite Atleti's scoring difficulties.
That's a mixed bag so far, and added to the fact Lemar's looked nothing like his old Monaco self while in Madrid, it puts the pressure on Atleti's recruitment calls to come good after the pause, and into next season.
At least Gimenez and Saul have been typically solid, Correa's come to life and Ajenjo is one to monitor from the UEFA Youth League setup.
Bartlomiej Dragowski; Pol Lirola, Nikola Milenkovic, David Hancko, Terzic; Marco Benassi, Sofyan Amrabat, Gaetano Castrovilli; Ricardo Sottill, Federico Chiesa, Dusan Vlahovic
The Viola's presence in our top 16 may surprise you, as their league position over the last two seasons (16th in 2018-19, 13th now) hardly suggest an Italian superpower.
But cast your eyes over the XI written down and remember the names, as many of them will go on to achieve great things in football—either in the colours of Fiorentina, or elsewhere. They've prioritised the acquisition of young stars and built a team that could blossom into something fierce.
The spine of Dragowski, Milenkovic, Castrovilli and Vlahovic is brilliant; all four have impressed in Serie A this season and will only get better. Chiesa is the cherry on top in attack, while Hancko, Lirola, Sottill and Amrabat are all growing steadily.
Gianluigi Donnarumma; Davide Calabria, Alessio Romagnoli, Leo Duarte, Theo Hernandez; Ismael Bennacer, Franck Kessie, Lucas Paqueta; Alexis Saelemaekers, Samu Castillejo, Rafael Leao
Milan's 25 and under selection is about as exciting as their typical matchday XI. The explosive Leao leads a good attacking line, Bennacer masterminds a strong midfield collection, Romagnoli and Donnarumma form the defensive spine and Theo Hernandez is your wild card at full-back.
The Rossoneri have spent a serious amount of money over the years acquiring all of this talent, with just one player (Donnarumma) emerging from their academy. It is now starting to come good, bit by bit, with Hernandez and Bennacer in particular impressing in 2019-20.
This isn't among the very best XIs in this ranking, but it would be one of the best watches.
10. Borussia Dortmund
Eric Oelschlagel; Marius Wolf, Dan-Axel Zagadou, Manuel Akanji, Jeremy Toljan; Mahmoud Dahoud, Sergio Gomez, Gio Reyna; Julian Brandt, Jadon Sancho, Erling Haaland
Dortmund's XI is rather top-heavy. The attack can rival anyone's but ,the defensive unit can't claim the same, and that drags them down in this ranking.
Wolf and Toljan are out on loan after struggling to acclimatise to expectations at Signal Iduna Park, while the central defensive partnership is extremely promising...but still a touch error-prone due to its age and inexperience.
The goalkeeper, Oelschlagel, is one of three to have been given a run for the club's reserve team in 2020 but is yet to make his senior bow.
Fortunately, Haaland and Sancho are stars, Reyna's had a breakout season and Brandt's been very good in a variety of positions. The attack is so good it lifts BVB into our top 10, although it's admittedly still some way off the top dogs.
Mattia Del Favero; Cristian Romero, Merih Demiral, Matthijs De Ligt, Daniele Rugani, Luca Pellegrini; Adrien Rabiot, Rodrigo Bentancur; Marko Pjaca, Dejan Kulusevski; Pablo Moreno
A total lack of right-sided defensive options for Juventus has forced a drastic move: Romero, a top central defensive talent, has ended up at...right-wing-back. It's not great for the balance of the side, and it wouldn't get the best out of him, but it's the best we can do.
On the plus side, that defensive line is rock solid. Demiral and De Ligt are two of Europe's best young players at the position, while Pellegrini's an exciting prospect on the left.
Rabiot and Bentancur is some midfield pairing, one that can do it all: cover the ground, put the off-the-ball work in, move with it and pass incisively.
Pjaca's Juve career hasn't gone to plan, but he's still a fine option for this XI, playing opposite January addition Kulusevski and behind UEFA Youth League hotshot Moreno up top.
8. Leicester City
Daniel Iversen; James Justin, Filip Benkovic, Caglar Soyuncu, Ben Chilwell; Wilfred Ndidi, Youri Tielemans, Dennis Praet; Harvey Barnes, James Maddison, Kelechi Iheanacho
Leicester's XI is punctuated by five stars: Soyuncu, Chilwell, Ndidi, Tielemans and Maddison. All five have been excellent during the Foxes' rise into the UEFA Champions League places this season, acting as a strong foundation for the team.
The least familiar name to many will be Iversen, who is progressing out on loan at Rotherham United and was recently handed a new long-term deal. The rest have all impacted at the top level this term, and we expect to see Benkovic, currently on loan at Celtic, in the first-team picture from next term.
Leicester's recruitment over the last few seasons has been spectacular, among the best in the Premier League, and you can see traces of it in this XI.
Inaki Pena; Emerson, Jean-Clair Todibo, Clement Lenglet, Junior Firpo; Frenkie de Jong, Arthur, Carles Alena, Riqui Puig; Ousmane Dembele, Ansu Fati
This task was made much more difficult by Barcelona's January business: They sold Abel Ruiz, Carles Perez and Marc Cucurella, weakening the possible selection, and while Firpo can step in at left-back, there are no out-and-out strikers aged 25 or under at the club who are close to the first-team setup. None.
So our XI has Dembele or Fati fulfilling that role, and they should cope given the level of creativity just behind them. De Jong and Arthur is a smooth midfield combination, and the full-backs will give the team plenty of life.
Alena and Puig, naturally central players, may find it a little tough on the flanks but needs must. Emerson has been included, though his genuine status (who he is registered to) is unclear, given Barca's odd arrangement with Real Betis—detailed here by Marca.
Kepa Arrizabalaga; Reece James, Fikayo Tomori, Kurt Zouma, Emerson Palmieri; Billy Gilmour, Ruben Loftus-Cheek; Christian Pulisic, Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi; Tammy Abraham
Chelsea's XI is among the most solid and consistent throughout: There may not be a standout star present, but everyone is good, and every player listed is realising their potential this season.
There was a very tough choice in midfield, where the Blues could technically call either Mario Pasalic (Atalanta) or Tiemoue Bakayoko (Monaco) back, but Billy Gilmour's emergence just before football's pause deserves rewarding in the form a spot in the centre.
Zouma vs. Andreas Christensen in central defence was another tight call, with the Frenchman getting the nod after surprising a few people this term. He partners the excellent Tomori, who stands to the left of the even more excellent James.
In Pulisic, Mount, Hudson-Odoi and Abraham, there's speed, trickery and goals aplenty.
5. Manchester United
Dean Henderson; Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Axel Tuanzebe, Victor Lindelof, Brandon Williams; Dan James, Scott McTominay, Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood; Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial
Back in March, we looked at clubs in the midst of a rebuild, highlighting Manchester United as one who had made positive progress over the course of 2019-20. The proof of that good work is in the 25-and-under XI listed: It looks the second-best in England and one of the strongest in the world.
Rashford headlines a pretty ferocious attack; he and Martial interchanging and roaming while Bruno feeds them chances. Greenwood and James complete the collection and, somehow, make it even faster.
Henderson, Tuanzebe, Williams and McTominay carry the academy feel into the rest of the team, making for a pretty solid unit. Three of those four have had outstanding 2019-20s, enhancing their reputations, while you get the feeling Tuanzebe could have made that 4/4 if not for injury.
It may surprise you to see the Red Devils ranked so highly, but this XI is serious: High quality, well balanced with a strong homegrown flavour.
4. Real Madrid
Andriy Lunin; Achraf Hakimi, Eder Militao, Jesus Vallejo, Ferland Mendy; Dani Ceballos, Martin Odegaard, Marco Asensio, Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo; Luka Jovic
Real Madrid's youth revolution, a stark departure for their previous Galactico transfer policy, has been pretty well documented and fruits of their labour are present here.
There's just one potential weak point in Vallejo, who has struggled ever since his loan spell at Eintracht Frankfurt finished in 2017. But that's it. Everyone else is good or great, sparking optimism that the next few years could see a very different-looking Los Blancos emerge.
Hakimi, Odegaard, Asensio and Ceballos supply a creative element that mixes thrust with silk, while a forward line containing Rodrygo and Jovic is just ruthless. At the back, Mendy and Militao will be tough to outfox, while Lunin is one of the finest young goalkeepers in the world.
3. RB Leipzig
Yvon Mvogo; Nordi Mukiele, Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konate, Lukas Klolstermann; Konrad Laimer, Tyler Adams; Dani Olmo, Christopher Nkunku; Yussuf Poulsen, Timo Werner
Save for the goalkeeper (usually Peter Gulasci) and Marcel Sabitzer in midfield, this is a first-choice RB Leipzig XI. Manager Julian Nagelsmann would be comfortable picking this for a Bundesliga or Champions League match.
It brings to light just how effective the club's youth recruitment is, but also how quickly they mould prospects into stars. Most of Europe would love to call that defence their own, the very best want Werner to spearhead their attack and both Nkunku and Laimer have emerged as quality midfielders this season.
For many clubs in this list, we've had to plug a hole or two with a youth player, but for Leipzig this exercise was easy: Just pick a typical matchday XI.
2. Bayern Munich
Christian Fruchtl; Benjamin Pavard, Niklas Sule, Lucas Hernandez, Alphonso Davies; Joshua Kimmich, Mickael Cuisance, Corentin Tolisso; Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman, Joshua Zirkzee
Bayern may seem like a team characterised by their established stars—Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben before, Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller now—but there's a vein of youth running through this first-team that bodes well for the future.
The defence looks set for years: Sule and Lucas Hernandez is a formidable central pairing, its only obstacle being fitness, Davies has broken out as a top-tier left-back and Pavard is a strong option on the right.
The central midfield, led by the brilliant Kimmich, already has so much top-level experience under its belt, while the wing pairing of Gnabry and Coman is exactly what Die Roten pick on a weekly basis anyway.
The most southern and northern points to the team—goalkeeper Fruchtl and forward Zirkzee—are the least recognisable of the lot but have both flashed great potential.
1. Manchester City
Zack Steffen; Joao Cancelo, John Stones, Aymeric Laporte, Benjamin Mendy; Rodri, Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva; Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus
Imagine it's early in the 2020-21 season and Man City have drawn a lower-league opponent in the Carabao Cup. It's entire reasonable—potential star sales, such as Leroy Sane to Bayern Munich, withstanding—that this exact lineup could be sent out by Pep Guardiola.
Every single one, bar goalkeeper Zack Steffen, is currently in the first team, and this XI could beat most teams in the world, let alone a minnow of English football.
This exercise has spelled out which clubs are well set for the future, highlighting some truths that we perhaps too often overlook, including the fact City have spent a lot, but the money's been parted with smartly, with one eye on the now, and one eye on the future.
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All statistics via WhoScored.com.