Ranking Europe's Top Clubs Only Using Ex-Players

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterMay 25, 2020

LEGANES, SPAIN - APRIL 05: Alvaro Morata (3dL) of Real Madrid CF celebrates scoring their third goal with teammates Carlos Casemiro (4thL), Mateo Kovacic (2ndR) and Sergio Ramos (R) during the La Liga match between CD Leganes and Real Madrid CF at Estadio Municipal de Butarque on April 5, 2017 in Leganes, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

In mid-May, B/R built every major European club's best XI using only players aged 25 and under, offering a glimpse of the future for each and perhaps offering some insight into who has set themselves up well for the coming years.

Well, this week we're going to look in the opposite direction and bring you a blast from the past for each side.

We've built the XIs again, but using only ex-players this time. It brings an insight into a few things: who wheels and deals the best in the market, but also who has made some high-profile mistakes over the last decade.

Before you tuck in, make sure you familiarise yourself with the following ground rules for eligibility:

  • Players must have made at least one senior appearance to be eligible for the club (so no Jadon Sancho for Manchester City)
  • Loan spells don't count; a player must have made a permanent transfer to a club to be considered for them
  • Players are judged at their current ability level, not on historic performance or previous feats


16. Barcelona (4-2-3-1)

GK: Jasper Cillessen

DEF: Dani Alves, Marc Bartra, Yerry Mina, Lucas Digne

MID: Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara, Pedro, Neymar, Marc Cucurella

FWD: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

15. Schalke (4-2-3-1)

GK: Manuel Neuer

DEF: Rafinha, Joel Matip, Thilo Kehrer, Sead Kolasinac

MID: Ivan Rakitic, Leon Goretzka, Julian Draxler, Mesut Ozil, Leroy Sane

FWD: Breel Embolo

14. Valencia (4-3-3)

GK: Neto

DEF: Joao Cancelo, Nicolas Otamendi, Raul Albiol, Jordi Alba

MID: Ever Banega, Sergio Canales, David Silva

FWD: Isco, Rodrigo De Paul, Paco Alcacer

13. Juventus (4-3-3)

GK: Neto

DEF: Dani Alves, Medhi Benatia, Domenico Criscito, Joao Cancelo

MID: Emre Can, Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba

FWD: Mario Mandzukic, Ciro Immobile, Kingsley Coman

12. Lyon (4-4-2 diamond)

GK: Hugo Lloris

DEF: Jeremy Morel, Dejan Lovren, Samuel Umtiti, Ferland Mendy

MID: Corentin Tolisso, Miralem Pjanic, Tanguy Ndombele, Nabil Fekir

FWD: Karim Benzema, Alexandre Lacazette

11. Monaco (4-5-1)

GK: Paul Nardi

DEF: Ronael Pierre-Gabriel, Aymen Abdennour, Terence Kongolo, Benjamin Mendy

MID: James Rodriguez, Fabinho, Joao Moutinho, Youri Tielemans, Bernardo Silva

FWD: Kylian Mbappe

10. Sevilla (4-4-2)

Sevilla's Italian forward Ciro Immobile celebrates after scoring during the Spanish league football match Sevilla FC vs Real Madrid CF at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium in Sevilla on November 8, 2015.    / AFP / CRISTINA QUICLER        (Photo credit sh

GK: David Soria

DEF: Dani Alves, Sergio Ramos, Clement Lenglet, Alberto Moreno

MID: Steven N'Zonzi, Ivan Rakitic, Luis Alberto, Joaquin Correa

FWD: Wissam Ben Yedder, Ciro Immobile 

Scrolling through Sevilla's outgoing transfers over the past decade was some task as sporting director Monchi has struck so many deals over the years that it's tough to keep up.

It's clear he sweeps the market for opportunities, happy to take punts on players and see if they can stick. Some, like Alves, have been resounding successes; others, like Rakitic, Lenglet and Ben Yedder, have returned a nice profit.

The misses are rarer than the hits, though Sevilla must be looking at Immobile's and Correa's performances at Lazio and wondering how they failed to extract the same.


9. Roma (3-5-2)

AS Roma's Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Salah (R) celebrates with AS Roma's Belgium midfielder Radja Nainggolan after scoring during the Italian Serie A football match Chievo vs AS Roma at the Marcantonio Bentegodi stadium in  Verona on Mai 20, 2017. / AFP

GK: Alisson Becker

DEF: Antonio Rudiger, Alessio Romagnoli, Kostas Manolas

MID: Erik Lamela, Marquinhos, Miralem Pjanic, Radja Nainggolan, Emerson

FWD: Stephan El Shaarawy, Mohamed Salah

Roma's talent identification is superb. The problem they have is holding onto the talent long enough to create a truly formidable team.

Their record with centre-backs is so good that someone like Medhi Benatia can't find a place in this team, while that midfield three is a brilliant mix of brains, braun and excitement. Salah and Alisson, both of Liverpool, top and tail a selection whose only weak points are the wing-backs.

If the Giallorossi had managed to compile this team and play it together, they could well have done something special. Sadly, one part has tended to be dismantled before another can be assembled. 

8. Porto (4-5-1)

PORTO, PORTUGAL - AUGUST 26: Porto's midfielder Casemiro during the football match between FC Porto and LOSC Lille at Dragao Stadium on August 26, 2014 in Porto, Portugal.  (Photo by Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images)
Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images

GK: Jose Sa

DEF: Ricardo Pereira, Eder Militao, Felipe, Alex Sandro

MID: Casemiro, Joao Moutinho, Ruben Neves, James Rodriguez, Hector Herrera

FWD: Andre Silva

Pereira and Sandro might just be the best full-back pairing in this top 10. That, along with an incredible Portuguese-speaking midfield trio, paves their way into a lofty position in the ranking.

The setup of the team is a little funky—Herrera will have to make do with a right-sided role; while Yacine Brahimi is a better fit for the role, the Mexican is too good to leave out—but if the wingers dip inside and allow the full-backs to motor forward, it would resemble a well-balanced 4-5-1 formation.

With four Brazilians in the XI and the majority of the rest resembling academy products, the Dragons' two pillars of squad building are clearly visible.

7. Genk (4-4-2 diamond)

Genk's Kevin De Bruyne celebrates after scoring a goal during the Jupiler Pro League match between RC Genk and Westerlo, in Genk, on November 19, 2011, on the 14th day of the Belgian soccer championship.  AFP PHOTO / BELGA / LUC CLAESSEN   ***Belgium Out*
AFP/Getty Images

GK: Thibaut Courtois

DEF: Christian Kabasele, Omar Colley, Kalidou Koulibaly, Timothy Castagne

MID: Wilfred Ndidi, Kevin De Bruyne, Ruslan Malinovskyi, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic

FWD: Leon Bailey, Mbwana Samatta

The proof of Genk's smart scouting can be seen in the XI listed, which contains incredible talent in every line.

The midfield is so strong that the likes of Leandro Trossard and Sander Berge (both €20m-plus Premier League signings in 2019-20) must miss out. A trio of Ndidi-De Bruyne-SMS is truly elite—a central collection many of football's top managers would love to call their own in real life.

Had Yannick Carrasco made an appearance for the club, this team would have been even stronger, but he was poached from the youth system by Monaco as a teen. He would have lined up next to Koulibaly in the defensive line, further strengthening a unit backed up by Courtois.

6. Atletico Madrid (4-4-2 diamond)

Atletico Madrid's Argentinian forward Sergio Aguero (C) celebrates his goal during their Spanish League football match Atletico de Madrid vs Real Madrid at Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid on March 19, 2011 in Madrid.  AFP PHOTO / DANI POZO (Photo credi
AFP/Getty Images

GK: David de Gea

DEF: Juanfran, Toby Alderweireld, Diego Godin, Lucas Hernandez

MID: Rodri, Pizzi, Raul Garcia

FWD: Antoine Griezmann, Raul Jimenez, Sergio Aguero 

Many of these Atletico players have not long left the club—five were playing in red and white as recently as last season—and that illustrates just how much heavy squad turnover they've been through recently.

But just imagine that front line for a moment: Jimenez and Aguero forming the big man-small man partnership up top with Griezmann floating in the hole just behind. It'd be close to unstoppable, and it has the midfield legs to support it, too.

That Atleti sold De Gea and went straight into a run of Courtois and Jan Oblak between the sticks afterwards shows how blessed they've been in the goalkeeping department for some time.

5. Ajax (3-4-1-2)

Ajax player Luis Suarez celebrates with Urby Emmanuelson (8) the third goal for Ajax in the Dutch premier league match NAC Breda-Ajax on March 22 2009,in  Breda. AFP PHOTO/ ANP ROBERT VOS  netherlands out - belgium out (Photo credit should read ROBERT VOS
AFP/Getty Images

GK: Jasper Cillessen

DEF: Toby Alderweireld, Matthijs De Ligt, Jan Vertonghen

MID: Justin Kluivert, Frenkie De Jong, Christian Eriksen, Daley Sinkgraven

FWD: Arek Milik, Luis Suarez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic 

Ajax's reputation for developing and selling on homegrown talent is evident in this XI.

Every single one of the players listed spent teenage years in Amsterdam, learning their trade and perfecting their technique at one of the world's renowned schools of football.

The team is a touch unbalanced due to Kluivert playing a wing-back role, while Suarez may have to play between the lines and leave Milik and Zlatan to partner up top. But on paper, it's a fierce selection that betters most others.

4. Benfica (4-4-2)

LISBON, PORTUGAL - MAY 18: Joao Felix of SL Benfica celebrates after scoring a goal during the Liga NOS match between SL Benfica and CD Santa Clara at Estadio da Luz on May 18, 2019 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Images)
Gualter Fatia/Getty Images

GK: Jan Oblak

DEF: Nelson Semedo, David Luiz, Victor Lindelof, Joao Cancelo

MID: Axel Witsel, Angel Di Maria, Bernardo Silva, Joao Felix

FWD: Raul Jimenez, Luka Jovic

Benfica's presence high up in this list shouldn't surprise. They've established a reputation as an extremely shrewd operator in the market, as well as an excellent developer of talent.

Even they are not immune to mistakes, though.

They may have sold Semedo, Luiz, Lindelof, Cancelo, Witsel, Di Maria and Jimenez on for huge profits, while Felix was bought for a whopping €126 million, but the Bernardo Silva (€15.75m) and Luka Jovic (€7m) deals don't look good; they bailed on those talents far too early.

Still, you're looking at an incredible mix of talent from top to bottom here, and Benfica's reputation as market masters is justified.

3. Real Madrid (4-4-2)

VILLARREAL, SPAIN - MAY 19:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid shoots to goal during the La Liga match between Villarreal and Real Madrid at Estadio de la Ceramica on May 19, 2018 in Villarreal, Spain.  (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

GK: Keylor Navas

DEF: Danilo, Pepe, Raul Albiol, Theo Hernandez

MID: Dani Parejo, Mateo Kovacic, Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria

FWD: Alvaro Morata, Cristiano Ronaldo 

During Real Madrid's incredible run of Champions League success from 2014-18, they essentially had two first teams that were capable of winning most games.

Danilo, Pepe, Kovacic and Morata were important to that selection, raising Madrid's mean quality and taking care of your Levantes and Eibars at the weekend while Ronaldo and Co. beat Europe's best midweek.

Inevitably, these players realised they were too good to be reserves and have gone on to play more pivotal roles at other clubs. That's how Los Blancos have accrued such a strong ex-player XI.

Despite the quality on show, very few of these player sales count as mistakes. That just speaks to how strong the first XI at the Bernabeu is.

2. Manchester United (4-4-2)

Cristiano Ronaldo (R) of Manchester United celebrates after scoring the second goal from the penalty spot  during the Premier league football match against Everton at Old Trafford, Manchester, north-west England, 23 December 2007. AFP PHOTO/ANDREW YATES

GK: Ben Foster

DEF: Ashley Young, Gerard Pique, Jonny Evans, Daley Blind

MID: Ander Herrera, Angel Di Maria, Wilfried Zaha, Memphis Depay

FWD: Cristiano Ronaldo, Romelu Lukaku

Ronaldo back in red is a dream many a United fan has had many a time.

He and Lukaku spearhead quite the ex-Man Utd XI, so strong in attack Zlatan can't get in and solid enough at the back thanks to the fact Pique, Evans, Blind and Young have all flourished in life away from Old Trafford.

Despite the quality, it's tough to argue many of these sales were mistakes. Sometimes players simply need a different setting or scenario to reach their best—a point outlined starkly by Di Maria, Depay and Pique.

1. Chelsea (4-4-2)

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 18:  Kevin De Bruyne of Chelsea is challenged by James Chester of Hull City during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Hull City at Stamford Bridge on August 18, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathc
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

GK: Thibaut Courtois

DEF: Juan Cuadrado, David Luiz, Gary Cahill, Nathan Ake

MID: Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas, Kevin De Bruyne, Mohamed Salah

FWD: Alvaro Morata, Romelu Lukaku

The strongest possible XI of ex-players we could build was Chelsea's. Just look at all that talent, gone forever.

De Bruyne and Salah are high-profile mistakes given how their careers have panned out, and there's probably not a day that goes by that at least one Chelsea fan, somewhere in the world, wonders what might have been had Jose Mourinho been a little more patient with them.

The attack and midfield are stacked, and goalkeeper Courtois is one of the best (and showing it again, finally), while the defence is solid enough, capable of holding up. 

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