We return with another fantasy exercise, ranking the best birth-year XIs. We took the best teams we could make out of players born in the same year and compared them, side by side, forming this order.
We went from 1985 to 2000, totalling 16 XIs, as it got quite difficult to fill out the teams with 11 recognisable names beyond those dates—world-class 35-year-old wingers and full-backs are in short supply, as are world-class 17-year-old centre-backs!
All players are judged on their current ability or level of performance.
See what you make of our choices and let us know if you'd crown a different No. 1!
GK: Lukasz Fabianski
DEF: Jesus Navas, Lukasz Piszczek, Gary Cahill, Aleksandar Kolarov
MID: Fernandinho, Luka Modric, Borja Valero, Pablo Hernandez, Salomon Kalou
FWD: Cristiano Ronaldo
It perhaps shouldn't surprise that the oldest team is the weakest—even with the mighty Cristiano Ronaldo leading it!
There are some really strong parts to this XI: Ronaldo up top, Modric and Fernandinho in the middle, and the full-back pairing is pretty impressive considering they're 34 years of age.
But filling the entire squad out with top-tier quality wasn't possible, with the wings proving particularly difficult. That's a position that peaks early and often drops off substantially, leaving us Leeds United's Hernandez and Hertha Berlin's Kalou.
Centre-back, curiously, is also weak, but that might be more of a random quirk than a signal (Giorgio Chiellini, for example, was born in 1984).
GK: Alessandro Plizzari
DEF: Sergino Dest, Ozan Kabak, Marash Kumbulla, Alphonso Davies
MID: Sandro Tonali, Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Ferran Torres, Vinicius Junior
FWD: Erling Haaland
It also perhaps shouldn't surprise that the second-weakest team is the youngest! Like with the Golden Oldies, they've got some superb players already flourishing, but most are still developing, so the selection is pretty inconsistent.
The rise of Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho and Alphonso Davies this season does a lot to boost this team's stock; those are three best-in-class options regardless of age limits.
The weakest point is probably the centre-back pairing, which is to be expected given it is a position with a later bloom and peak.
GK: Manuel Neuer
DEF: Theodor Gebre Selassie, Sergio Ramos, Diego Godin, Nacho Monreal
MID: Andres Guardado, James Milner, Joao Moutinho, David Silva
FWD: Mario Mandzukic, Edin Dzeko
As we saw with 1985's selection, once you start creeping towards the mid-30s range, it can be harder to fill out the entire XI with top-tier quality.
There's a real contrast in this team: You have the likes of Neuer, Ramos, Silva and Dzeko, all players at the top of their game; and then there's Selassie, struggling against relegation with Werder Bremen, and Monreal or Guardado, who have dipped beyond their peak.
It's still a good side—one that would push for Europe in any of the top five leagues—but the standards in this ranking are very high, as you'll soon see.
GK: Gianluigi Donnarumma
DEF: Reece James, Matthijs De Ligt, Edmond Tapsoba, Owen Wijndal
MID: Declan Rice, Nicolo Zaniolo, Samuel Chukwueze, Joao Felix, Moussa Diaby
FWD: Kai Havertz
This is an incredibly exciting, high-potential XI. 1999's best is extremely promising, and it wouldn't be a surprise if every one of these players is at the top of the game in a few years (some already are).
Havertz's new-found brilliance as Bayer Leverkusen's striker makes him a snug fit leading this line, and he's got a colleague in Diaby to feed him ammunition, plus the mercurial Felix and nifty Chukwueze.
The central defensive pair are smooth on the ball and physical in defence, while the full-backs boast athleticism and a well-rounded game. Donnarumma, the best young goalkeeper in the world, minds the sticks.
As a whole they're a little off the best teams in this list, but that's to be expected, as the players themselves aren't the finished product.
GK: Vicente Guaita
DEF: Gerard Pique, Leonardo Bonucci, Jan Vertonghen
MID: Antonio Candreva, Arturo Vidal, Sami Khedira, Blaise Matuidi
The 1987 collection is fierce in the middle and lethal up top but struggles badly at full-back, making it perhaps the most lopsided team of the 16 featured.
In order to avoid a full-back pairing of Gabriel Mercado and Ivan Strinic, we've selected a sturdy back three but complemented it with makeshift wing-backs: Candreva is familiar with the position, but Matuidi is less so.
Messi and Suarez know each other inside out from club level, and a forward as clever as Benzema will no doubt slot in seamlessly, making it a true trio, rather than a tandem.
There's legs in the middle and a workmanlike attitude, so the team is probably better than the sum of its parts...but without that sensational forward line it would be challenging 1985 for bottom spot.
GK: Andre Onana
DEF: Benjamin Pavard, Gianluca Mancini, Lucas Hernandez, Oleksandr Zinchenko
MID: Rodri, Arthur, Julian Brandt
FWD: Kingsley Coman, Timo Werner, Leroy Sane
Whereas all of the teams up to this point have been a little inconsistent in their quality, 1996 is the first in the list that has a consistent feel to it throughout.
By that, we mean there is no weak link but also no true star of the game. They're almost all around the 8/10 mark: very good but not quite elite...for now.
Speed defines the attack; all three of Coman, Sane and Werner are absolutely rapid. Speed also somewhat defines the defence with the recovery ability of Mancini and Lucas, while Onana will sweep up and ensure a possession style is maintained.
Options for midfield were plentiful, leading to some tough calls. We had to leave out Dele Alli, Giovani Lo Celso, Fabian Ruiz and Lorenzo Pellegrini!
GK: Thomas Strakosha
DEF: Alvaro Odriozola, Milan Skriniar, Clement Lenglet, Ferland Mendy
MID: Angel Correa, Joshua Kimmich, Adrien Rabiot, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Serge Gnabry
FWD: Anthony Martial
1995's selection contains several players who have made big waves this season.
Kimmich has been incredible since moving back into central midfield; Mendy's had a big hand in Real Madrid's improved defensive solidity; Gnabry's having a monster season with Bayern Munich; and Correa's re-found his groove at Atletico Madrid.
Everyone else in the XI has performed to a predictably strong level bar perhaps Odriozola, who has lost his way a little but is still a promising talent.
GK: David De Gea
DEF: Kyle Walker, Rafael Toloi, Daley Blind, Marcos Alonso
MID: Miralem Pjanic, Toni Kroos, Ilkay Gundogan
FWD: Douglas Costa, Wissam Ben Yedder, Ciro Immobile
1990 has produced an eclectic mix of footballers from five different European leagues.
It boasts power at full-back courtesy of the Premier League, culture in midfield thanks to England, Italy and Spain's combined efforts and incision up front. Europe's top goalscorer, Immobile, leads a line that boasts ingenuity and danger.
This outfit lacks the top-tier class at centre-back to really mix it with the big boys, but the midfield strength and potency up top means it's good for a spot in the middle of the pack.
GK: Unai Simon
DEF: Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Joe Gomez, Nikola Milenkovic, Theo Hernandez
MID: Ruben Neves, Frenkie de Jong, Rodrigo Bentancur
FWD: Federico Chiesa, Marcus Rashford, Lautaro Martinez
It's a young team, but it's a very good one—and it carries experience through it, despite the fact no player in it is older than 23.
A front three of Chiesa, Rashford and Martinez carries incredible pace as well as a serious goal threat. A midfield three of Neves, De Jong and Bentancur is wonderfully balanced, with all three capable of fulfilling each other's roles in rotation if required.
The full-backs are well-paired, too; as Hernandez surges forward, Wan-Bissaka can tuck round and cover, shifting the formation into a 3-4-3 of sorts. The recovery pace on offer is plentiful, too.
GK: Wuilker Farinez
DEF: Achraf Hakimi, Dayot Upamecano, Merih Demiral, Renan Lodi
MID: Federico Valverde, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Houssem Aouar
FWD: Martin Odegaard, Victor Osimhen, Kylian Mbappe
Why pick between Hakimi and Alexander-Arnold when you can use them both?
We've placed the Liverpool man in midfield—a position he can play—alongside Valverde and Aouar, allowing Hakimi to bomb up and down the right side and overlap when Odegaard cuts in.
Mbappe cuts in off the other flank, supporting the voracious Osimhen, while the Upamecano-Demiral combination takes care of business at the back.
Farinez is perhaps the best goalkeeper playing outside of Europe (he's at Millonarios in Colombia), and given his talent level, he probably wont be outside of it for long.
GK: Tomas Vaclik
DEF: Cesar Azpilicueta, Toby Alderweireld, Felipe, Jordi Alba
MID: Axel Witsel, Dani Parejo, Idrissa Gueye
FWD: Thomas Muller, Marco Reus, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Good luck getting through this team.
With a solid defence, inclusive of full-backs renowned for their defensive ability as well the damage they cause moving forward, and a midfield screen of Witsel and Gueye, this looks an incredibly difficult XI to create chances against.
The makeup of the team means they would be absolutely deadly when absorbing pressure then striking on the counter, as they're clearing to the speedy Aubameyang and the clever Reus and Muller up front.
GK: Pau Lopez
DEF: Joao Cancelo, Marquinhos, Aymeric Laporte, Andy Robertson
MID: Saul Niguez, Mateo Kovacic, Bruno Fernandes
FWD: Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling, Arkadiusz Milik
This might count as your "underrated" XI. Some will question why it ranks so highly, but its talent level is higher than the 2019-20 campaign would suggest.
Cancelo is a monster of a full-back, even if he's yet to fully get going for Man City, Milik counts as one of Europe's slept-on strikers and Lopez's brilliance between the sticks probably doesn't get the attention it deserves.
Those players are complemented by true powerhouses. The Laporte-Robertson left side is best-in-class, while the Man City wing duo of Sterling and Bernardo promises creativity and goals. It's a side without a weakness and plenty of elite quality in the right areas to rank among the best.
GK: Yann Sommer
DEF: Juan Cuadrado, Francesco Acerbi, Mats Hummels, Marcelo
MID: Angel Di Maria, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Josip Ilicic
FWD: Sergio Aguero, Robert Lewandowski
1988's team strength has been seriously boosted by four particularly excellent 2019-20 campaigns: Cuadrado's been a revelation at right-back for Juventus, Acerbi a rock for Lazio, Ilicic a Ballon d'Or-worthy presence for Atalanta and Sommer's enjoying a stunning season for Borussia Monchengladbach.
The other spots are occupied by tried and tested, battle-hardened, top-level players. Aguero and Lewandowski is some combination up front, and they won't be short of creativity behind them, nor is the team going to struggle to break up attacks.
GK: Jan Oblak
DEF: Ricardo Pereira, Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti, Raphael Guerreiro
MID: Thomas Partey, Paul Pogba, Paulo Dybala, Nabil Fekir, Hakim Ziyech
FWD: Harry Kane
There's an intriguing mix and balance to this side; you get the impression it would mesh very well together if it had to play a game in real life.
The attacking midfield is dainty and technical, the holding midfield a bit more forceful and capable of setting the tone in the centre.
Having two full-backs like Pereira and Guerreiro means goals aplenty from across the side, with a World Cup-winning centre-back pairing holding the fort in front of an elite goalkeeper. Oh, and Kane's bagging 40 a season up front.
GK: Benjamin Lecomte
DEF: Thomas Meunier, Kalidou Koulibaly, Virgil van Dijk, Alex Sandro
MID: N'Golo Kante, Thiago Alcantara, Kevin De Bruyne
FWD: Eden Hazard, Antoine Griezmann, Roberto Firmino
This side is incredible. It was one of the first we put together during the curation process, and we doubted it could be beaten.
A Kante-Thiago-De Bruyne midfield is what dreams are made of, while the clever movements of the front three would baffle opponents.
It might be fair to ask how many goals they'd score, but it might also be fair to argue they'd only need to muster one per game, given Van Dijk is partnering Koulibaly at the back.
GK: Alisson Becker
DEF: Dani Carvajal, Stefan de Vrij, David Alaba, Alex Telles
MID: Casemiro, Marco Verratti, Mohamed Salah, Neymar, Sadio Mane
FWD: Heung-Min Son
The class of '92!
Once a phrase used to celebrate Manchester United's incredible crop of youngsters that, in 1992, began shaping decades of success for the club; now a reference to the best birth year XI we could build.
Like the 1991 selection, it is absolutely stacked in midfield and attack—boasting a nice balance between Casemiro and Verratti in the centre, then all-out speed and incision up ahead—but the difference between the two is the goalkeeper and defence.
Alisson and Carvajal take this team up a notch compared to its rival, though the entire defence is so strong, led by Alaba, who has had a world-class six months at centre-back for Bayern Munich.
All statistics via WhoScored.com.