Ranking the Years That Have Produced the Best Football XIs Since 1985

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterJune 1, 2020

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 02:  Mohamed Salah of Liverpool celebrates with Sadio Mane after scoring the opening goal during the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Sheffield United at Anfield on January 02, 2020 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Alex Livesey - Danehouse/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey - Danehouse/Getty Images

First it was ranking teams by their under-25s, followed by ex-players; now it's by birth years. No one plays the hypothetical XI quite like B/R Football.

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!

16. 1985

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).


15. 2000

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.


14. 1986

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.


13. 1999

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.


12. 1987

GK: Vicente Guaita

DEF: Gerard Pique, Leonardo Bonucci, Jan Vertonghen

MID: Antonio Candreva, Arturo Vidal, Sami Khedira, Blaise Matuidi

FWD: Lionel Messi, Karim Benzema, Luis Suarez

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.


11. 1996

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!


10. 1995

MUNICH, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 01: Joshua Kimmich (L) of FC Bayern Muenchen and his team mate Serge Gnabry during the FC Bayern Muenchen and Paulaner photo session at FGV Schmidtle Studios on September 01, 2019 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Alexander Hassens
Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

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. 


9. 1990

LANDOVER, MD - AUGUST 04: Miralem Pjanic of Juventus and Toni Kroos of Real Madrid during the International Champions Cup 2018 future between Real Madrid v Juventus at FedExField on August 4, 2018 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/
Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

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.


8. 1997

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MARCH 07: Frenkie De Jong of FC Barcelona in action during the Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Sociedad at Camp Nou on March 07, 2020 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Silvestre Szpylma/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

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.


7. 1998

Dortmund's Moroccan defender Achraf Hakimi celebrates after scoring his team's fourth goal during the German first division Bundesliga football match SC Paderborn 07 and Borussia Dortmund at Benteler Arena in Paderborn on May 31, 2020. (Photo by Lars Baro
LARS BARON/Getty Images

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.


6. 1989

MUNICH, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 09: Axel Witsel of Borussia Dortmund battles for the ball with Thomas Mueller of FC Bayern Muenchen during the Bundesliga match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Borussia Dortmund at Allianz Arena on November 09, 2019 in Munich, Ge
Boris Streubel/Getty Images

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.


5. 1994

OXFORD, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 18: Raheem Sterling of Manchester City celebrates with teammate Bernardo Silva   after scoring his team's second goal  during the Carabao Cup Quarter Final match between Oxford United and Manchester City at Kassam Stadium on Dec
Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

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.


4. 1988

MUNICH, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 09: Mats Hummels of Borussia Dortmund and Robert Lewandowski of FC Bayern Muenchen controls the ball during the Bundesliga match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Borussia Dortmund at Allianz Arena on November 9, 2019 in Munich, Ge
TF-Images/Getty Images

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.


3. 1993

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - JULY 17: Paul Pogba of Manchester United walks out onto the field for the warm up session during a pre-season friendly match between Manchester United and Leeds United at Optus Stadium on July 17, 2019 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Pau
Paul Kane/Getty Images

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.


2. 1991

VALENCIA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 22: Eden Hazard of Real Madrid in action during the La Liga match between Levante UD and Real Madrid CF at Ciutat de Valencia on February 22, 2020 in Valencia, Spain. (Photo by Mateo Villalba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

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.


1. 1992

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 18:  Neymar of Paris Saint-Germain runs with the ball under pressure from Mohamed Salah of Liverpool during the Group C match of the UEFA Champions League between Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain at Anfield on September 18,
Michael Regan/Getty Images

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.

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All statistics via WhoScored.com.