From the Busby Babes to Erik ten Hag’s Ajacied and the Class of ’92, there have been some exceptional young sides to grace the beautiful game over the years.
In more recent times the idea of taking to the field with a starting XI comprised entirely of young talent seems almost unimaginable. “You can’t win anything with kids,” was the infamous cry from Alan Hansen in 1995.
Indeed we’ve seen some managers shun the chance to play the precocious prodigies staring them right in the face because the stakes are simply too high to risk blooding unpolished talent – just ask Tony Pulis about Serge Gnabry.
The composition of youth and experience is a well-trodden tenet of modern-day management, but can success really be achieved without following this path? Could a squad made up entirely of young players defy expectation and attain the levels of eminence upheld by their more senior counterparts?
Well, we wanted to find out. And like most of life’s great mysteries, the answers can usually be found on Football Manager. So, we put together a 25-man squad containing what we believe to be the best Under-21 players in Europe’s top five leagues – managed by fresh-faced technocrat Julian Nagelsmann – and watched as Squawka’s wunderkinds attempted to take the continent by storm after we parachuted them into the Premier League and Champions League.
GK – Donnarumma
RB – Alexander-Arnold
CB – Upamecano
CB – De Ligt
LB – Hakimi
CM – Camavinga
CM – Ødegaard
CM – Havertz
RW – Sancho
LW – Mbappé
ST – Håland
Any changes? pic.twitter.com/3iFBg3Gp6R
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 4, 2020
The squad: Squawka Wunderkind F.C.
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Donnarumma, Alban Lafont, Andriy Lunin
Centre-backs: Matthijs de Ligt (C), Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konate, Merih Demiral, Alessandro Bastoni
Full-backs: Trent Alexander-Arnold (VC), Alphonso Davies, Achraf Hakimi, Reece James
Midfielders: Kai Havertz, Federico Valverde, Houssem Aouar, Eduardo Camavinga, Sandro Tonali, Martin Odegaard, Nicolo Zaniolo
Forwards: Dejan Kulusevski, Kylian Mbappe, Jadon Sancho, Erling Braut Haaland, Joao Felix, Victor Osimhen
Nagelsmann has been no stranger to setting up his side in a three-at-the-back system, so there were no surprises to see the German tactician deploy a similar formation here. There are a number of avenues the 32-year-old could have explored but with attacking full-backs Alexander-Arnold and Hakimi on the books it made sense to provide the energetic duo greater license to surge forward and contribute in the final third.
Both players – notably Alexander-Arnold, who has almost revolutionised the full-back role – have already showcased their abilities to buccaneer up-and-down the touchline and function, effectively, as out-and-out wingers for Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund respectively.
Upamecano, Demiral and De Ligt formed an impressive bulwark at the back. Each player boasts the ability to play out from their own box and instigate attacking moves, while Donnarumma fortified the penalty area and took up a ‘sweeper keeper’ role.
Havertz and Zaniolo functioned as a double pivot in the centre of the park, while Aouar was asked to operate just in front in a more traditional No. 10 role and look to fashion chances for Felix and the man leading the line, Mbappe.
Whenever Nagelsmann desired more of a goalscoring threat in attacking midfield then he could always swap Aouar for Odegaard, or attempt to reinvent Sancho as a playmaker. He could also simply switch formations to allow wide players into his system.
It was certainly an audacious move to deploy Havertz and Zaniolo in central midfield together, given the attacking propensity of both players, but plenty of room was left for tinkering. Aouar was able to drop back, Tonali could step into the equation as a sitting midfielder, while teenage phenom Camavinga represented another stellar option.
If goals were proving particularly hard to come by then both Haaland and Osimhen were waiting in the wings to provide firepower in the latter stages of games.
Premier League: Sixth
Champions League: Last-16 (Juventus 4-1)
FA Cup: Third-round (Bournemouth 2-1)
League Cup: Quarter-finals (Wolves 1-0)
It was a valiant effort in the first season, with Nagelsmann and a number of his players having to adapt to the hustle and bustle of English football.
Nagelsmann’s talented tyros finished the campaign in sixth-position, failing to reach the coveted top four by a considerable 11 points, but his young guns could certainly take great encouragement from placing above Arsenal, Everton and Leicester City.
As for the Champion League, Nagelsmann and Co finished second in Group A having lost just a single game, ranking above last season’s semi-finalists Ajax, as well as Dynamo Kyiv. Their only loss came in a 4-0 mauling against Barcelona at the Camp Nou.
They were handed a tricky tie against Juventus in the knockout stages, but were unable to navigate past Maurizio Sarri and his star-studded squad. For what it’s worth the Old Lady went on to reach the final, only to lose 3-0 to PSG.
Domestically this is where Nagelsmann somewhat struggled, with Bournemouth eliminating them from the FA Cup in only the third round and Wolves edging a tight quarter-final contest in the League Cup.
Top goalscorer: Mbappe (23)
Most assists: Havertz (12)
Most passes: Alexander-Arnold (1649)
Mbappe wasn’t quite able to reach the stellar heights of his current PSG form but he did top the charts for Nagelsmann, netting 15 Premier League goals and 23 overall, while Haaland was a close second with 14 league goals and 20 across all competitions.
Havertz was the most creative player, registering 12 assists for his teammates, while Alexander-Arnold took his Anfield form with him as he attempted the most passes of any player in the squad.
Premier League: Fourth
Europa League: Last-16 (Borussia Dortmund 5-2)
FA Cup: Third-round (Liverpool 2-0)
League Cup: Quarter-finals (Chelsea 4-1)
This was a much better campaign for Nagelsmann and his boys as they manager to secure a return to the Champions League qualification places and improved upon their form by an eye-watering 13 points from the previous campaign.
After a year’s hiatus from the continent’s flagship knockout tournament, Nagelsmann’s side will once again be able to pit their wits against Europe’s elite.
During Nagelsmann’s maiden season, his side experienced 10 draws and 10 defeats; this time round neither of those categories reached double digits as the Squawka Wunderkinds racked up an impressive 23 wins.
In the Europa League, the young guns cruised through Group K, playing out all six games without defeat and enduring just the single draw, while they also bypassed Valencia in the last-32 but came unstuck against Borussia Dortmund in the second knockout phase.
And it was an all-too familiar story on the domestic front; another FA Cup exit in the third round, albeit against Liverpool, while Chelsea were the men to deliver a fatal blow in the League Cup quarter-finals this time.
Top goalscorer: Mbappe (30)
Most assists: Havertz (13)
Most passes: Alexander-Arnold (1587)
There were also no changes in the metrics department as Mbappe stormed the charts with 30 goals in all competitions, including taking home the Premier League Golden Boot for his 26-goal tally in the English top-flight while Havertz improved his assists outlay by one to finish the season on 13.
Alexander-Arnold again proved to be a playmaker in the full-back department as he registered a quite remarkable 1587 passes for the term.
And for the second year running Mbappe clinched the Players’ Young Player of the season accolade and was also the only member of Nagelsmann’s side to make it into the Team of the Season.
Premier League: Runners-up
Champions League: Winners (Liverpool 1-0)
Route to Champions League final: last-16 (Barcelona 5-1), QF (Juventus 3-2), SF (Man City 5-2)
FA Cup: Winners (Liverpool 2-0)
League Cup: Winners (Liverpool 2-1)
You asked for a third season – and the Squawka Wunderkinds delivered one for the ages courtesy of a quite frankly ridiculous treble, beating Liverpool in three finals. Sorry, Jurgen.
Nagelsmann scooped Manager of the Year award, Haaland and Mbappe shared the Premier League Golden Boot with Chelsea’s Lautaro Martinez, while Mbappe also won the Premier League Footballer of the Year award – plus the Young Player of the Year award for the third successive season.
It was no surprise to see Mbappe thrive as, despite being shifted out wide in a new 4-2-3-1 formation, he clearly relished being handed the captain’s armband. We’re pretty sure all this counts as potential being fulfilled. Don’t you?
Most goals: Mbappe (35)
Most assists: Havertz (18)