Standing tall amidst the body blows: The story of Lasse Schöne at Ajax

Lasse Schöne is Ajax’ veteran: a composed playmaker in a youthful and vibrant squad. We look into his story and the lifetime of experiences at the club.
Lasse Schöne is Ajax’ veteran: a composed playmaker in a youthful and vibrant squad. We look into his story and the lifetime of experiences at the club.

He came to the club in need of an assured presence and ended up being one. He struck a 40-yard free-kick in off the bar during the country’s fiercest derby. He saw players come and go, rising up Ajax’ youth ranks and being sold on for ludicrous money. This one time, he stepped aside to let a strapping, young player score a free-kick on his debut, celebrating the dawn of another mercurial talent with the Amsterdam ArenA. He was a few yards away when that same player fell injured, crash-landing a career even before it began flight. As Ajax’ most tenured player, Lasse Schone has experienced an awful lot.

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Johan Cruijff opens up his autobiography, My Turn, by listing his experiences growing up in Amsterdam. “We played football everywhere we could” disclosed the Dutch legend. “It was here I learned to think about how to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. You see that the kerb isn’t actually an obstacle, but that you can turn it into a teammate for a one-two.” Every footballer faces challenges and obstacles, but only the best know how to turn those obstacles into an advantage.

Not too long ago, Ajax Amsterdam were at the pinnacle of European football.

At a club like Ajax Amsterdam – the most popular and successful team in the history of Dutch football – most player signings these days are those of hot prospects with massive upside and potential for profit. See, the Netherlands is in a precarious position where even its largest clubs must cede their talent to richer teams abroad. However, clubs like Ajax, Feyenoord, and PSV are attractive enough to persuade talented youngsters to use Holland as a stepping-stone in their careers. This is why we see the likes of Christian Eriksen and Davinson Sánchez spending a few years at a big Dutch club before moving abroad for a large fee. Every new signing is expected to perform brilliantly for one or two years, then it’s ‘vaarwel’ (farewell)!

However, not every signing has to carry the massive weight of expectation with it. Lasse Schöne first made the leap from Denmark to Holland as a young teen, joining SC Heerenveen’s youth system. A failure to break into the first team saw Schöne drop down a division to De Graafschap, where he managed to lead the team to promotion as a 20-year-old. A phenomenal Eredivisie debut season earned Schöne a move to a larger club, NEC Nijmegen, but his second season at his new club was ended early by injury. As is often the case with the stocky Scandinavian, that obstacle only urged him to work harder. Two seasons of fantastic football followed, and everyone knew it was once again time for Schöne to advance his career further.

When Lasse Schöne’s contract expired in the summer of 2012, Ajax Amsterdam were quick to sign up the then 25-year-old. Trophies and awards would be won during Schöne’s tenure at Ajax, but at the time, the move wasn’t the flashy signing that we’ve now come to expect from the capitol club. Schöne had played his entire professional career at smaller Dutch teams. His lack of speed and physicality means that he isn’t the most enjoyable player to watch; instead, it was his attacking intelligence and composure that likely caught the eye of Ajax scouts.

If you are familiar with the country of Holland, you know how different Amsterdam is compared to other Dutch cities. Unlike, say, Rotterdam, Amsterdam was not bombed to pieces during World War II. Thus, the historic layout and infrastructure of the city remains intact today. As technology advances, roads and walkways must conform to the old canal paths. To quote Jon Townsend, footballers in Holland use “any patch of land that can be played on“. Space is restricted and, especially in Amsterdam, new ways must be created to utilize the limited room to manoeuver. The same concept applies to footballers in Amsterdam.

Lasse Schöne, dubbed Ajax’ boomerang man by Dutch journalist Daniël Dwarswaard, is masterful at making something out of nothing. A key concept to the ‘Ajax way’ ever since Johan Cruijff and Rinus Michels began discussing it is the manipulation of space. Schöne understands where his strengths and weaknesses lie, so he doesn’t exert his skill and put the team at risk. If he has the ball near Ajax’ own box, the Dane will dribble the ball close to his body and shield it well. When pressure from defenders restricts space, Schöne is great at twisting and turning out of traps, creating loads of space for himself and teammates. Think Sergio Busquets, if the Spaniard was worse at passing but perhaps a little more adventurous in his dribbling.

Lasse was immediately thrust into the Ajax starting eleven and became known for his versatility. Starting as a winger one week and a defensive midfielder another, Schöne’s contribution was vital to the Dutch champions’ domestic and European campaigns. Like many Danish Ajax players before him, Schöne is always composed on the ball. When in possession, fans have very little reason to believe the little playmaker will give away the ball sloppily.

In addition, the Dane has been one of the greatest free-kick takers in Europe in recent years. Schöne’s savviness when stepping over a dead ball is unlike many others – his technique is not awe-inspiring like a Leo Messi, but all detractors are shut up once the football is unleashed towards goal in a fiery, curling voyage. Take last season’s De Klassieker for instance: Schöne wins a free-kick from over 40 yards out during Ajax’ first possession of the game.

The Dane jogs up to the dead ball. “Surely he isn’t going to hit this, is he?,” I said to myself. Yes he did, and the lightning-quick shot contorted in the air, pinging off the underside of the crossbar to give Ajax the lead within seconds of kickoff. Over 51,000 fans jumped for joy and screamed at the top of their lungs. Lasse Schöne, now 31 and entering the twilight of his career, jubilantly sprinted towards the corner flag, sliding on two knees and drinking in the admiration. Players over a decade younger than he clamored to give him a hug. He’s the assured presence; the stalwart at a club so heavily invested in the philosophy of young players. But it wasn’t always that way for Lasse Schöne.

Johan Cruijff is the most obvious footballer to come to mind when words like “teamplay” and “fluid football” are uttered. Cruijff’s Ajax, as both player and manager, played unlike any other team had done before. An emphasis on positional rotation and interconnected passing play meant that teamwork was the most highly valued trait of an Ajax (and Dutch, for that matter) player. Schöne’s selflessness, admittedly a necessity to some extent due to his lack of superstar ability, is exactly how a player can succeed in the Ajax system.

Schone’s first three years at the club went quite well. Ajax won the league twice and produced some phenomenal football. The midfield position was clogged up (Christian Eriksen is quite the player, I hear), so Schöne became known as a utility player in Frank de Boer’s squad. However, despite often being played in an unnatural position, Schöne always kept his head high and fought for the greater good of the team. In 2013, Schöne played at right-wing in Ajax’ famous victory over Barcelona in the Champions League, and a clutch free-kick against PSG in the 2014 Champions League cemented Schöne’s status as a specialist in that field. Deservedly, his overall contribution earned him the title of Ajax Player of the Year in 2014. The Dane’s playmaking skills, as well as his control of the ball and fierce long shots, were becoming threats not just to smaller Dutch teams but to some of the best teams in Europe.

One of the main attractions of Ajax, one that pulls in support from over the world, is its policy on youth. Most of the signings are of young players, while a special emphasis is placed on bringing players up from the academy, De Toekomst. Old wood has gotten younger and younger; whereas a player of 34 or 35 years may start to become phased out of a top European club, at Ajax it happens much earlier. Either a player is sold during their prime to raise funds or dumped out of the squad to make room for the next big thing.

Fast forward to the spring of 2016. Schone’s former club De Graafschap faces off against Ajax in the final match of the season. This time, Schöne is on the bench – a place he’d been all too often that season. He watched on as his former employers and to-be-relegated club managed to draw against his current team, meaning that Ajax lost the title to rivals PSV. As veterans like Schöne were pushed to the bench, the youngsters failed to deliver the trophy.

Frank de Boer left Ajax that summer and Amsterdam opened its arms to a new face, Peter Bosz. The bald tactician reinstated Schöne to the lineup quickly, but in a vastly different place than he’d become accustomed to. Now on the wrong side of 30, Schöne had become Ajax’ midfield controller, sitting deep as a defensive midfielder. The Danish international is not a fantastic defender, but his ability to dictate the tempo from deep is exactly what Bosz’ Totaal Voetbal-esque team needed.

Young, promising players arrive often at Ajax in an attempt to break into the first team and further their careers. Lasse Schöne knows this, and he knows that one poor season will land him on the bench or out of the club. Yet the Dane still remains, always rising above his detractors at the end of each season. They always promise to knock out the old midfielder, but he remains standing in the ring like a boxer on his last legs.

Still, Lasse Schöne isn’t bloodied and beaten. He’s become stronger through the process of defending his place in the team.

Last season, Ajax missed out on an Eredivisie title to arch-rivals Feyenoord, but a fantastic and unexpected Europa League run almost eclipsed the domestic league in terms of importance. After knocking out the likes of Schalke 04 and Olympique Lyon, Ajax made it to the final. Unfortunately for De Godenzonen, Paul Pogba and Manchester United proved a bridge too far for Schöne’s Ajax to cross. but the tournament proved that players like Schöne could compete with Europe’s big boys.

At the biggest club in Holland, politics plays a massive role. Thus, Peter Bosz was out that summer due to, in large part, a row with one Dennis Bergkamp on the training staff. A new manager named Marcel Keizer, who’d been successful with Jong Ajax (reserve team), rose up to replace him. Still, the bigger stories of movements last summer were those of players. Sánchez, who’d by then gained a reputation as an excellent defender, was sold on for yet another record fee. Captain Davy Klaassen also made the jump to Everton — the 24-year-old was nothing more than an emerging youth player when Schöne arrived in Amsterdam. More in, more out. That’s what life is like at Ajax, and that’s what Schöne has endured around him for nearly six years.

And then tragedy struck.

I don’t like to write much about it, due to the sensitive nature, but I feel it’s a necessary detail in the story of Lasse Schöne. Earlier in the season, September of 2016 to be exact, Ajax faced off against Willem II in a KNVB Cup match. As per usual, Ajax dominated and were heading to a 4-0 win, supplemented by a phenomenal Schöne free-kick. Young prospect Abdelhak “Appie” Nouri was subbed on for his debut and, when the midfielder won a free-kick just outside the box, a phenomenal moment occurred.

With confidence, Nouri walks over to the ball like he’s about to take the free-kick. Schöne must’ve had a word with him, but the youngster shot the Danish veteran a look of “please?” Nouri won the argument, took the free-kick low and to the far post, and it slid gracefully over the grass, passing the goal line chalk and nestled into the net. The stadium burst into cheers.

Nearly a year later, Appie Nouri had become a fixture in the main squad. During a summer training camp in Austria, Nouri was playing the second half of a friendly match when he fell to the ground — a heart attack. What is important to know is that, while Appie is thankfully alive, he’s not going to be fully functioning for a while, if ever.

Yet another player had been taken away from Lasse Schöne at Ajax. However, this time was different. The kid who had once begged the finely aged midfielder to take a free-kick now had his career ended in an instant.

As hard as it was, Ajax continued their season with a massive hole in their team and in their hearts. Schöne continued as a deep-lying playmaker, dominating matches and leading Ajax in goals scored. How the players could bounce back so well from such a tragedy I’m sure I don’t know. Despite all of this, at the end of the calendar year Marcel Keizer was sacked as first team manager, putting somewhat of a bookend on an insane 2017 in Amsterdam.

“This was the craziest year of my career I have been a professional football player for a while, but this was the craziest year of my career. We have experienced beautiful things but also horrible things. And last week [the Keizer sacking], of course, everything was turned upside down again.”

As Johan Cruijff once said, “every disadvantage has its advantage.” While it may be hard to look for a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel, there are just some people in this world who seem to do it quite well. Lasse Schöne is one of those people. 2018 brings with it new challenges for Schöne: a new manager, a league title push, and of course the continuous coping with the medical condition of his friend, Appie.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching Lasse Schöne, it’s not his fantastic footballing intelligence, nor his passing ability. It’s not even his free-kick taking, or his teamwork on the pitch. I’ve learned that life is going to throw some major setbacks at you. Each new year, each new season, brings with it a new set of challenges that must be overcome. Schöne has proven time and time again that he has what it takes to compete with the more promising youngsters for a position at Ajax. He’s proven his worth to managers, teammates, and hundreds of thousands of fans. He’s done it before and he’ll do it again.

Lasse Schöne is the spirit who will never be denied.