Lasse Schöne – The hero that Ajax deserves and needs
It’s 27th April 2014. A cloudy but still relatively bright day in Almelo. One team in distinctive white-red-white shirts, one solitary point away from etching their names onto the stonewalls of the hall of immortal fame. Eleven minutes of football pass, yet no breakthrough is reached. And then, a free-kick is awarded, more than 30 yards from goal. Medium-build, light brown spiked hair, grey-blue eyes not darting, but fixed on that chance, up steps a Dane – relatively diminutive in size, but not influence. he takes two strides to the ball – he’s done this a million times before, in matches, in training, on his own after training.
Two strides and a fraction of a second later, the ball rockets up against the crossbar and lands in the back of the net – already nestling for a good few seconds before the keeper even realises what has happened.
Lasse Schöne was not a particularly high-profile piece of business in the summer of 2012 in Amsterdam. Club captain Jan Vertonghen left for what he perceived to be the greener pastures of Tottenham Hotspur. Midfielder Vurnon Anita exchanged the red and white for the black and white of Tyneside while World Cup runner up Gregory van der Wiel was lured by the promise of the new ‘project’ in Paris. In addition to the arrival of Vertonghen-replacement and old Ajax boy Niklas Moisander from AZ, there was a Scandinavian attacker most were eager to see more of – but it was Swede Tobias Sana (who is now likely to be offloaded by Ajax this summer to Aalborg when his contract expires) and not Dane Schöne. But whereas Sana was not able to fill the big boots of previous Swedes like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Stefan Petterson, it was Lasse Schöne who succeeded fellow Dane Christian Eriksen in leading his team to the title, becoming the essential cog in Frank de Boer’s team.
Having arrived on the reclaimed and waterlogged shores of the Netherlands 12 years ago, the then-17-year-old attacking midfielder was snapped up by Heerenveen, considered one of the most promising talents in his native Denmark, having impressed for Lyngby.
However, Friesland did not turn out to be the dream the Dane had envisioned and he soon found himself following his Heerenveen assistant coach Jan de Jonge to De Graafschap, where he played a part in getting them promoted to the Eredivisie. His influence grew from there as he had a much larger role for the Superboeren the following season and almost single-handedly ensured they stayed in the top flight, with a well-taken hat-trick in the relegation play-offs. Then came NEC Nijmegen with the opportunity for Schöne to pit himself in a team with different objectives to De Graafschap at the time. However, an extremely slow start to life in Gelderland and a knee injury that ruled him out of the following season almost entirely saw Schöne’s career stagnate. His performances were inconsistent on his return, with a propensity to disappear in crucial mid-season matches. The talent and the skill was definitely there, but the consistency was not the most assuring.
Nevertheless, Schöne picked up admirers around the Netherlands and Europe and in 2011 – a year before his NEC contract expired, Feyenoord, with his ex-NEC coach Mario Been in charge, were said to be exhibiting serious interest, though a move didn’t materialise. Picking up the Gelderland Footballer of the Year award in 2012, Schöne chose not to extend his contract and as a free agent, a host of clubs including Feyenoord, Schalke and Twente came for the Dane, but it was the magical allure of Ajax that appealed to him.
Upon signing for the Amsterdam club – becoming the 21st Dane to do so – Schöne remarked that it was a great feeling to be playing for the club that his idol Michael Laudrup had played for and that he understood competition would be high for the two attacking midfielders that coach Frank de Boer likes to play with.
He was definitely right on that occasion. Behind both Eriksen and Siem de Jong in the pecking order, Schöne initially found himself playing as a defensive midfielder, a relatively alien position for him that required more positional discipline than his more natural attacking role. Moreover, the addition of a legitimate defensive midfielder in Christian Poulsen meant Schöne was rotated more frequently, but found his role alongside Eriksen when Siem de Jong was moved to a false 9 role. His first season in Amsterdam was certainly not a bad one but bigger things were on the horizon for Schöne.
Then, 2013 came and with it the long-inevitable departure of Ajax’s creation machine, Christian Eriksen. The Dane – as in previous seasons – had contributed to 5 goals in the first 4 Eredivisie matches before Tottenham Hotspur came swooping in. In addition to that, De Jong, captain and arguably the best goal-threat in the Ajax squad, suffered a series of unfortunate injuries that really minimised his playing time, starting with a collapsed lung two games into the domestic season to a thigh muscle strain and then a hamstring injury. Although the defence was relatively shored up quickly despite Alderweireld’s departure, the attack was still lacking in direction, pace and creativity. De Boer tinkered and tampered in order to find a proper balance in midfield and seemed to have sorted it when he finally decided that enough was enough and Daley Blind simply had to be moved from left-back to defensive midfield.
However, this still did not make up for the sheer lack of creativity in attack. De Jong and Davy Klaassen are both of a similar mould – more goal-scoring attacking midfielders than an Eriksen-esque creator who can make that crucial final pass. In addition to this was the faltering form of wingers Viktor Fischer and Bojan Krkic. When drafting in youngsters such as Lucas Andersen and Lesly de Sa as well as Sana failed, De Boer turned to this very willing man who has Eredivisie experience in being a goal scorer and creator, and had proven the ability to play in different positions.
He turned to Lasse Schöne.
The Dane’s willingness to take up a utility role was evident in that within the space of a few matches, he had played in a defensive midfield role, at right back and, finally, on the right wing.
Inserting a player like Schöne so high up in attack yielded its benefits immediately. In his first start on the wing, Schöne racked up the Ajax Goal of the Season against Celtic in the Champions League and got an assist in each of the next four games, scoring in the fifth, striking up a great understanding with Klaassen as Ajax picked up momentum and put together an impressive winning streak. Whether it was consolidating the lead or opening up the opposition defence, Schöne had started to offer the creativity and overall linkup play in the final third that Ajax previously lacked.
As the season progressed, Schöne’s influence grew and grew in stature. PSV gave the Amsterdam side an extremely tough time in the ArenA, but a smart run by Schöne across Jetro Willems was seen by Moisander, who played the ball up to the Dane who provided a sublime mid-air one-touch lofted cross to Sigthorsson who also deserves credit for a great header which hit the net.
This started a certain penchant in Schöne for making the difference in crucial matches and moments for Ajax. The assist against PSV, was followed by a winner against Go Ahead Eagles, a hat-trick past Heerenveen and an extremely crucial goal-and-assist in the meeting with close contenders Twente, with only five games left til the end of the season. It was perhaps inevitable that the goal that won Ajax their fourth consecutive title came from a Schöne free-kick – many of which had proven extremely dangerous in the previous months. He also scored the winner in a tumultuous and controversial KNVB Beker semifinal vs AZ, though he could not affect the 1-5 thrashing in the final to PEC Zwolle.
The Dane is diminutive and does not possess the kind of pace Viktor Fischer or Ricardo Kishna do, however, he offers an extremely cool head in possession and an intelligence that picks at any semblance of gaps in the opposition defence – an asset very lacking in Ajax after Eriksen’s departure, and often proving to be absolutely crucial in deciding the outcome of matches. This is not to underestimate Schöne’s dribbling ability though, as he proved at the weekend, taking the ball past three AZ players before unleashing an absolute rocket. His set pieces have also proven to be absolute class in their delivery, be it setting up teammates or going for goal himself, having mastered the ‘knuckle-ball’ technique.
Lassen /ˈlasn /(v): to weldSchön / ʃøːn /(adj): beautiful
Much in the vein of the weathered quote from The Dark Knight, Lasse Schöne is the hero Ajax needs.
Schöne’s name – if transliterated in German – could be taken to mean a ‘beautiful welding’ which is a phrase that lends itself to his influence and impact on pitch. In a team that loves nothing more than playing from the back, Schöne is that invaluable outlet in the Ajax team who marries the defence and attack, facilitating a flow to the way the team builds up for a goal. He is the welding process that allows the coalescence of defence and attack, who perhaps provides the single biggest goal threat in an Ajax team that has such a dearth of quality in the striking department. Three goals and two assists to his name already this season and Schöne doesn’t look like he will be dethroned any soon.
And as of now, Lasse Schöne is the hero Ajax deserves.
It is only natural that after such a season, Schöne would be in the eye of foreign clubs, but now a senior member of the Ajax squad – already affectionately called ‘Opa van Ajax’ (Grandfather of Ajax) at only 28 (very much in his prime), the Dane has pledged his immediate future to the Godenzonen. It is not often that a player in their late twenties stays at Ajax and wants to stay there, though considering Schöne’s climb to where he is, his ambitions may not have been of the level of some of the other youngsters of the current generation. And ultimately, there is a chance Schöne might be the kind of player whose skill level allows him to be fantastic in the Eredivisie but not beyond that. Some may call this representative of the disparity between Dutch clubs and the ‘Top five’ leagues, but it is worth noting that there are players from some of the more prestige leagues who fail to replicate their form in other countries. That a player stays in what is considered a relatively inferior league for a large part of his career does not mean that the player is ‘mediocre’. Schöne is a committed professional on the field and as long as he continues to play the way he does (though he is on his last year of contract) and win games and trophies for Ajax, there should not be any glaring issue.
Retrospectively, in a list of Frank de Boer signings that includes the likes of Mike van der Hoorn and Tobias Sana who have been pretty much abject failures so far, capturing Schöne on a free transfer seems a masterstroke. He came in with a lot of Eredivisie experience and an eagerness in playing – even out of position – and while Fischer is the most talked-about Dane at Ajax to the outside world, his senior compatriot is definitely the most influential on field and as long as he keeps rolling out these brilliant contributions in front of goal, Ajax’s immediate future in their challenge for an unprecedented fifth Eredivisie title very schön indeed.