Long Reads

Lasse Schone’s Ajax Exit is the End of an Era

Lasse Schone celebrating goal while playing for Ajax

A simple Youtube search about Lasse Schone will do injustice to the man’s name and abilities. The search results that come up take away some credit from the Dane. He’s repeatedly referred to as a ‘midfielder’ – a description that he probably wouldn’t like too much himself.

While Schone has been used primarily as a defensive midfielder ever since Peter Bosz took over at Ajax in 2016, it was mainly due to the system and what the need of the hour was. The 33-year-old’s underrated career has been sprinkled with impressive performances from various positions across the pitch.

Now at Genoa in the Serie A, Schone’s exit went largely unnoticed in a window that has seen high-profile players like Romelu Lukaku and Philippe Coutinho switch clubs. Indeed so, it is very easy to forget Schone’s contributions to one of Europe’s most famous clubs. It is also easy to just walk over Schone’s seven-year spell at Ajax. Or perhaps, that is what his career has been all about – working silently and unselfishly.

On hearing Schone’s name, many will cast their minds back to Ajax’s remarkable 4-1 win over Real Madrid in the Champions League last season. It was his stunning free-kick that turned out to be the last goal in a shock victory, yet the goals scored by Dusan Tadic, David Neres and Hakim Ziyech will always catch more attention than the free-kick 20 years on.

That is how football is meant to be, probably. It has a large array of characters. Some get all of the attention, some seek it, some get it even when they don’t want it and some don’t get it despite having so much talent. Schone belongs in the last category and if you think it matters, he doesn’t care. His is a story of helping the side silently tide over transitions and overseeing everything in a diligent yet discreet way.

By the time he joined Ajax in the summer of 2012, Schone had appeared in 125 games for the NEC Nijmegen first team and played 74 times for De Graafschaap, where he helped the club earn promotion to the Eredivisie. He played a variety of positions throughout these times but predominantly played out wide or either behind the striker. Schone was quick-footed and liked to pick up central areas even when he was deployed wide on paper – almost like an inside forward.

In his last season for NEC, Schone scored 11 times and assisted four times in 34 league games – a reflection of how important he was to the club. NEC finished as high as 8th in the Eredivisie that season but only avoided relegation by three points the next season – another reminder for what Schone meant to side from the oldest city in the Netherlands.

The move to Ajax didn’t change Schone’s game. The club’s philosophy has always been to have technically gifted players who can play in multiple positions – reminiscent of the Total Football style. The likes of Siem de Jong and Daley Blind defined that and Frank de Boer was a keen believer in that ideology.

While Schone’s Ajax debut came playing as a left-winger at home to AZ, that was the last time he played in that position that season.

The next game against Schone’s former side NEC saw the Dane play as a defensive midfielder. The reasoning behind it was typically Ajax. Schone’s ability to play between the lines and build play from deep were the main factors. His angled passes from midfield allowed Ajax to develop a solid foundation from the back and they had someone who could pierce through defences with a single pass.

His first eight games playing in that role yielded six assists and two goals – a solid return for anyone who was new to that role. Throughout that season, Schone played in a wide variety of roles in midfield. He was used on the right of midfield, defensive midfield and attacking midfield. It was exactly what De Boer wanted out of his player.

Schone was one of Ajax’s best players that season, as the club won the Eredivisie title.

But one thing had become clear about Schone’s style. Teams were often targeting it. He never had the defensive awareness to play as a defensive midfielder regularly. For a team that played a high-line, Schone struggled when Ajax were pressed or when team counter attacked with pace. De Boer saw that and decided to play him on the right side of the pitch.

In the 2013-14 season, Schone even played at right-back sometimes, apart from usually playing on the right of midfield. This move allowed Ajax to be more flexible in movement considering Schone’s dexterity. It worked, as Schone scored nine times and assisted nine times that season, helping his side win the league once again.

The same happened in the 2014-15 season, but Ajax narrowly missed out on the title – conceding it to PSV. By this time, Schone had become a liability for some. He had seen loads of upcoming stars come and go. He had been on the same side as Christian Eriksen before he moved to Tottenham. He had overseen transitions which saw de Jong, Blind, Tony Alderweireld, Arek Milik, Davinson Sanchez and Viktor Fischer leave the club. Many thought it was time for him to move away and hand over the baton to the upcoming generation.

Indeed, the 2015-16 campaign was a frustrating one for Schone. There was a feeling that he wasn’t as agile as he used to be because of his age. He made only 12 starts that season, as the pace of football as a whole increased. He was played on the right side of midfield and less often in a deeper midfield role. And he struggled to adapt, even though his free-kick taking abilities didn’t falter at all.

As Ajax missed out on the title again, De Boer was replaced by a more attack-minded manager in Peter Bosz. His approach to the game demanded the necessity of a defensive midfielder to do what Schone did for a couple of seasons under De Boer. It was hard-metal football aimed at outscoring the opposition.

This allowed Schone to cement himself in the defensive midfield role once again. Having not started in the first four games, Schone had to see the likes of Donny van de Beek and Nemanja Gudelj play in unsuited deeper midfield roles in a 4-2-3-1 shape. But Schone’s introduction made Bosz realise what he had on his hands with the Dane.

Schone became the foundation of a side that had Matthijs de Ligt and Davinson Sanchez as its defensive pairing. He allowed the likes of Bertrand Traore, Kasper Dolberg and Hakim Ziyech the attacking freedom that they wanted to operate in a system that suited them.

The Amsterdam side did miss out on the title once again – this time by a single point, but they reached the Europa League final. In a series of dazzling performances to reach the final, Ajax had played wonderful football. It reminded many of the Johan Cruyff times, as the young players expressed themselves and enjoyed it. They were blanked out in the final against Manchester United, but the signs were very positive.

Bosz was snapped up by Borussia Dortmund and Marcel Keizer took over the reins. Schone was overseeing another transition. Sanchez left to join Alderweireld, Eriksen and Jan Vertonghen at Ajax. Davy Klaasen joined Everton. Jairo Riedewald joined De Boer at Crystal Palace, while Kenny Tete headed to Lyon. The upcoming generation of youngsters was waiting in the wings.

In the 2017-18 season, it was clear that Ajax had yet to close the gap with PSV at the top. Their rivals won the title by a gap of four points at the top. Keizer had used Schone as a defensive midfielder again, but the loss of four key players in the same window can damage anyone. By December, Keizer had failed to impress and was replaced by Erik ten Hag. A revolution was coming.

Ten Hag took Bosz’s legacy forward. Albeit, with a better set of players. Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong, van de Beek and Ziyech had improved as players. The loss of Sanchez was shored up by resigning Danny Blind. Nicolas Tagliafico had already done well to establish himself as the regular left-back after the losses of Tete and Riedewald. All they needed was a leader for a young bunch of players and a false nine to complete the system.

Schone proved to be that leader and Dusan Tadic became the false nine. And it is public knowledge that it was near perfection. The march to the Champions League semi-finals was a fairytale for many football fans. While the loss to Tottenham was a disappointment, it was by no means a disgrace. They did win the Dutch Cup and the Eredivisie, heralding a new generation of future heroes.

Because of Tottenham, Schone’s Ajax career came full-circle. The club that had taken away so many of their top talents had crippled the Ajax dream. Perhaps, it had to be them. Or perhaps, it had to be Schone – who had to suffer the killer blow at the hands of the English giants. It was just meant to be.

While De Jong and De Ligt went onto grab the headlines with moves to Barcelona and Juventus respectively, Schone was happy with a move to Genoa. A move that grabbed very few headlines – the definition of the man in question. Schone has done everything without getting the spotlight and without screaming out for the need for it. Whatever role he played, he did his job with the utmost professionalism.

During times when he didn’t play much, he stayed put and fought for his place. Despite all the talk of the generational change and how the game was passing him by, Schone adapted and kept at it. He cared only about the team and the good of the club’s culture.

That free-kick against Real Madrid was everything he’s about. It was a work of pure genius that was overshadowed by the sublime show from the younger players. The free-kick reminded the world that Schone’s hadn’t gone anywhere. He still had that grace, technicality and a brilliant free-kick in him. If the world cares 20 years on, it will go back to watch that gem of a strike that brought the Bernabeu to its feet. Even Ajax fans may not remember it, but Lasse Schone defined everything the club is about. He always will.

About the author

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Kaustubh Pandey

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