It was an evening of not one ending, but two, in Lower Saxony. It took two nods of Anthony Modeste’s head; the first, of the gentlest kind, to score one of the easiest goals of his curious career and end a mini-drought, the second a more forceful show of aerial power to provide an 89th-minute winner and send Köln’s travelling supporters into ecstasy. “My strength is my heading, not my right or my left foot as you saw in that move,” he laughed afterwards with some self-deprecation, having missed an arguably better chance 10 minutes before.
The look of deflation on the face of Florian Kohfeldt, the Wolfsburg manager, after another defeat was all down to Modeste, whose incredible return to form at 33 is one of the stories of this Bundesliga season. The Frenchman is also the scorer of more headed goals than anybody else in the league so far, and of more headers than anyone at this stage of a Bundesliga campaign since the towering Jan Koller for Borussia Dortmund in 2004-05. So plus ça change for Effzeh’s centre-forward, you might say. To dismiss it as a given, however, would underplay the journey to get here.
It is remarkable. Until a four-game dry spell leading into the trip to the Volkswagen Arena, “Turbo Tony” was scoring at a faster rate than he did during 2016-17. He still has 10 in 16 starts so far, which is way more than anyone would have dared imagine when he was loaned out to Saint-Étienne (where his late father, Guy, had also played) last season or when he returned to Geißbockheim in summer after the completion of a miserable spell back in France, comparable to his inglorious temporary move to Blackburn Rovers in 2012.
A huge part of the wildly popular Steffen Baumgart’s revival of the team has been his ability to get the best from Modeste. The coach recently recounted some words of direction he gave the player in pre-season. “We talked about what he wants to achieve,” said Baumgart. “Whether he wants to relax for the next two years [the remainder of his contract at the start of the season] or step on the gas, be successful and have fun.” Modeste’s response was clear, committing body and soul to be ready for a fast-paced brand of football under the new manager, following jaw and groin surgery.
Baumgart had begun to succeed where his predecessor Markus Gisdol failed, with Modeste never really clicking with the former Hoffenheim coach. “I’ve never seen him work so hard,” said the defender Rafael Czichos. Baumgart’s personality and tactical bravery has changed fundamentally changed Köln but none of it would make as much of a difference if Modeste had not rediscovered his scoring touch. Köln have gained a superstar forward they never could have afforded on the open market.
To do it again here means so much. This is Modeste’s home – which is why, when it all started to fall apart in China and his new club wanted to wriggle out of his lucrative deal, he was only ever coming back to one place. In dispute with Tianjian Quanjian, he came back to Germany in late summer 2018 and training with his former team before finally being re-signed in the November. After months of wrangling between the clubs and Fifa, it took the intervention of former European Parliament president Martin Schulz, using his connections in China to clear him to play.
Modeste scored, naturally, four minutes into his second debut, at Paderborn, in February 2019. It brought him to tears, as all the months of struggle and the feeling that bridges with the faithful might have been burned by his departure flooded in. He went on to score some important goals as the team won the second tier title and went straight back up to the top flight.
Off-pitch relationships were repaired but on the field, it was never quite the same. Modeste was hampered by injuries which cast serious doubt over whether such an imposing whirlwind of a striker could ever come close to recapturing anything near his best. “In mid-April I was at the point where I couldn’t walk any more because of the pain,” he recently told Bild, discussing his groin problems, even if much of last season in Germany was about managing his knee. Modeste got in touch with the surgeon Gilles Reboul, who he knew and trusted from his time at Bordeaux a decade ago, and had him operate on his groin.
It was a last throw to rediscover his peak. He had scored 25 times in the Bundesliga in 2016-17 as they made Europe for the first time in a generation, with the top scorer and his teammates rushing Peter Stöger’s press conference to joyously given the coach a drenching after the final-day win over Mainz sealed the deal. Then Modeste left for China and from the moment he was strongly criticised over it by then-Effzeh (and now Wolfsburg) sporting director Jörg Schmadtke, it didn’t work for either party. Stöger was out before Christmas, Köln were relegated, and the centre-forward lost his mojo.
Now back in the saddle, Modeste is loved. He inspires songs, such as this Mallorca classic by Ikke Hüftgold, embraces the city’s fabled Karneval and charms with his interviews and displays of closeness with Baumgart, like when he stole the manager’s trademark cap for a dance after a recent equaliser against Union.
He is also, in the words of Uth, “Köln’s life insurance”, and has the edge to be decisive. “You always meet twice in life,” Modeste told Sportschau after the game, not hiding his pleasure in getting one over Schmadtke. In a club and a city that knows how to enjoy the moment unlike any other, the man who has become one of their own deserves to do just that.
Bayern Munich are officially the Herbstmeister – autumn champion – after a 5-0 win at Stuttgart that was a tad flattering but underlined just how good they are and what Martin Schneider of Süddeutsche Zeitung described as the “still-immense possibilities of the Bayern squad”. Serge Gnabry returned to his former club to strike a super hat-trick despite Julian Nagelsmann’s suggestion “he’s still struggling a bit with his back”. Meanwhile Marc Roca, brought in after a spate of midfield injuries, received a dressing-room ovation for his performance.
Dortmund beat Greuther Fürth – emboldened by their first win of the season, and playing bravely – 3-0 but it was nowhere near as it easy as the scoreline looks, with Erling Haaland’s two goals coming at just the right time to avert trouble. Fürth’s sporting director, Rachid Azzouzi, meanwhile, was furious with the referee for not giving Jude Bellingham a second yellow card on the stroke of half-time.