Trust Florentino Pérez to mistime a Super League-based intervention. On a weekend in which Real Madrid’s dogged president talked about “our beloved sport” being “sick” – though his perception of its malaise is very different kind than what many of us would deem are the residual problems – Germany had plenty to delight and surprise quite apart from Bayern Munich steadying themselves from their recent stumble.
It’s best told through a tale of two centre-forwards. Niclas Füllkrug woke up on Monday as the Bundesliga’s top scorer while Anthony Modeste – remember only Robert Lewandowski, Patrik Schick and Erling Haaland bettered the French striker’s tally for Köln in the last campaign – is under pressure from all sides. Of course, Bayern resumed normal service on Friday night against Bayer Leverkusen but there was little else following reasoned prediction.
You would walk a long way to find someone not happy for Füllkrug as he enjoys his purple patch. If Werder Bremen one of the revelations from the season’s opening weeks (collectively, only Bayern on the back of their early-season goal rampages have scored more Bundesliga goals than Werder), their man at the sharp end is just that in individual form. It’s not that nobody thought he could do it. It’s that we never thought he’d be able to.
The typical towering, bustling No 9, Füllkrug has shown potential for years but his route to success has not been easy, and it has often seemed like luck has conspired against him. After coming through Werder’s youth academy, he made his way through Greuther Fürth, Nürnberg and Hannover before establishing himself as a capable top-flight goalscorer at the latter, his hometown club, in his mid-20s. Then, he was struck down by another knee injury. It happened again after his return to Bremen in 2019, forcing a fourth major knee surgery of his career. Such was the club’s faith in his talent and presence, Füllkrug was rushed back for the 2021 run-in with the team in freefall under Florian Kohfeldt, but his goals weren’t enough to prevent relegation.
His 19 last season were enough to return Werder to the Bundesliga at the first attempt and now 29, Füllkrug has barely broken stride. Borussia Mönchengladbach were the latest to be knocked off course by him. After a good start to the campaign Daniel Farke’s team were submerged at the Weser, beaten 5-1 to double their goals conceded for the season.
Though he scored twice, it wasn’t all Füllkrug; Marvin Duckschbroke his Bundesliga duck for the season in between his partner’s double. The pair click brilliantly and when Ducksch’s smart play laid Füllkrug’s second on a plate for him, Werder were 3-0 up after only 13 minutes.
That support and goodwill could even push Füllkrug on to the next stage of fulfilling his dreams. It has not gone unnoticed in the wake of Germany’s two most recent outings – more the failure to score against Hungary in Leipzig than the erraticism of the six-goal thriller with England at Wembley, if truth be told – that one of the national team’s lingering shortcomings is perhaps the absence of a target man centre-forward. Or a big, Füllkrug-shaped hole, if you like.
He is in form and he has a whole dressing room of cheerleaders behind him. “The boy can do everything,” gushed Ducksch. “For me he is the best German striker out there at the moment. I’d like him to go to the World Cup.” It was a point of view endorsed by Niklas Stark. “If you want to play with a classic centre-forward,” said the defender, “you can’t look past him.” The Werder fans made their feelings clear, with a number of chants of “Füllkrug für Deutschland”. Lothar Matthäus summed it up rather more bluntly on Sky. “Hansi Flick isn’t blind,” he said.
If it looks like the worm is finally turning for a player so accident-prone that he once was taken to hospital to have a teammate’s tooth removed from his forehead after a freak collision in the Werder academy, Modeste might glance north-eastwards with some wistfulness. He was last season’s surprise package, bagging 20 Bundesliga goals to transform struggling Köln’s fortunes and to return them to European competition.
The next chapter was unfortunately where the two parties diverged; Effzeh hoped for more of the same from their reborn striker, while Modeste himself saw the chance of a first taste of Champions League football at 34 when Borussia Dortmund hit the market for a short-term replacement for Sébastien Haller. He seemed to tick all the boxes for BVB; big, strong, already adapted to German culture on and off the pitch, and old enough that the club didn’t have to shell out on a long contract with Haller coming back (Modeste was givena one-year deal, albeit on a generous wage package).
He returned to Köln with Dortmund for the first time this weekend already on the defensive after a tricky start to his career in Westfalen. Only one goal so far – albeit a very useful winner at Hertha – paled in comparison to what appears a bad stylistic fit. Haller was signed not just for his goals, but his ability to link play, something that Dortmund badly wanted. Modeste is more binary and direct, needing the ball in front of him and crosses into the box, with many of his goals being instant, one-touch finishes. With Youssoufa Moukoko, half his age, breathing down his neck for the starting place, Modeste needed to come out of the international break with a bang.
He couldn’t. It didn’t appear to matter in the first half, when Julian Brandt gave the visitors the lead after a slick move and captain-for-the-day Jude Bellingham angered the home fans – who booed Modeste relentlessly throughout – by doing Modeste’s glasses celebration in front of them. After the break it was different, with BVB stuck in treacle as Köln roared back, scoring twice in 153 seconds with Stefan Tigges, the eventual Modeste replacement signed from Dortmund, getting his first goal for the club. His predecessor never got that close. BVB’s 3-2 loss saw them miss the chance to go into next week’s Klassiker as league leaders.
Füllkrug might reflect, then, that if the call comes then it comes – but enjoying the moment is just as important as leaping on to the next stage.
Julian Nagelsmann relieved some of the pressure on himself with Bayern’s 4-0 demolition of Leverkusen, and spoke candidly afterwards to ESPN about his shock at the personal nature of some of the brickbats. His opposite number Gerardo Seoane is in a similar spot after his side’s meek surrender (“we didn’t have the necessary aggression”) after Sadio Mané’s first home Bayern goal, which leaves Die Werkself second-bottom.
After Dortmund’s loss Union Berlin stay top, despite being well beaten at Eintracht Frankfurt. Tottenham’s next opponents played excellently, with the blossoming link-up between Randal Kolo Muani and Mario Götze (the former brilliantly set up a goal for the latter before collecting a second booking later on) something for Antonio Conte to ponder.