There Ain’t No Striker Better: Jean-Philippe Mateta's Rollercoaster Crystal Palace Journey

Written by Freddie Jennings

Freddie Jennings takes a look back at our no.14's incredible journey as a Crystal Palace striker

Slow Beginnings

When Jean-Phlippe Mateta was signed initially on loan from Mainz in the January transfer window of 2021, you would have forgiven Palace fans for being rather cautious regarding the ability of our new French forward given the Eagles track record with strikers in the Premier League. Just one goal in seven appearances during the 2020/21 campaign didn’t exactly convince supporters that he was the answer to our prayers (even if it was an audacious finish against Brighton) and only 7 Premier League goals across the two following seasons left many doubts over his standing at the club, yet even in those frustrating and at times testing moments, it was clear that in Mateta we had a player capable of delivering on the big occasions, yet no one could have predicted just how drastically our French Marksman has transformed throughout the 2023/24 campaign, deservedly becoming our Player Of the Season.

Those fleeting moments of excellence were sprinkled throughout Patrick Vieira’s only full season at the club (2021/22), whereby his key strikes in our memorable FA Cup run against rivals Millwall and Everton helped us secure a spot at Wembley for a Semi-Final clash against fellow Londoners Chelsea. Said cup run saw the birth of a unique relationship between the Frenchman and Palace fans, whereby his now iconic goal celebration of volleying a corner flag emerged alongside his now inextricable association to Vengaboys song “Boom Boom Boom Boom!!”. An odd product of his goalscoring form, but one that increased Palace supporters love affair with him nonetheless.

Additionally, the season after he converted from the bench against Leicester City in the 94th minute to secure an invaluable win during Roy Hodgson’s first match back at the club, a goal which seemingly inspired our excellent run of form and led us to safety in the Premier League once again. Yet ultimately, these moments were becoming too sparse for someone tasked with leading the line in arguably the world’s toughest division, and prior to the 2023 summer window, serious rumours of his departure looked justified and perhaps a parting of ways was needed for both parties, thankfully for Eagles everywhere nothing materialised and the rest as they say, is history.

Signs of growth

The first signs of the 2023/24 potentially being Mateta’s most impactful year came in our 4-2 comeback victory away to Plymouth Argyle in the second round of the Carabao Cup whereby the striker’s hat-trick proved the difference against the Devon based club, and the way in which he dispatched two of his three strikes was reminiscent of a striker in top form, scoring at a constant rate. Yet that performance couldn’t dispel the argument that his overall game needed improving.

From a personal standpoint it used to baffle me that a player with such a powerful and domineering frame was seemingly incapable of holding the ball up and his inability to head or even challenge for balls bordered on infuriating but in spite of his glut of goals since Oliver Glasner’s arrival in February of this calendar year, one particular performance against Wolverhampton Wanderers in early September caught the eye, or mine at least. Despite not scoring or even registering a shot on goal against the Midlands side, Mateta demonstrated attributes more reflective of an all-round striker, capable of incorporating teammates into the game, as evidenced with his expertly timed lay off for fellow Frenchman Odsonne Edouard who duly dispatched to seal three points for Palace, adding to his improvised cushioned assist of his back for playmaker Eberechi Eze.

The following matchday away to Aston Villa produced another Mateta assist when superbly wriggling away from Pau Torres and setting up Edouard once more to give the South Londoners a hard-fought lead in Birmingham. However, the topsy turvy relationship between this player and his club was about to take another twist as an inevitable goal drought enveloped yet another Crystal Palace striker. As the teams formed dipped between the months of October to December, Mateta himself began to struggle with for goals and for minutes.

In spite of this, 9 appearances between a 0-0 draw at home to Fulham and a 2-0 defeat to seasiders Bournemouth at Selhurst Park in early December yielded a total of zero goals and the proverbial alarm bells were starting to ring once more and with a January transfer looming, a question arose of whether or not it would be prudent to sell the striker to free up the budget for greater attacking investment. Yet ardent Mateta defenders during this period were largely vindicated when pointing to the notion that his lack of service and quality playmakers providing from midfield behind him had resulted in a striker deprived of opportunities to show his credentials and ruthlessness in front of goal with injuries to Eze and Michael Olise damaging his goalscoring prospects.

Others even cited the restrictions on the team’s fluidity caused by the robust and stubborn principles of experienced manager Roy Hodgson had inhibited Mateta, with a lack of support in advanced areas leaving him isolated and cut off from the rest of play. Whatever the cause of this downfall, doubts about Mateta’s future at the club were swiftly removed as the month of December grew on, an upturn forged in the most unlikely of circumstances. With Palace rapidly spiralling down the division and in a state of limbo under the relatively uninspiring guidance of Hodgson, two fixtures against heavyweight sides Liverpool and Manchester City didn’t look like offering much respite.

With Palace level against Jurgen Klopp’s scousers, Mateta was summoned from the bench and quickly converted his first Premier League goal of the season from the penalty spot to propel Palace into an unlikely lead before his effort away at the Etihad sparked a remarkable comeback point against the treble winners of the previous campaign. The way in which he managed to shrug of City defender Nathan Ake for this strike was indicative of a physically stronger and more purposeful player with a desire to improve his own reputation within the club. It appeared Mateta had given himself a platform of which to thrive throughout the rest of the campaign, and although a plethora of goals weren’t to follow in the resulting matches, stellar performances were to follow in victories against Brentford and Sheffield United, with his link up play to fellow teammates being a clear evidence of improvement in the Frenchmen’s all round game, with his heading prowess similarly proving a challenge to contain for wily defenders at either club.

Another goal was scored during this period before Hodgson’s eventual departure, even if it was a consolation against arch rivals Brighton, and his bustling performances never wavered even amongst the fearmongering associated with our poor run of form. His determination couldn’t stave off Roy’s departure however, yet his performances had clearly established that Mateta could be a pivotal focal point to the Eagles front line and our 1-1 draw away to Everton at Goodison park in February resembled an almost poetic moment, as the old guard represented by Roy’s loyal assistant Ray Lewington battled for an impressive point under the watchful eyes of newly announced Austrian manager Oliver Glasner, a man who was about to take Mateta’s game to the next level.

Glas All Over

Although the Austrian’s arrival didn’t have an immediate impact in terms of results, the managerial appointment certainly inspired Mateta to further excellence. A comprehensive 3-0 victory over Burnley ensured that Glasner achieved an impressive start, with Mateta bagging another clinical finish from the spot. The next 5 matches however yielded just 2 points from a possible 15 as the side were clearly still adapting to the methods and tactics of Glasner, with a drastic change in formation establishing an overall need for patience. Yet Mateta’s revival only strengthened. Three clinical strikes against Luton, Nottingham Forest and champions Manchester City proved that his new role as a lone striker ahead of two attacking midfielders had been a very fruitful transition.

The 4-2 defeat at Selhurst Park to Pep Guardiola’s citizens may have left the team just 5 points of the top, but the bravery in the team to persistently search for goals against the strongest side in Europe demonstrated that the Eagles could threaten anyone and the seal of approval from the supporters at full time certainly reflected this. The match also saw the return of skillful French winger Michael Olise who instantly added impetus and quality to the attacking line, two things that throughout the rest of the season would become synonymous with Palace’s dynamic new looking front three of Mateta, Eze and Olise as teams struggled to contain this deadly threesome.

Following the spirited performance to City, a trip to Liverpool was next on the agenda for Palace, and the merseysiders were shocked as Eze sealed three points for Palace with Mateta coming close on separate occasions in either half. The victory saw the Eagles move 8 points clear of Luton in the relegation zone and the shackles were off, much to the disappointment of the next visitors to Selhurst Park, West Ham. Mateta contributed a further two goals as Palace proceeded to batter the forlorn Hammers, with Eze and Olise making up the rest of the goals between them in scintillating style.

With his first brace of the Premier League season under his belt, Mateta did exactly the same thing with two expertly taken finishes against Eddie Howe’s Newcastle United three days later under the lights in SE25. The first was particularly indicative of a player who had formulated an outstanding relationship with his teammates, as a superb one-two with Ghanaian attacker Jordon Ayew culminated in a decisive finish beyond Slovakian goalkeeper Martin Dubravka, and the eventual second of the night finished off the troubled Toon army. Mateta’s post-match interview with another excellent performer on the night, Will Hughes, consolidated this notion that the Frenchman had become an extremely popular figure in the dressing room, with his witty remarks demonstrating a man full of confidence and self-belief on a scale not seen at this point so far in a red and blue shirt.

In his previous two-and-a-half campaigns in the Premier League, shock and surprise wouldn’t have been reactions to seeing a scoresheet without Mateta’s name on it, but this was proved the case as Palace achieved a battling point away to Fulham in West London with the striker even being substituted off in the 69th minute. In spite of this, normal service was resumed the following Monday when Manchester United visited the capital on a wretched run of form whilst being plagued by injuries and they were duly punished by the Eagles, as Mateta contributed with the second goal of a 4-0 pummelling, blasting the ball past Andre Onana at his near post having sharply skipped beyond Jonny Evans in the build-up.

Another impressive contribution arrived on the final away game of the season against Gary O’Neil’s Wolves at Molineux as he once again scored the second strike for the Eagles, displaying predatory instincts to convert a rebound following Nathaniel Clyne’s effort that crashed against the post. As he reeled away with another goal to his name, his customary celebration was on show once more has the adoring Palace fans serenaded their hero. His involvement in Palace’s revival was recognised during the player of the year awards where he scooped up the Players player of the season award alongside Danish centre back Joachim Andersen and received the same award but from the fans, a phenomenal achievement highlighting how everyone associated to the club has come to appreciate the critical role that he played in what was to become a historic season as Palace achieved their joint highest ever premier league finish amassing the most goals scored by the club in a single season (57).

Hat-trick hero

The season was capped off in exceptional style with Mateta himself becoming the first Palace player ever to score a hat-trick at Selhurst Park. All three goals showed a calmness and composure in front of goal that epitomised his transformation into a complete striker, as Swedish goalkeeper Aston Villa Robin Olsen was unable to prevent a flurry of incisive Palace moves, often involving the intimidating frame of Mateta up front. This concluded a campaign where the striker went from a talented yet ultimately frustrating player, to one of the deadliest strikers in the premier league racking up 16 goals in the competition, the most any Palace player has scored in an individual season since our return to the top flight since 2013 and only Andy Johnson’s tally of 21 in 2004/05 can better it.

Recent reports suggesting that Napoli would be willing to pay £30 million for the striker as a replacement to the potentially departing Victor Oshimen underline just how drastically he has grown as a player, yet given how the second half of the campaign has gone in particular, it looks like any potential suitors will need to offer substantially more if they want to entice the Frenchman. Never have Palace fans seen such domination in the top flight for a successive string of games and Mateta has been integral to that control, hence for the first time in a long time, Eagles fans can seriously dream of achieving something unprecedented under the guidance of Oliver Glasner and with our emphatic talisman leading the line, anything is possible.