Jean-Philippe Mateta’s New Lease on Life at Crystal Palace

In recent years, Crystal Palace have developed a knack of signing strikers who at their best have all the physical and technical attributes to significantly improve a team, and yet in the five seasons between 2018/19 and 2022/23, Christian Benteke is the only centre forward at the club to have scored double figures in a Premier League season. 


Michy Batshuayi, Conor Wickham, Alexander Sorloth and Odsonne Edouard are all examples of strikers who are a constant handful for defenders with sharp movement and clinical finishing ability on their better days, but whether it was their fitness and confidence, the system in which they played or the lack of service around them that wasn’t optimal, Palace never quite had their number nine spot nailed for that entire period. 



Jean-Philippe Mateta was just another name on that list until this season, capable of the spectacular less often than he would go completely missing in games, however, the arrival of Oliver Glasner in the dugout has reinvigorated the Frenchman’s career to the point where he has made that elusive spot at the spearhead of the attack his own.  


Before Glasner came in, Mateta had just 11 Premier League goals to show for 80 appearances that included glimpses of promise but were largely underwhelming, and his tally of three goals in 22 league games under Roy Hodgson in 2023/24 was no different. So how is it that under the Austrian, Mateta has more than doubled his overall Premier League goal count with 13 in as many games to help Palace to their joint-highest ever top-flight points total? 


Whilst the centre forward has deservedly stolen the limelight along with Eberechi Eze and Michael Olise due to their goalscoring exploits, the style that Glasner has implemented has created a domino effect of improvement right through the Palace team. 



Starting from Dean Henderson in goal, his speed of distribution partnered with the use of Chris Richards and Nathaniel Clyne as wide centre-backs in a three has given Palace a new sense of urgency and variety in passing through the first phase of opposition press. 


Clyne’s vast experience as a full-back and Richards’ capacity to play anywhere along the defence means they are both comfortable in playing out from wide spaces without being burdened with the responsibility of charging up and down the wing from full-back, allowing them to protect the central centre-back, typically Joachim Andersen, and show for close passes from both him and the keeper. 


From there, Tyrick Mitchell and Daniel Munoz’s new-found freedom to take up higher starting positions at wing-back has seen them thrive as the source of constant energy and attacking creativity in wide areas now that there is less pressure on them to track back and be the men to mark their opposing wingers at all times. Instead, the impetus is on those wingers to get back and help their full-backs, who are otherwise occupied. 


Adam Wharton: Blackburn’s Teenage Talent in Midfield


The unpredictable brilliance of both Eze and Olise is what causes them constant headaches, whether they are hanging wide to create overloads with Mitchell and Munoz, or drifting inside and running directly at the opposition to devastating effect, the presence of those wing backs higher up creates those pockets of space for Palace’s playmakers to thrive. 


As a consequence of the options being so plentiful when it comes to defending and attacking on the flanks, the potential to be outnumbered in central areas is there, but in Adam Wharton especially but also Will Hughes, they have two midfielders who do the simple stuff incredibly well. 


Off the ball, they cover short distances impressively to prevent gaps from appearing between them and the defence, and the hard work of those around them help to squeeze the pitch when the opposition have possession in the centre of the pitch, forcing them backwards or wide, where they can keep them at arms length. 



On the ball, Wharton is as comfortable as they come. Get touch tight and he’ll play a one-touch pass into the wing-backs or turn out and play a progressive pass to the front three with astounding ease. Give him a yard and he is laser-focused on picking an attacking-minded pass without hardly ever losing the ball.


His addition to the team has allowed Glasner to use Eze as one of the two inside forwards who support Mateta. Combined with Olise, they have a frightening ability to exploit space in between the full-backs and centre-backs where neither one knows who should commit themselves, which has made opportunities to shoot or combine with Mateta so easy to come by. 


If those openings are constricted, that usually means space is there for the wing-backs, and the speed and precision with which Wharton, Eze and Olise in particular can move the ball horizontally quicker than the opposition react creates so many crossing chances in advanced positions. 


Chris Richards: Crystal Palace’s American Defender


From back to front, it is all geared towards making the most of Mateta’s ranging skillset. He rarely needs to expel energy running the channels or pressing without help as was commonly the case prior to Glasner. Instead, he can maintain his focus to be sharp in making himself available for passing interchanges for Eze and Olise or to execute his movements in the box with greater timing and poise to meet crosses. Short, purposeful bursts rather than long, lost-cause chasing has turned him from a depleted figure to a constant danger.


Subsequently, what has really become apparent in recent months is the variety of goals Mateta is capable of when given the opportunities. His hat-trick against Aston Villa emphasised his sharpness and confidence in front of goal.  For the first, he positioned himself in a way that Clement Lenglet couldn’t get close to intercept Olise’s through ball before he finished first time with his left foot after a quick glance at where the keeper was.


Number two saw him make similar movement between the centre-backs after Olise caused havoc again when drifting inside, but he had to adjust when his compatriot played a pass to Munoz out wide, and he did so by holding his line well, shuffling backwards when running to intercept Diego Carlos’ path and keep ahead of him before powering it out of Robin Olsen’s reach with the right foot this time. 



The impressive pattern to these goals are the thought that goes into his subtle movements before receiving a pass as if done with time slowed down, and his third goal was the best showcase of the three for that.


This time it was Eze who cut in-field after running from deep, and from the moment Eze started dribbling a few seconds and 40 yards before passing to Mateta, the striker had a constant eye on Lenglet’s position, making sure he was in his blind spot which caused the defender to struggle in tracking both the ball and his man. Once Mateta created a yard of separation from Lenglet, the pass from Eze was made easy, and as is usually the case recently, so was his finish.   


Despite what his pre-Glasner form might suggest, the Frenchman didn’t cope all that badly with the isolated scenario in which he often found himself under Hodgson. Add to that the injuries to Eze and Olise among others which were obvious hindrances, Mateta’s transformation has been astronomical but not entirely surprising. 


Jeffrey Schlupp: Crystal Palace’s Ghanaian Jack-of-all-Trades


If the striker does opt to stay at Selhurst Park this summer, there is no doubt that he can continue this rich vein of form. The possible departures of teammates including Olise and Eze will be difficult to get past, but the pair aren’t completely irreplaceable given the way that Glasner’s system facilitates his most creative players. 


There are parallels to the way that Wolves got 30 Premier League goals out of Raul Jimenez in their first two seasons following promotion in 2018. With cross specialists including Matt Doherty, havoc-makers in Adama Traore and Diogo Jota, and midfielders to make things tick in Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves, there were numerous avenues for them to get the best out of their striker’s versatile attributes. It was rare that Jimenez ever had a game without multiple good chances being created for him, and the same could be said for Mateta of late. 


Joachim Andersen: The Danish Defender at the Heart of Crystal Palace’s Defence


As a result, there are signs to suggest Crystal Palace can hit a similar trajectory towards the European spots if they can keep the core of the squad and the way of playing as it currently is. A summer of unprecedented promise beckons for Palace fans, replace Eze and Olise sufficiently if they are to leave, and there’s nothing to stop Mateta from having a 20-goal season. It’s much easier said than done, but definitely possible. 


By: Brad Jones / @bradjonessport

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Malcolm Couzens – Getty Images