Following the success of Abdou Diallo last season, Mainz have once again raided the French market this summer. Rangy youth international striker Jean-Philippe Mateta is hoping to become the latest big man to make a name for himself at the 05ers.
Mainz have enjoyed some free-scoring attacking players over the past decade, such as Shinji Okazaki, Andre Schürrle, and Adam Szalai. Yunus Malli – in 2015/16 – was the last player to get into double figures in the league, though.
The 05ers have tried to put that right in signing Mateta. The 21-year-old, who scored once in three appearances with the France U19s in 2017, has made it to the top the hard way, using LA Galaxy and former Sweden forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic as inspiration.
“I watched him play when I was younger and I said ‘I want to play like that’,” Mateta revealed at Mainz’s pre-season camp in the Netherlands. “I’m a similar size to him, and I play in a similar style.”
Mateta did a good impression of Ibrahimovic last season – albeit in France’s second tier – by scoring 19 goals in 37 league matches for Le Havre while on loan from Lyon. If the 21-year-old felt he had to drop down a division to catch the eye, the gamble certainly paid off.
Having grown up in the Paris suburbs as the youngest child in a large family, Mateta didn’t come through a prestigious club’s academy like many professional players do. Instead, he learned his trade with local clubs Sevran and Drancy, before third tier Chateauroux took a chance on him in 2014.
The then-teenager seized the opportunity. Mateta’s haul of 11 goals in 22 matches in his very first season as a professional were enough for Lyon to bring him to Ligue 1.
Mateta made only three appearances for Lyon in the 2016/17 season, but a year later he led Le Havre to the promotion play-offs. Mainz liked what they saw of the striker, and convinced him to move to Germany.
“I’m a striker – I love scoring goals,” he said soon after his arrival. “I have no worries in front of goal.”
Standing at 6’3” tall, Mateta's height is a throwback to previous Mainz strikers like Aristide Bance or Szalai. Based on his scoring record to date, however, he could end up resembling another imposing French forward. Anthony Modeste, the former Cologne striker who plundered goal after goal for first Hoffenheim and then the Billy Goats would not be a bad compatriot to look up to.
“I have no problem using my right or left foot, and I can finish with either,” Mateta said at Mainz’s pre-season camp. “I don’t have to think about getting it on either side. Normally I’m right-footed but I can also finish well with my left.”
Mainz scouts are obviously keeping a close eye on French talent, with centre-back Diallo – who has since moved on to Borussia Dortmund – proving a major hit at the club following his arrival for the 2017/18 campaign.
The signing of another French defender, Moussa Niakhate, should make Mateta feel more at home as Mainz seek to improve on a tally of 38 goals in 34 league games last season. Like Mateta, Ridle Baku is also of Congolese descent – and the 05ers will be hoping that both attackers develop an understanding on the pitch as quickly as they have off it.
Mateta only turned 21 at the end of June, and admits that he still has to work on his aerial game. A mobile frontman and decent dribbler, he didn’t take long to impress his new manager.
“He’s a very good finisher,” Sandro Schwarz told the 05ers’ official website during pre-season. “He’s already proved that. He has a very good scoring rate and causes a lot of danger in the penalty area but he’s also good at runs in the final third.”
✍️ @JPMateta19 wechselt von @OL zu den 05ern! 💬 "Die Gespräche, die ich mit Sandro Schwarz und Rouven Schröder geführt habe, haben mich von #Mainz05 und dem Weg des Vereins überzeugt." #Mateta pic.twitter.com/OGaRlnmKm5— 1. FSV Mainz 05 (@1FSVMainz05) June 28, 2018
Schwarz knows he needs to give his latest signing time to develop, and also to adapt to a new country, language and style of football. But Mateta has overcome plenty of hurdles already in his career, and doesn’t plan to stop now.
“I was always sure that I wanted to be a professional footballer, and I’ve worked my way up from the bottom,” he said.
Having done the hard work by climbing the ladder, now it’s up to Mateta to show that he’s ready to stay at the top of it.