Johann Lepenant – Lyon’s next young star in midfield by Shay Hicks
Name: Johann Théo Tom Lepenant
D.O.B: 22/10/2002 (20 years old)
Height: 176cm (5’9″)
Strong Foot: Right
Current Club: Olympique Lyonnais
Position: Defensive Midfielder, Centre Midfielder
Value: £9.0m (via Transfermarkt)
Johann Lepenant is a young French defensive midfielder who uses his intelligence and relentless tackling to stifle opposing attackers and recover the ball for his side. Previously at Ligue 2 side SM Caen, Lepenant signed for Lyon this summer for an initial fee of around £3.8 million. Since then, he has worked hard to impress Lyon boss Laurent Blanc and cement his place as a first-team regular. Lyon has developed somewhat of a reputation for producing high-quality centre midfielders in recent years, with players such as Corentin Tolisso (who is now back at Lyon), Bruno Guimarães and Tanguy Ndombele all spending time at the club as young players before going on to make big moves for considerable transfer fees. With his impressive start to his first season with the club, Lepenant could well be one of the next names to join a top club after impressing in the centre of the pitch for the Ligue 1 side.
Born in Granville, France, Johann started his youth career with local side US Granville’s youth system in 2009. Johann’s father, Ludovic, was a youth coach with Granville at the time, and his younger brother Tom would also sign for them when he was old enough. He spent 8 years with US Granville before joining nearby SM Caen’s academy in 2017, at the age of 14. Notably, Johann’s younger brother Tom would continue to follow in his footsteps, signing for Caen a few years later (he is currently 17 years old, and is currently a regular squad member for Caen II). Johann would impress early on for Caen’s youth teams, earning numerous caps for France’s youth teams in the process. He would make his debut for the French under 16’s in May of 2018, and the following year would earn a call-up to the under 17 squad. He performed well and played a significant role in a squad which reached the semi-finals of the u17 European Championships and achieved a third-placed finish in the u17 World Cup later that same year. He would continue the trend of working his way up the French youth teams in 2020, when he made his debut for the French under 18’s as a half-time substitute in a win over Italy.
All of Lepenant’s hard work in the youth system would finally pay off for him in the 2020/21 season. He initially spent the majority of his time with the Caen under 19’s, but he made his first senior Squad for Caen in August 2020 in a Ligue 2 game against AC Ajaccio. 2 weeks later he would make his senior debut as a last-minute substitute in a 3-0 win over Rodez AF. He would make another appearance as a last-minute substitute one month later, but he would have to spend a considerable amount of time bouncing between the Caen subs bench and the youth team before eventually being given a considerable run of game time. After 3 months and 2 more cameo appearances, Johann would finally be given a chance to perform. He was given his first senior start and played an hour in a 2-1 loss to Rodez AF. He would go on to make an appearance in all but 3 of Caen’s remaining games, starting in 11 of them.
The 2021/22 season would be significant for Lepenant, as he cemented his place in Caen’s starting 11. He would make his debut for the France under 20’s early in the season, and then go on to become a key player for his domestic club as they pushed up the table and eventually finish 7th. Johann was named as a starter in 34 of his 35 league appearances for the club, playing in either a centre or defensive midfield role for the majority of the season. Whilst he didn’t provide a single goal and gave just 1 assist, he more than made up for it with his efforts on the defensive side of the game. It was these consistent defensive performances that caught the eyes of scouts at many top- flight European clubs, and Lepenant would eventually choose to stay in France and sign with Olympique Lyonnais on a five-year contract in June of 2022. Whilst the move wasn’t as high-profile as some of Lyon’s other summer acquisitions, Johann has proved to be a savvy signing for the club, as he quickly impressed and fought for a role in their starting 11. He has made 9 starts and 11 total appearances in Ligue 1 so far in the 2022/23 season. Whilst stepping up a division can prove difficult for any new signing, particularly younger players, Lepenant’s intelligence and sheer work rate have allowed him to not miss a beat and adapt exceptionally well to the league.
Notable dates in Johann Lepenant’s career:
– 2009 – Joins the US Granville academy
– 2017 – Signs for SM Caen’s academy
– 05/05/18 – Makes his France u16’s debut
– 25/09/18 – Makes his France u17’s debut
– 27/04/19 – Called up to the French u17 squad for the European Championships
– 07/10/19 – Retains his place in the French u17 squad for the World Cup
– 22/08/19 – Makes his first appearance for Caen II
– 12/02/20 – Makes his France u18’s debut
– 29/08/20 – Named as part of the matchday squad for Caen
– 12/09/20 – Makes his senior debut as a substitute for Caen
– 23/01/21 – Makes his first senior appearance in the starting 11 for Caen
– 07/10/21 – Makes his France u20’s debut
– 22/07/21 – Signs for Lyon on a five-year contract
– 05/08/21 – Makes his Lyon debut
Performance analysis – Marseille vs Lyon, 06/11/2022:
– Communicated well with players around him when initiating the press and worked well to make sure the midfield held its shape
– Always had his head up looking around him, was always aware of the situation around him both in defense and attack
– Often provided defensive cover when other midfield players made forward runs with the ball
– Showed a combination of his vision and long passing ability to distribute the ball to the flanks from the middle at times, enjoyed playing square balls frequently when he recognised a winger had space to work with
– Stayed calm when players ran at him in one-on-one situations, did well to not dive into challenges and instead win the ball on his feet
– Did well in possession when being pressured by defenders, looked to pass the ball with his first or second touch the majority of the time and frequently played short one-twos
– Occasionally showed his ability to perform as an effective midfield pivot, collecting the ball from his defenders and quickly distributing it further forward
– Displayed situational awareness and used his intelligence when deciding when to press players and when to hold his position in defensive scenarios
– Would have liked to see him on the ball more often in the first half, although Marseille were firmly in control of the game at that time
– Had the freedom to play further forward once Lyon gained more possession in the second half
– However, he still did well to track back and recover the ball when needed
– Looked more comfortable in defense than in attack
– Subbed off for Rayan Cherki after 75 minutes as Lyon chased an equalising goal
This is a great example of Johann using his intelligence and vision to progress attacks, whilst also representing how he is always one step ahead of the game. He makes himself available in the centre of the midfield, and he already knows his next move before he has received the ball. He looks up and recognises his right winger has a lot of space in front of him, which allows him to play the pass as soon as he has possession.
Johann recognises the threats in this Marseille attack and subsequently tracks back into his own box. Once he is in the box, he uses his awareness to position himself well. He sees the attacker in space in front of him, but his good positioning means that once the ball is played to him, he is capable sure shifting in front of the desired target of the ball and clears the ball for a corner kick.
Here, Johann displays his ability to perform as a pivot. For context, he had just completed a backwards pass to his right-sided centre back. Lepenant drifts across the face of his defense as the ball is played to the left side of the field. He drops deep to make himself available for a short pass, and once he has the ball he quickly turns, recognises a passing opportunity and plays the ball to the left winger. With just 2 touches, Johann collected the ball from his defense and initiated an attack.
Overall, Johann had a good performance and displayed his effectiveness as a defensive-minded midfielder. Marseille were the stronger side on the night, controlling the first half and defending well in the second half. However, Lepenant still managed to show flashes of what makes him such a highly-rated talent. His awareness and communication in defensive scenarios were reminiscent of how a captain would act, which is impressive for someone so young who only joined the side this summer. He displayed his composure when attacked by opposing players and occasionally had opportunities to display his range of passing. I would have liked to see more of his on-ball ability as he seemed confident stringing quick, short passes together and getting his teammates involved in possession. He recovered the ball 9 times on the night, on top of also winning the majority of his duels and challenges. It was a frustrating night for Lyon, but I would like to see more of what Johann can do in games where they have more control for the full 90 minutes.
Johann displayed a lot of qualities that coaches look for in a modern midfielder, and whilst he may not reach the heights of Thiago, he does display some similarities to the Spanish midfielder. Most notably, his tenacity in defense and willingness to get stuck in as well as his vision and range of passing is reminiscent of Thiago Alcântara’s days at Bayern Munich under Pep Guardiola. Whilst he might not be as good on the ball going forward, I could see him becoming just as good in those aspects of his game.
When given the opportunity Lepenant showed flashes of being a good midfield pivot, something that is vital for most teams in Europe’s top 5 leagues. Whilst many clubs could be interested in Lepenant in the long-term, I believe that he should focus on his current club and see how well they can perform this season. He has already made himself very important, and I doubt he will miss out on many matchday squads under Laurent Blanc. Lyon unfortunately missed out on the chance to play in European competition after a disappointing 8th-place finish in Ligue 1 in the 2021/22 season. After an inconsistent start to the current season they find themselves 7 points away from the European places, but if they can turn their season around and push towards to top of the table then I would love to see what Johann is capable of on a bigger stage, ideally in the Europa League next season.