Exclusive: Manchester United want Marcus Rashford to replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic despite rift rumours

Marcus Rashford has been earmarked to succeed Zlatan Ibrahimovic as Manchester United’s starting centre-forward.

So highly regarded is Rashford by Jose Mourinho that the Old Trafford manager has not included a like-for-like replacement for Ibrahimovic in ongoing plans to reshape United’s squad into one capable of competing for both Premier and Champions League titles.

Instead, Mourinho wants to exercise a clause to retain the club’s 35-year-old leading goalscorer for a further season while steadily increasing Rashford’s playing time in the critical central striker’s role.

Mourinho’s decision to bring Ibrahimovic to the Premier League last summer was made with Rashford’s development in mind; his judgement being that it would have been both unfair on, and potentially detrimental to, the then 18-year-old Englishman to persistently carry the weight of leading United’s attack during a critical campaign for the club. Ibrahimovic brought experience, a broader skillset, and leadership to the position.

Though Rashford has failed to repeat the extraordinary exploits of his first senior campaign, in which he scored on Europa League, Premier League, League Cup and full international debuts – he has established himself as Ibrahimovic’s back-up. Mourinho has started Rashford in the Premier League as often as Anthony Martial, and given him more playing time than the expensively acquired France international. Rashford has also made more League appearances and spent more time in United’s forward line than Wayne Rooney, the club’s captain.

United’s technical staff have been bemused by reports this week that Rashford is unhappy with his handling this season and considering his future at the club. They describe a player who shows himself as “happy” in the club, responds well to training, and does not complain about team selection.

Read More: Jose Mourinho’s axe list at Old Trafford

Discussing Rashford’s contribution to United’s campaign last week, Mourinho praised the forward’s development: “He said something the other day that made me really happy. He says he is learning so much in the technical meetings and training sessions, so I think his future will be brilliant. His present is good and we need him.

“I’m always happy with Marcus Rashford’s contribution. He is one of those players that when he is on the pitch he tries when he always gives something.”

Though the teenager’s goal contribution has fallen from eight in 18 appearances for United last season to six in 31 this, Mourinho highlighted the advantage Rashford had in coming into the first team as an almost entirely unknown quantity – his debut arriving last February when Martial injured himself in the warm-up for a Europa League tie.

“I know that last season under no pressure, last season in front of the goal, the goal was bigger,” Mourinho said. “I know this season the expectations are higher, the pressure is higher and the goal is smaller. He is missing some chances, he’s not scoring as many goals as he could because he gets lots of playing time on the pitch.

“But it is absolutely natural in the second year after a season of explosion, then the expectation and everything changes. He is not any more the surprise kid; he is the player everyone respects, that everyone knows, and everyone knows the qualities. It is normal he is in this period of transition where he is still a kid but not the new kid in town any more.

“I think next season will be very, very good for Marcus because this season he is getting experience at this level of responsibility of being a professional player at a club like Manchester United. So I am really happy with Marcus that is why every match since the start of the season he is there, either on the bench or in the line-up coming on for the last 30, the last 20 or the last 10.”

Ibrahimovic, who has scored 15 goals in his 24 Premier League starts, has established himself as a popular and respected figure amongst United’s squad. Rashford, known for his humility and intelligence, is said to value the opportunity to work alongside and learn from an individual whose spells at Ajax, Juventus, Internazionale, Barcelona, AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain delivered 13 League titles.