Exclusive: Zlatan Ibrahimovic could leave before the end of the season as Manchester United draw up succession plan

Manchester United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic could be leaving Old Trafford this year.

Manchester United are considering options to replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who the English Premier League club expect to exit Old Trafford later this year.

Ibrahimovic is out of contract at the end of United’s current campaign and could potentially leave before its conclusion should he take up an offer in Major League Soccer or the Chinese Super League.

The American and Chinese seasons run from March through the calendar year, with clubs in both leagues interested in recruiting Ibrahimovic for his sporting and commercial appeal.

While United would prefer to retain last season’s leading scorer within their first-team squad until his contract expires in June, they are conscious that the Swede’s value in China or the United States would be increased by arriving for the start of their leagues.

Whatever decision Ibrahimovic makes on a mid-season move, United believe the striker will not extend his Old Trafford stay into a third campaign.

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With Romelu Lukaku established as the club’s first-choice centre forward following an initial £75million summer switch from Everton, United could only offer Ibrahimovic a role as a squad player, something the famously self-confident Swede is not expected to countenance.

Ibrahimovic is currently sidelined with a cartilage problem associated with the double cruciate ligament rupture he suffered in April but United are confident the ligaments of his surgically-repaired right knee are in “top” condition, offering no major obstacle to continuing his playing career. The 36-year-old made four substitute appearances and two first-team starts between November 18 and December 26

As a striker remain particularly expensive and challenging to recruit, United are considering several alternative strategies for Ibrahimovic’s succession.

The first would be to sign a starting centre forward in his mid-twenties. Italy international Andrea Belotti is understood to remain at the top of a list drawn up by United’s scouting department despite the 24-year-old’s goal return at Torino dropping off this season.

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Another option would be to more frequently deploy one or both of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford as centre forwards. While neither possess the aerial ability or physical strength of Lukaku, and Rashford is most effective against a high defensive line, this approach would allow transfer funds to be redeployed on other areas of the team. The recruitment of at least one winger comfortable playing on the touchline while feeding Lukaku with crosses would then take increased prominence.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is recovering from a serious knee injury.

The recruitment of at least one winger comfortable playing on the touchline while feeding Lukaku with crosses would then take increased prominence. Mourinho is understood to be interested in the option of taking Lucas Moura from Paris Saint-Germain in the current window.

A third approach under consideration by United’s recruitment team is to sign a younger striker comfortable working as an understudy to Lukaku while developing his game through being coached by Mourinho on a daily basis. A final decision will depend on funds released by United’s board and the cost of recruiting in other priority areas such as full back and midfield.

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