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Rangnick: Fourth is ambition for Manchester United; ‘every game it gets better’

Manchester United squandered a 1-0 lead for the second straight match, as Che Adams' goal earned Southampton a draw at Old Trafford.

Ralf Rangnick has issued a realistic assessment of where Manchester United is at right now: finishing fourth this season would be an incredible achievement.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]

United’s fans won’t like to hear that. But it’s the truth.

Manchester United have drawn their last two Premier League games against Burnley and Southampton (both 1-1 after they lead 1-0 in the first half of both games) and that has seen them lose valuable ground in the top four battle.

Speaking to reporters ahead of United’s clash with Brighton at Old Trafford on Tuesday (watch live, 3:15pm ET on Peacock Premium), Rangnick was not in a ‘pie in the sky’ mood and was very realistic as he discussed United’s aims this season.

Fourth place the best United can do

“Right now it [finishing fourth] is exactly what Manchester United needs, to want to finish fourth in the league,” Rangnick, United’s interim boss, said. “This is the highest possible thing we can achieve. Yes, the Champions League, hopefully to proceed into the next round, which is also not an easy one. In the league it is currently number four. That is our ambition and what we have to achieve and what we are aiming at.”

Rangnick also believes that United continue to improve each week and although his side have made mistakes to give away leads in recent weeks, he believes the new ideas he is implementing are being understood by the players.

“The situation is pretty clear in 11 of the 13 games since I arrived we scored the first goal and went 1-0 up, but we didn’t win all of them,” Rangnick said. “Especially in the last three games it was very sad that we didn’t win those games because it cost us four points in the league and the next round in the FA Cup.

“I think it is pretty obvious the players are getting the ideas across the pitch. With every game it goes better. The players understand and feel how and why we are doing a good job. Now it is about doing that sustainably and for the entire game. That is the step we have to take. The first halves in the last couple of weeks have been really good. We didn’t concede a goal in the first half in the last few weeks but the next step is to raise our level to stay focused physically, mentally, tactically. We just gave goals away too easily. It was our own mistakes to allow the other teams to score.”

Long-term project remains up in the air

One of the more intriguing answers from Rangnick was when he was asked about how his plans are developing to lead Manchester United beyond this season.

As it stands Rangnick will be in charge of the team as interim head coach until this summer, then move into a consultancy role for two years as he will advise the club on who to appoint as the new head coach, plus other key leaders across the club.

Asked about next season, and beyond, here is what Rangnick said.

“On next season, after being here now for 10-11 weeks, of course I know what it takes for next season but it is not the time now to discuss this with anyone,” Rangnick said. “My full focus is on tomorrow, then Sunday, then Champions League and the next couple of weeks. This is the only thing to deal with the current situation. Full focus on the current squad, getting the best out of this season and then after that there is time to speak about next steps for next season and the next couple of years.”

Those last few comments suggest that Rangnick already knows which players aren’t part of his plans.

United’s players are under pressure and many are underperforming. They aren’t liking the fact they are under intense scrutiny and reports of unrest about the coaching tactics of Ralf Rangnick and his assistant Chris Arms have been leaked out by some of the unhappy players.

Manchester United’s players are playing like a team which is going through a huge change of culture as Rangnick’s tactics are taking time to work and there are plenty of teething issues, especially with the defending.

But they are still in the top four hunt. However, if there is any more regression a la the last week against Burnley and Southampton, there is a very real risk United won’t be in the Champions League next season. Rangnick’s time in charge is at a very precarious point.

Follow @JPW_NBCSports