When Manchester United lost 4-1 at Watford in November, a defeat that cost Ole Gunnar Solskjær his job, things were that bad I thought it could only get better for the club. Since then not much has changed at Old Trafford.

The squad available to Ralf Rangnick should be finishing in the top four of the Premier League. They are fourth but could relinquish that position to teams who have games in hand. If they fail to qualify for the Champions League there will be a lot of blame to go round, not just for those in the dugout or on the pitch, but in the boardroom, too.

Manchester City are not only above United in the table but have also overtaken them off the pitch. City have eclipsed United in terms of revenue accrued, making almost £75m more than their arch-rivals in the 2020-21 season. I am studying business, and when that side of things is not going perfectly, it does filter down on to the pitch. United have made some bad business decisions; a number of managers have come and gone since Sir Alex Ferguson left nine years ago, none of whom have come close to replicating that level of success, and many signings have failed to make an impact.

There were no signings in January to improve a squad with flaws in defence and midfield. United have an interim manager, so entrusting Rangnick with a budget to invest in players his replacement might not want could be seen as a risk not worth taking. There are obvious issues, such as in central midfield where United are very weak, but they will not be dealt with until the end of the season.

It is difficult to make an impact on the squad as an interim. The defensive structure is better and they are pressing slightly differently, but nothing has made me sit up and take notice.

Rangnick has managed Cristiano Ronaldo differently to the way Solskjær did, leaving him out when he sees fit and substituting him when required. Ronaldo may not appreciate it but he is 37 and it does not matter how fit he is, he cannot be at his best throughout a long season if he is playing 90 minutes twice a week from August to May. United need him to be thriving. He has 15 goals in 27 appearances, seven more than the club’s second-highest scorer. Without Ronaldo, United would be further down the table and out of the Champions League. As he showed against Brighton he can score an incredible goal out of the blue. Ronaldo might not be happy he is not playing every minute but Rangnick may be doing both Ronaldo and the team a huge favour.

Cristiano Ronaldo reacts after missing a chance against Brighton
Cristiano Ronaldo reacts after missing a chance against Brighton. He also scored an excellent goal to spark Manchester United’s win. Photograph: Peter Powell/Reuters

Leaks are seemingly coming out of the dressing room about the coaching staff and training. If the stories are accurate, you have to wonder who is leaking them and what they have to gain. It is not a good look. Some players will think they can get away with not adapting to Rangnick’s methods because he will not be there too long and they can wait for the next manager.

I remember hearing United players of the Ferguson era saying that what happened in the dressing room stayed there. They would go away with England and not discuss things happening at Old Trafford to make sure nothing got further than those who needed to know, not even international teammates. Secrecy was sacred under Ferguson during their most successful spell as a club and he would not have stood for this. When things are being leaked, it does not bode well.

The aura United had during the Ferguson era is long gone. Teams would arrive at Old Trafford and feel in the warm-up they were 1-0 down. Now they feel they can win and there is no sense of fear. United have won seven of 13 home league games this season, which is not good enough for a team aiming to finish in the top four. It gives incentive to opponents. Even though United are not the scalp they used to be, winning at Old Trafford is huge for an opposition player. The team are different but the kits and stadium are the same, so it will be a euphoric experience to take points off United.

Rangnick has lost only one league match but has drawn four of those 11 games and he has been knocked out of the FA Cup by the Championship side Middlesbrough at home. In many of those fixtures United have taken the lead but failed to build on it. In times gone by, United would go on to hit three or four to be out of sight long before the final whistle. The reason they are not doing that is the defence and midfield are fragile. Players are putting in the effort for the manager but they are not going to throw caution to the wind – they are being protective of their lead.

Missing out on the Champions League would be a huge failure for a club with United’s stature and a good enough playing squad. They need to be at Europe’s top table to give their new manager the best chance to take the club back to where fans want – but there is plenty to do if United are to compete with Manchester City and Liverpool again.