Ole Gunnar Solskjaer accepts Manchester United are a “little bit further behind” in their development than he had hoped.
This will be an uncomfortable Christmas of introspection at Old Trafford after David De Gea and Aaron Wan-Bissaka errors gifted rock-bottom, Watford, a surprise 2-0 victory on Sunday.
United lacked intensity, verve and quality at Vicarage Road, where Solskjaer likened their first-half efforts to that seen at his testimonial after admitting his side did not deserve to win against the embattled Hornets.
It was the most chastening loss of the season and a performance that could hardly contrast more with the fine wins against Tottenham and Manchester City earlier this month.
United are also the only side to avoid defeat to Liverpool in the Premier League, yet such displays have been undermined by losses to Watford, Bournemouth, West Ham, Crystal Palace and Newcastle.
“We’re halfway through this season and we knew this season was going to be a season of some ups and downs,” Solskjaer said ahead of welcoming the Magpies to Old Trafford on Boxing Day.
“This season will be used to find a team and a squad for next season, but hopefully we can speed this process up by getting more results.
“Expect us to be more consistent, definitely more experienced and learning from these setbacks, but at the moment we’re a little bit further behind than what I was hoping for, yeah.”
Asked where he wants those improvements, Solskjaer said: “Of course we want to be a team that can go and dominate teams and break teams down.
“It’s taken Liverpool a few years to get to that state and we need to just keep on building because that’s what we want to get to.
“Yes, we’re good at counter-attacking. Yes, we’ve got pace and fast players. We should always keep that because that’s in our tradition.
“Now we need to be better at breaking lower blocks.
“Even (against Watford), we create loads of chances towards the end, but every time we lose it, it’s a counter-attack.
“So, you need to lock it down more, better at stopping the counter-attack. That’s where this team is going to learn and grow and I’m sure we’ll see an improvement over this season and hopefully for next year.”
But one area that Solskjaer believes United have improved in is their response to setbacks.
“One of the good things about the team this year, we have reacted after bad results,” he said ahead of facing Newcastle.
“We haven’t kept the consistency as we’d like the other way, but we’ve never gone on a big run like we did towards the end of last season so there will be a reaction, definitely.”
One of the few positives at Vicarage Road was the impressive return of Paul Pogba, who had been out since September with an ankle injury.
The 26-year-old looked sharp when he came off the bench and could now start against Steve Bruce’s side.
“Let’s see how he reacts to this, how he feels,” Solskjaer said. “He did really well when he came on. Big, big plus.
“It might be that we do get him in from the start because you just want to get more and more into the team when he plays.
“He can play anywhere. He can play the whole midfield. He’s a box-to-box midfielder.
“He can drop deep, get it, play them long passes. He can get higher up and combine like he did (against Watford), one-twos. Him and Anto (Anthony Martial) and Marcus (Rashford) started created chances down that side.
“So, it depends on the (game). That’s the beauty of having Paul because he is the best all-round midfielder in the world.
“He can do all roles but if I play him low, he should have played high. And if you play him high, you should have played low.
“There’s always going to be that discussion with him but it’s great to have him back.”