Ole Gunnar Solskjaer says he will have a better picture of Manchester United’s title credentials after their “big run of games” over the next fortnight but warns they must “improve quite a bit to take the next step”.
United are set to embark on a run of six games over 15 days, beginning with Thursday night's trip to Bramall Lane as they face bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United.
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Solskjaer believes it will be "difficult for the players to play at their top level every game" during this "vital" period and suggested his fringe players could have a big role to play as he is forced to rotate.
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Asked whether this busy spell will decide if United can challenge for the title, Solskjaer said: "This is a big run of games for us. After the Villa game on New Year's Day, we have a little bit of a break in the league.
"So, of course, this period now is going to be vital and it will be easier for me to answer that around about that time. I'd be disappointed if the players didn't think we can put a challenge up because at the moment anything goes in the league.
"There's different reasons for different results. I feel we are getting better but we have to improve quite a bit to take the next step.
"I think this season is going to be very unpredictable and up and down. Whoever finds the consistency and the energy have a better chance than in the last few seasons because there's been a few runaway teams."
'Five subs would have been nice'
With fixture congestion on the agenda again, Solskjaer took the opportunity to question why Premier League clubs are still unable to use five substitutes.
Pressure is building on the Premier League to consider changing its stance after it was announced clubs would be able to use five substitutes in the FA Cup "at the earliest opportunity".
Premier League representatives will attend a shareholders' meeting on Thursday to discuss the topic and are expected to hold a vote on whether to reinstate the five substitutes rule.
"We've got to be good at rotating, resting and finding moments to give them a chance maybe in games," Solskjaer added. "It would have been nice with five subs to rotate.
"Even to be involved in a squad of 20 rather than 18, you don't have to leave two out because that's a mental strain as well - even though someone may be happy staying at home over Christmas."
United will 'look at' Williams loan in January
Solskjaer also said United would consider any potential loan offers for left-back Brandon Williams in January - with Southampton interested in a deal for the England U21 international.
Williams, the United academy graduate, has fallen down the pecking order at Old Trafford with Alex Telles and Luke Shaw the preferred options at left-back.
Southampton tried to bring Williams to St Mary's on loan over the summer and he remains one of their targets heading into the January window, especially as he can fill in on the right and left.
"That's something we will look at in January," said Solskjaer when asked about a potential loan for Williams.
"We highly rate Brandon, so whoever is interested they are not wrong.
"Brandon has done really well since he came into the team. He had a slow start to the season for different reasons and I think he is now coming back to himself.
"I can see Brandon being more Brandon again and I've enjoyed seeing him. I've seen him more in training, he's played a couple of U23 games and he's been more involved."