Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said Manchester United face a battle to finish in the Premier League's top six next season, let alone challenge for the title, though the Red Devils manager is confident he will be granted time to lead the club back to the summit.
United have not won the Premier League since Alex Ferguson's final campaign in 2012-13 as the Manchester club languish in sixth position this term, 29 points adrift of leaders Liverpool heading into their remaining two matches.
Solskjaer was permanently appointed manager in March, having impressed during his interim spell following Jose Mourinho's December sacking, but United have only won two of their past 10 games in all competitions.
And Solskjaer does not think United will challenge for silverware next season, warning of the threat of not slipping further off the pace amid the growing competitiveness of the top six and below.
"I have regular meetings with Ed [Woodward, the executive vice‑chairman], I've seen Joel [Glazer, the co-chairman] and the [other] owners: they are very realistic on where we are and what we want to get to and how long that will take," Solskjaer said.
"You don't suddenly catch 27 points in one season, you've got to take it gradually. It's not just this season but the last five or six – we know where we are more or less at and it's not good enough. Hopefully we can produce better performances and they [City and Liverpool] can produce worse and we'll get closer."
"It is not realistic," Solskjaer said when asked if United could challenge next season. "Of course I'm an optimist but I don't think that's realistic, because the two teams now at the top of the table they are far ahead of the chasing pack.
"We have to make sure that we are getting closer and moving that way up the table and not looking over the shoulders because there are big clubs, good clubs wanting to chase that top six.
"You've got Leicester [City], Everton, Watford, probably Newcastle [United], you've got clubs that want to chase us. We have to make sure that we are ones who chase those ahead of us."
"We've got to find a way of playing – what is the best? The style here is attacking quickly, playing forward, running forward, chasing back, winning the ball back. I'd love to get to where we have a set system but it hasn't worked that way [so far].
"You see the teams who get two or three years together, they know each other, they know the relationships. As a football manager or a coach you know the more time you get to work on relations the better it will be, because then you’re a step ahead all the time instead of at the moment we maybe react too much to the opposition. We want to get to a shape on and off the ball that we're comfortable with."
United are sixth heading into Sunday's trip to bottom side Huddersfield Town – three points behind fourth-placed Chelsea, who occupy the final Champions League spot.
As United look to overhaul their squad, the threat of a season without Champions League football does not worry Solskjaer.
"I know Manchester United is something players would love to experience," he said. "Manchester United will always be a dream for so many. There might be players where Champions League football [solely] matters for them, and they might not be the right people.
"We've got to get it right on the pitch with the ones we have. It's not just about signing players. It's about making sure the ones here get the maximum out of their potential, because we do have so many good players here, and that's my job. At the moment, I'm responsible for the performances. I'm the one that should get that flak if there is some."