Even the most respected comedians don’t like to be labelled double acts for too long. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant went their separate ways, David Mitchell and Robert Webb eventually broke out of their Peep Show flat, even Ant and Dec can escape each other’s company every now and then.
The general consensus is the double act can mask and then reduce the sum of each individual’s part, like the inverse of that great Leicester City team of 2016 that, when split up into individuals, didn’t achieve much.
Maybe Manchester United have a double act of their own that needs a dramatic break-up.
Fred and Scott McTominay were always an unlikely pair, little and large, Brazilian and Scottish; though both possess a combination of qualities that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has valued for some time now.
While Fred’s shooting is erratic, McTominay has an uncanny eye for goal. When the Scot’s passing can go awry, his partner mops up with a tackle. When United’s back four needs protection, both are often on hand to help out. They have energy, determination and industry in spades.
It has been a double pivot that has attracted an unwarranted amount of recent criticism, especially if you consider how important it was for Solskjaer and the process of solidifying United this season after their porous start.
Yet it feels appropriate that this debate rears its head this week, ahead of a vital league encounter with Tottenham Hotspur.
If Solskjaer endured a few sleepless nights in the run up to Sunday’s clash with Spurs — breaking out in a cold sweat thinking about his last meeting with Jose Mourinho — it would be understandable.
United were truly shambolic that day, in a 6-1 defeat Solskjaer quickly labelled the worst of his managerial career. Anthony Martial’s 28th minute red card (when the score was 2-1) didn’t help, but it was a loss that stemmed from a haphazard defensive performance.
It spoke volumes that Solskjaer’s half-time changes that day were to introduce Fred and McTominay — who had both started on the bench — for Nemanja Matic and Bruno Fernandes. By then it was about damage limitation and preventing total humiliation.
You cannot imagine both men starting on the bench at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium this weekend, though there are those who believe the famed double act have served their purpose now, six months on from the Old Trafford horror show. The solidity they have brought can turn into over-cautiousness.
There is no doubt some games simply have no need for a double pivot protecting the United back four, and Solskjaer recognised this when picking Fred alongside Paul Pogba against Brighton. It was illustrative that Fred enjoyed a much improved performance, in comparison with his own personal nightmare against Leicester in the previous match (when he started alongside the defence-minded Matic in the middle).
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Manchester United secured a hard-fought 2-1 win over Brighton in their first game back after the international break.
Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood struck in the second half, after Danny Welbeck’s opener, to give United an important three points in their quest to finish second in the Premier League this season.
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Fred is prone to mistakes, but he almost always helps the team effort, and hence Solskjaer has stuck with him through thick and thin.
It might be, however, that splitting up the axis of ultra-reliability is the only way to unlock all of Fred’s potential. He seems to thrive next to the more adventurous and creative Pogba rather than McTominay or Matic, as it makes very clear that the Brazilian’s role in the side is as the enforcer, the true ‘DM’, in modern terms. He doesn’t overreach himself.
It’s ironic that it might be against Mourinho this weekend — the man who brought Fred to Old Trafford to unshackle Pogba in the United midfield, paying £52million to do so — that Solskjaer chooses that exactly pairing for the benefit of both men. It would be an attacking statement if he did.
Getting the best from a team player like Fred shouldn’t be a priority, but United might find it helps in many other ways.
The double act isn’t quite dead, but a few games might just show United the stage isn’t always ideal for their odd couple.