Normal service resumed: Return of Aguero & a flat back four gives Manchester City the look of champions again

Experiments with a three-man defence have brought mixed success for Roberto Mancini so far but a move back to what the champions know best paid dividends against Sunderland
By Russell Stoddart at the Etihad Stadium

Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini did not spend his summer break in Sardinia enjoying the reflective glow of his club's first league title in 44 years.

One thing that the 47-year-old has learned in his glittering football career is that dwelling on yesterday's glories is a recipe for tomorrow's misfortune. Perhaps it might explain why he has been so quick to try and rip up the blueprint for that title success last May.

The Italian was only too aware that, but for Sergio Aguero's injury-time winner against Queens Park Rangers on the last day of the season, he would have presided over the most expensive flops in the history of the English game.

But City owner Sheikh Mansour did not spend over £350m of his vast fortune on just winning the Premier League – even if it is the toughest league in the world. Winning the title no longer offers you immunity from the sack.

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Mancini knows that City are now a club who demand success. Standing still is not an option and the next step forward is not necessarily to regain the title but rather to progress in the Champions League. That is why the Italian has decided to do more than merely tinker at the edges.

The secret of his domestic success last season was having a settled side with everyone knowing their roles. Almost forgotten in the deluge of goals scored by City was that they conceded the fewest in the Premier League - for the second season in a row.

The cornerstone of that success was the central defensive partnership of skipper Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott. Yet this term, Mancini has tried nine different defensive formations, with last year's key pair appearing on the same teamsheet just four times.

The 47-year-old wants to break away from the rigid 4-4-2 system that won the league title last season. His blueprint for Champions League success includes a more fluid system with three central defenders and two full-backs pushing on.

The problem is that Lescott is not regarded as being quick enough to be part of a three, while Kompany does not seem to be the same player without the England international alongside him.

On Saturday, against a strangely subdued Sunderland, Mancini reverted to a flat back four. The reward was not just their biggest win of the season but a first clean sheet of the campaign.

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Even with Micah Richards replacing the injured Kompany alongside Lescott in central defence, City never looked like conceding, and, while Sunderland are not Real Madrid or Borussia Dortmund, it gives Mancini some food for thought.

Having an embarrassment of riches can be a blessing or a burden depending on whether you know your strongest team and how to utilise them. It might be that the Italian needs to go back to basics and stick to the formula that won the Premier League title.

At the other end, you cannot just expect any combination of Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko to outgun the opposition.

What has become clear is that City is stronger with the Argentine duo as the main strikeforce. If they had both been available throughout last season, the blue half of Manchester would have won the title at a canter.

Mancini's men struggled to score the killer second goal against Sunderland until Aguero replaced the ineffectual Balotelli. Four minutes after coming on, the former Atletico Madrid striker got his goal and from then on the Black Cats were put to the sword.

There is an energy in the play of Aguero and Tevez that is as dynamic as it is enthralling. They feed off each other and the crowd feed off them. Until Aguero's introduction yesterday, the Etihad Stadium's atmosphere was muted. Minutes later the City faithful were doing the Poznan and shouting Aguero's name.

Last season, his first at City, the £38 million signing scored 30 goals in all competitions – 23 in the league – and, having time to get used to the English game, he can be expected to score the same again if he stays fit.

Mancini may still want to experiment but, if he sticks to the tried and tested personnel and formation that won the title last season, City can be an intimidating force on both domestic and European stages.