For England managers there have always been two distinct kinds of problem: the talented players they don't have; and the talented players they do. History suggests the latter can often be just as much of a burden, demanding not just the usual shrugging sense of pragmatism, but a clarity of thought and purpose and a certain tactical boldness too.
In a way Roy Hodgson's job with England has been made easier by the fact he has to date overseen a relatively monochrome national team with few points of genuine strength beyond some speed in wide areas and the well-worn central drive of Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney. At Euro 2012 and in qualifying for the World Cup there has been little to disorientate the tactical plans of the opposition or indeed of Hodgson himself. Here is a manager who has been handed no more than basic ingredients and shown himself eminently capable of knocking up an unremarkable baked potato of an international team.
Quite what Hodgson might be capable of with greater weapons at his disposal is another question, one that was addressed only in muddled and cautious fashion during Wednesday night's 1-0 win against Denmark. In fact from a certain angle there were the first real signs at Wembley that given the opportunity Hodgson might yet turn out to be another sufferer of the familiar strain of talent-panic so prevalent among England managers, a condition that has led to generations of more mercurial England players being shoehorned grudgingly into the national team, with strengths diluted to cover weaknesses elsewhere and talent rarely trusted on its own terms.
Hodgson's England may not have much depth when it comes to genuine cutting edge. But it does now have Daniel Sturridge, a central striker with 11 goals in 11 games for Liverpool since the last international friendly and a player with a decent shot at becoming the first Englishman to top the Premier League scoring charts since Kevin Phillips 14 years ago.
Say what you like about Sturridge's late-blooming merits he is clearly flying right now. And yet at Wembley, given the chance to play Sturridge and Rooney as a rare high-class Premier League attacking pair – or at least to allow Sturridge to roam through the centre from his familiar nine-and-a-half position – Hodgson passed the buck, concocting instead a glutinous kind of staged fluidity, his front four revolving dutifully but without any clear idea of what this was supposed to achieve, and failing to disconcert a Danish defence glad to be spared the prospect of a superior pair given the game-time to establish some concerted attacking rhythm.
Rooney and Sturridge – WazzDan, RoonSturr – is in outline an intriguing partnership, with enough fluidity and unorthodox angles of attack in its own right to keep everybody going for now. Yet with England having now played their final match before the World Cup squad's selection it simply has not been given the chance to settle and find its own patterns. This is surely a mistake, not to mention a peculiar irony, given Hodgson has been criticised in the past for his overly four-square tactical simplicity. Handed the tools at last to make an orthodox-ish attacking pair work, he has instead opted for modernity-by-numbers, retaining his new-found faith in the revolving 4‑2‑3‑1 formation with the doggedness of a middle-aged man wedged defiantly into a pair of tactical skinny jeans.
Despite having a generally quiet game at Wembley, Sturridge still gave glimpses of what could still be. He was sharp in possession in the first half, once making space in the inside-left channel brilliantly before shooting wide, and carrying himself at all times like the international thoroughbred he might yet become.
Most notably, the winning goal came at a stage when Sturridge had moved to a more recognisable central position, with Adam Lallana taking the left side and crossing beautifully. Sturridge's finish, heading the ball back into the corner, was harder than he made it look, which was very easy indeed. More importantly this is where he should be for England, in positions where his elusiveness and excellent finishing can turn even a game to which he has contributed little.
In the opening hour at Wembley he switched positions relentlessly across all four forward-midfield positions, to an extent that several times Rooney looked up in possession and saw around him nothing but Danes, so busily was Sturridge filling in at left-back 30 yards behind him.
Fluidity has its place but this was a striker so fluid he seemed at times on the verge of evaporating. If this is to be the system then Danny Welbeck, a more effective defensive runner, is probably better suited to the role of jobbing inverted winger. On the other hand Sturridge has scored more Premier League goals in 34 games for Liverpool than Welbeck has in his entire seven-year professional career. Sometimes if a player walks like a top-class centre-forward and quacks like a top-class centre-forward, well … it might just be sensible to treat him as one.
So rapid has his improvement been with Liverpool there is now a clear sense of lag in his England career, albeit one burdened now by some rapidly dawning expectations. Denmark on Wednesday was Sturridge's fourth start, bringing with it his third goal in 560 minutes on the pitch. Yet it is hard not to dream of grander things. There is a slightly frayed golden thread when it comes to modern-day England strikers, running through Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer, Michael Owen, and – for all the occasional caveats – the enduringly prolific Rooney.
Aged 24, Sturridge is still an international ingenue, but he is right now the man most likely to step up, an unusual striker in an age of unusual strikers, a subtle, often rather unpredictable mover, and a genuinely expert finisher. Late-blooming talent can upset even the best-laid plans. But in this England team Sturridge should perhaps be seen as a rare and precious cutting edge rather than just another ensemble player in Roy's revolving forward jumble.