Roy Hodgson's plan for Poland had been laid bare when the team sheets were handed to the officials at Wembley on Friday evening. The three England players carrying bookings from last month's card frenzy against Ukraine were all left kicking their heels on the bench against San Marino while their able deputies were charged with punishing the section's whipping boys. It was a low-risk, logical strategy. After all, the cavalry would be needed in Warsaw.

Now, though, his strategy might have been muddied. While Joleon Lescott and James Milner will surely return against Poland, joining Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson, whose one-match bans have been served, Hodgson may yet linger over the immediate restoration of Jermain Defoe. The deliberation will not be a reflection on the 30-year-old's sharp form for both club and country, but rather the evidence that Danny Welbeck's case to start the game seems persuasive. The management's instinct may be to revert to the more experienced man, a recognition that this will be a fixture for older heads, but there is undoubtedly a choice to be made up front and it is far from clear cut.

Even in a mismatch Welbeck staked a claim against San Marino. The sponsors' man of the match produced what already seems like a trademark back-heeled goal, and a second-half tap-in, to register his first personal rewards of the season. Scoring against the world's joint-worst international team hardly constitutes cause for huge celebration – even if the 21-year-old has now scored more goals, four, than anyone else for Hodgson's England – but there was promise in his link-up play with Wayne Rooney, an understanding forged back at Manchester United. The manager made a point on Friday of praising the slick interchanges mustered by his contingent from Old Trafford and the front pairing did appear to click.

"I'm used to playing with him and really relishing the chance to partner him for England," said Welbeck afterwards. "Once we get into positions in and around the box, we know the different styles of combinations to play."

The pair's previous involvement together on the pitch with England constituted 82 minutes against Ukraine in Donetsk, where Rooney returned from suspension at Euro 2012, and an hour in the scoreless quarter-final against Italy. Welbeck was arguably one of England's finds of the summer but as the junior partner, he would still always benefit from a familiar face at his side as he seeks to make a proper mark at this level. The two clearly represent a potential regular partnership for this team's future.

Whether that is enough for Hodgson to abandon his experience-first policy is open to debate, even if the manager acknowledges the promise in evidence. "Danny wasn't on everyone's lips when I took him to the Euros but he has since had to fight very hard to get a place in the Manchester United team because the competition there is so great," said Hodgson. "He is learning and improving all the time."

Competing at Warsaw's national stadium would speed that education, as did his involvement in the summer tournament. He could be a fixture of this side for years, whereas Defoe will be approaching his 32nd birthday at Brazil 2014. Yet will the pragmatist in Hodgson think long-term when the Spurs forward is in such fine form, and with this one of the two more awkward trips in the qualifying group?

Defoe, after all, would surely have revelled against San Marino just as impressively, his confidence pepped by regular football and four goals already for André Villas-Boas's improving Spurs team. At 5ft 7in and happiest running at goal, he may not appear the most natural lone forward though it is a role he has learned to play effectively in recent times.

The familiar argument against the Tottenham forward's inclusion is a lack of effectiveness on the bigger occasions, but Poland are not world-beaters. They can be fragile and error-prone at the back, and Defoe is one of England's more eager strikers when he glimpses a sight of goal.

"He's really hard to mark, the sharpness and the amount of times he gets a shot off," said Phil Jagielka. "He's one of the best finishers I've seen. You think you're blocking it and it goes between your legs or an inch past your thigh. It's frustrating, but it's intriguing to play against. 'Welbz', though, has also impressed me endless amounts: he's got a decent left foot, a good right, he's not afraid to head balls, he's quick, intelligent … If you have to tick the boxes of what is needed for a top international footballer, he ticks most of them. He can go as far as he wants in the game."

That at least indicates there is a debate within the England squad as to which player should be involved, with the pair's credentials playing on the manager's mind. Hodgson claimed he had "wanted to see what the others could do" when leaving out Lescott, Milner and Defoe on Friday. No one let himself down, but Welbeck's contribution in particular has offered real food for thought.