Roy Hodgson had to pass Zlatan Ibrahimovic as he ascended the stage to deliver his post-match assessment, the England coach offering the man who had illuminated Sweden's sparkling new arena a nod of acknowledgement as they crossed. This was the first loss of his tenure, penalty shoot-outs aside, but it hardly felt damaging. To have witnessed a one-man display so dazzling, even from an opponent, could not feel deflating and a lingering sense of satisfaction remained even in defeat.

The locals may have considered this a celebration, the inaugural match in their new national arena and a contest eventually transformed into a masterclass of Ibrahimovic's staggering talent, but for Hodgson this had been an experiment.

Watching the next wave of talent from the stands of Premier League grounds may offer an insight, but he had considered this an opportunity to try out new faces first-hand. The trio of debutants who started this contest swelled the number of first-timers in his six-month tenure to 10. There would be three more before the end. England yearn for depth and it may actually exist.

Certainly there was promise in evidence. Take the goal poked home smartly by Steven Caulker seven minutes from the interval, converting Steven Gerrard's wonderfully zipped free-kick at the far post. Not since David Nugent in 2007 had a debutant scored for England, the finish making up in part for any disappointment the Tottenham Hotspur centre-half might have felt that his earlier block on Ibrahimovic's shot had dropped perfectly for the home side's captain to convert the first goal in the Friends Arena. That had felt harsh punishment, England's defence dragged out of position at a swift Swedish counterattack, but he was not the only youngster able to make amends.

While Leon Osman, England's 11th oldest post-war debutant, was an efficient and busy presence in midfield, the urgency that had driven the English back into a contest that was drifting ‚– and, for some time, into the lead – was injected by Raheem Sterling.

At 17 years 341 days, the Liverpool forward is his country's fifth youngest player and, initially, had appeared rather overawed out on the periphery, unnerved by an early clattering from Martin Olsson as he gathered Joe Hart's punt for his first touch. That was after 76 seconds and a brutal welcome to football at this level.

"It was a fierce challenge and winded him," said Hodgson, "but he got better as the half went on."

Martin Olsson burst through him to reclaim possession in the build-up to Sweden's first goal, so it was a measure of the winger's confidence that he recovered his composure, sought out the ball and duly made his mark.

One trademark burst might have ended with Tom Cleverley touching in Glen Johnson's cross-shot. It was his finely weighted pass for Ashley Young, eking space from Sebastian Larsson, that sent England into enemy territory for Danny Welbeck to convert a fine equaliser.

There was youthful zest in the construction and execution of that goal. That Sterling won the free-kick, again from Martin Olsson, three minutes later from which Caulker gained his personal reward suggested a player who feels he already belongs.

There was even the odd teasing of Mikael Lustig to savour when he drifted to the opposite flank. Those at Liverpool will not be surprised, even if Sterling's charge to prominence has been eye-catching over the last few months. His regular outings at club level have been merited, the promise established by a tormenting of Kolo Touré in a 2-2 draw with Manchester City in August. The £5m fee the Merseysiders may eventually pay to Queens Park Rangers already appears a snip.

"I've got to be satisfied with what he did," added Hodgson. "He's a young man with a future, a young man with talent. He's got to hone that talent with Liverpool."

Pelé once dazzled as a 17-year-old across Solna at the old Rasunda stadium en route to inspiring Brazil to their first World Cup in 1958. There the comparisons with Sterling clearly end – the greatest show of skill displayed here was conjured by Ibrahimovic for his fourth – but England clearly do possess precocious talents eager to run at all-comers. Sterling is one.

Wilfried Zaha, an unknown to the Premier League, is a blur of step-overs, drag backs and shimmies on a weekly basis in the Championship though his chance to impress was limited to six minutes at the end.

By then this contest had become the Ibrahimovic show, the electronic billboards that displayed the message "He's just too good for you" having been commissioned by one of Crystal Palace's sponsors to hail Zaha's debut ringing truer for the home captain.

Yet Hodgson, even in defeat, will see the bigger picture.