Addressing the press when announcing his squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers at Wembley on Wednesday afternoon, Roy Hodgson carefully laid out his reasoning to address the zeitgeisty issue he knew would be brought up: Joe Hart’s recent errors and the form of Fraser Forster.
It was, said Hodgson, a question of experience rather than form. With England likely needing two victories against Poland and Montenegro to be assured of a place in the World Cup finals, Hart’s 35 caps and vast Premier League experience would naturally be preferred to Fraser Forster’s zero caps and Scottish top-flight grounding.
Two qualifiers which will determine whether the mood and collective experience of an entire country – not to mention its economy – will be significantly lifted come June were not the stage on which to be trying out new personnel.
This is a perfectly valid strand of logic when it comes to goalkeepers – the memory of Scott Carson’s all too rapid ascension to the first team and England’s subsequent elimination from Euro 2008 qualifying at a sodden Wembley in November 2007 will not be allowed to escape the nation’s collective memory any time soon – but there is a follow-up question: will it be extended to the other end of the pitch too?
The returning Wayne Rooney, who missed Wednesday night’s draw with Shakhtar but has only a minor injury, will of course be installed as the focal point of England’s attack – either as a No. 10 or a more conventional centre-forward – but the identity of the men surrounding him is rather more uncertain.
If experience is the key issue, then perhaps that dictates Jermain Defoe – aged 30, with 19 goals in 54 caps – will start in advance of Rooney, or Jack Wilshere or Steven Gerrard could be pushed forward in support of Rooney, sparing Hodgson a difficult decision by removing the need for another striker. Perhaps Rickie Lambert’s recently acquired record of two goals in three caps will be enough for him to start on the basis of his immediate experience in the role.
However, Hodgson also opened up the possibility in his press conference that Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge will be utilised in England’s two most vital games since the Euro 2012 finals in Poland and Ukraine.
Questioned about using Rooney and Sturridge together, Hodgson replied: "I was pretty excited before the last two games (against Ukraine and Poland, which both players missed due to injury). I was watching Sturridge and Rooney and they were both in great form. There is a lot of goals in them, they can create goals with their individual brilliance."
Hodgson certainly cannot have failed to be impressed by Sturridge, who is top scorer in the Premier League so far this season with five goals. Even more impressive is his total of 15 in 17 starts since joining Liverpool from Chelsea for £12 million in January.
No forward has combined a deadly touch with clever movement and exaggerated flair quite like Sturridge this season. A hint of selflessness has even crept into his play, as evidenced by his two assists for the returning Luis Suarez against Sunderland last weekend.
Hodgson’s warm words for Sturridge clearly suggested that the Liverpool man has a chance of making England’s starting XI in conjunction with Rooney, either playing in a central role or flanking the United man along with Danny Welbeck in what would be a dangerously exciting front three. With Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain injured, and Ashley Young dropped, England are certainly not blessed with wide players at present.
Yet if we are to apply the Forster logic, Sturridge’s case for inclusion would be fatally undermined by the fact he has started only once for his country, and that in a friendly against Ireland in May. In total he has only one goal in six appearances: hardly the platform for being thrown in to two such important fixtures.
Strikers and goalkeepers are completely different beasts, of course: age is no barrier to a player who has shown a precocious touch for goalscoring and, as the decline of Michael Owen demonstrated, often the formative years are the most productive. By contrast, keepers undoubtedly improve with age.
Neither has Sturridge shown any signs of being mentally fragile, a la Carson. This is a player who pursued an acrimonious move away from Chelsea to Manchester City at a young age and was not content to merely be a substitute at Stamford Bridge once Andre Villas-Boas, who introduced him as a regular first-team player, was booted out to make way for Roberto Di Matteo, who was rather more sceptical of the striker’s talents.
He is headstrong and confident. How else to describe a player who, after emerging into the Premier League arena, quickly developed a reputation for assuming he could score from almost any angle?
His keen sense of his own quality and potential has been with him from the start. When banished to the bench in the early stages of his career at Chelsea he fearlessly lobbied in public for a regular starting position. When given one on the right of the attack, he repeatedly told the press he saw himself more as a number nine. In one soundbite that offered an insight into his psyche, he said in an interview back in 2011: "I'm aiming for the stars. I'm not content with being in the shadows."
Sturridge, in his form and his demeanour, looks ready for these two qualifiers. But the innate conservatism of the England manager – in evidence throughout his time in charge of the national side – surely makes a bold approach like fielding all three of Rooney, Welbeck and Sturridge somewhat improbable.
More likely, the ultra-reliable James Milner, a man who backtracks and runs his heart out from wide positions, will be deployed on the right of the pitch, with Welbeck, who has a distinguished record of eight goals in 18 games at this early stage of his international career, on the left of Rooney. That will allow Gerrard, Wilshere and Frank Lampard to form a more robust midfield three.
If so, this would be a mistake. Sturridge’s early-season form demands recognition, and Hodgson would be wise to ignore the logic he himself articulated, and throw the Liverpool striker in at the deep end.