Hodgson, who historically has favoured organisation and endeavour over fluidity and flair, was expected to pick one of Daniel Sturridge or Danny Welbeck to play alongside Wayne Rooney, with James Milner – a gifted workhorse but a workhorse nonetheless – certain to occupy one of the wide midfield berths.
Not only did Hodgson confound the pundits and fans by choosing Welbeck and Sturridge but, by plumping for a fluid 4-2-3-1(ish) formation, he allowed himself the luxury of selecting a more orthodox, attacking winger to support the trio.
To call the selection of the hitherto uncapped Andros Townsend a surprise would be something of an understatement.
The Tottenham winger has been in excellent form, both on loan at relegated QPR last season (he was a rare highlight in that rotting mess of a club) and for Spurs, with Andre Villas-Boas also deserving credit for trusting his young charge despite buying up half of Europe’s attacking talent with Gareth Bale’s transfer kitty.
Anyone who has watched him closely knows his skills: tireless, direct and fleet of foot, he adds a technical composure to the typically English traits associated with the injured Theo Walcott and his Spurs' team-mate Aaron Lennon, who is also currently on the sidelines.
Unlike Walcott, Townsend is as comfortable with the ball at his feet as he is running on to it and, unlike Lennon, he can cross it with relative accuracy. He also possesses a piledriver of a shot when, as he was briefed to do at QPR and at Wembley on Friday night, given the freedom to cut inside and leather the leather to goal.
That combination of directness and technical composure appears to have swayed Hodgson, who was acutely aware that England really needed to win this match, and next week’s clash with Poland.
The fluid foursome also allowed Hodgson to use the experience that he hinted would be vital, as Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard dovetailed fairly well in central midfield, while substitute Michael Carrick’s supreme ball retention allowed England to dominate the latter stages of the match.
Townsend was not the only man to impress under pressure. Welbeck is a renowned big-game player for Manchester United, and his adventurous style matched that of Sturridge quite brilliantly at times.
Sturridge is a man reborn following his move to Liverpool, with his natural confidence and willing to take risks a very un-English combination; and speaking of combinations, his work with Welbeck was reminiscent of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole in their United pomp.
The dovetailing of Sturridge and Welbeck, the constant backheels and flicks, the insane trickery… it is all very alien to England, who have previously relied on relatively one-dimensional forwards - and, of course, Wayne Rooney.
Rooney, relishing the freedom to drop deep and wide, found himself surrounded by the space and movement he hasn’t even seen at United for some time. He looked at ease with and without the ball, relished in his colleagues’ ability to read his play, and their willingness to try new things.
It was the most dominant performance by England against one of the better sides in the group - 61 per cent possession, 27 efforts on goal to Montenegro's 10, 12 on target to their opponents' two.
What is most surprising by all this is that it has taken England so long to play to their strengths.
The perception has been for many years – decades even – that England’s lionhearted defence and determination in bludgeoning attack should be maximised and exploited. Yet for some years now English football has been blessed with tricky, quick and direct wide forwards.
The conventional wisdom was that such players were square pegs in round holes; with England inexorably tied to 4-4-2 or variations on the tradition, how could a player like Welbeck, Sturridge or the absent Theo Walcott fit into such a system? They can’t play as conventional wide midfielders, and their striking attributes require the presence of a target man that, outside of the not-quite-good-enough Andy Carroll and previously Peter Crouch, England do not have.
But the formation was the problem, not the players; the system, not its components. The presumption that England could only play a certain way. Heck, the coaches who work with them at club level manage to get their domestic charges to adapt, so why the reluctance at international level?
A fluid front four requires at least two and ideally three of the attacking players to be willing ‘workers’, to track back instinctively; Rooney particularly but also Welbeck and Townsend fit that brief.
It also requires at least three of the four to be natural ‘movers’; to swap positions, take risks without the ball and create a fluid forward line that is difficult to track by even the most deep-lying defences.
What is particularly useful about this system for England is that there are absent friends who can fit into this formation quite easily. Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will probably return from injury soon enough and, despite Walcott’s relative technical limitations, both have strong roles to play within it. Additionally, the likes of Ross Barkley and Jack Wilshere can adapt into it as both have the technique and game intelligence to operate outside their preferred roles.
This fluid attack line also reduces England’s dependence on Rooney who, while probably still their most gifted player, is not essential for its function: Oxlade-Chamberlain and Barkley, for example, could adopt his deep-lying forward role, as could Wilshere at a push. Welbeck can operate as a central playmaker forward too, with his weaker passing ability compensated for by deft flicks and vision.
It doesn’t look good for Jermain Defoe, who is expected to be the sacrificial lamb when Walcott and the Ox regain fitness. Carroll will also likely move ahead of the Spurs man in the pecking order, but if all are fit it is unlikely he will be in the squad if England do make it to Brazil.
And it’s still very much an ‘if’ – England need to repeat the trick against Poland next week. A Poland side who, while out of the qualifying frame, have a stronger all-round XI than Montenegro and one of Europe’s top strikers in Robert Lewandowski.
If they do see off the Poles, then there is the age-old problem of the shirt hanging heavy on their backs in Brazil. The now chronic problem of English players feeling the overbearing weight of pressure has been softened by reduced expectations, carefully managed by the wily Hodgson.
Promisingly this younger, more liberated group picked by Hogdson seems less prone to the navel gazing and stomach churning of previous incumbents.
This was a pressure match and they lived up to it – fortune barely played a part, and but for a stand-out performance from goalkeeper Vukasin Poleksic, they would have scored more.
Can they do so a second time and, if so, can they take that freedom to Brazil? There will be good days and bad days, as if often the way with youth. Time will tell and, with the average age of 23, that front foursome has plenty of it.
By Reda Maher / On Twitter @Reda_Eurosport