Photo by Enter Key

Much has been made of Daniel Sturridge’s torrid start to his loan spell at Bolton, scoring in each of his first three appearances with the club. But with the arrival of Sturridge and his instant emergence as Bolton’s most dangerous finisher, it remains to be seen what Owen Coyle will do when it comes to naming his starting eleven for the remainder of the season.

Sturridge came off the bench in his first game against Wolves, scoring the game winner in injury time. Since then he has started alongside Kevin Davies at the top of Coyle’s 4-4-2 formation, which Bolton has used in every Premier League match this season. Johan Elmander, the club’s leading goalscorer this season, has moved to the right side of midfield, with Lee Chung-Yong making way.

Elmander has played in wide positions before, both under Gary Megson and for Sweden, and has proven to be an adequate if not exceptional option on the wide right. Nevertheless, Sturridge’s arrival, however successful it has been so far, leaves Coyle to have to make an important decision about who will start for his side for the remainder of the season. Kevin Davies is the club captain and his uncanny aerial ability gives the squad an invaluable direct attacking option, and Sturridge has shown his quality in his brief time at the Reebok; it’s highly doubtful either would be taken out of the lineup. Elmander’s early season run of goals has dried up, but sending him to the bench would surely dent his confidence; to complicate matters further, the Swede is out of contract at the end of the season and it would be naïve to think that losing his starting spot wouldn’t increase the likelihood that he would leave the club on a free transfer in the summer.

This, then, would seem to mean that Lee would be the odd man out in the current scenario. But when the South Korean came back following Asian Cup duty, where he helped his country to a third-place finish, Coyle described his return from the Asian Cup as like “getting a £10 million player”. Given his side’s poor January form as well as the madness of the winter transfer window, he might have actually been undervaluing the 22-year-old.

The numbers don’t lie: Lee departed for Qatar prior to Bolton’s match at Chelsea on Dec. 28 and Bolton proceeded to lose four of its next five Premier League fixtures, scoring two goals and conceding ten in that stretch. During that time Bolton were also underwhelming in the FA Cup, managing a flattering 2-0 home win against non-league York City and a lifeless 0-0 draw at home to a Wigan side that made eight changes to its lineup. Bolton faced a difficult and crowded winter schedule and has one of the thinnest squads in the Premier League, but the fact is that the team has gained 35 points in 21 matches with Lee this season (9-8-4) and 1 point in 6 matches without him (0-1-5). It would seem crazy to think that he would be the one to make way for Sturridge, but that is exactly what has happened thus far.

Lee, a £2 million signing by Megson in August 2009, has chipped in with two goals and seven assists in all competitions for Bolton this campaign, but his influence extends far beyond that; during his absence it became clear that he is the only natural right-winger in the Bolton squad. Coyle tried four different players at the position – Martin Petrov, Matt Taylor and young Benfica loanee Rodrigo, all left-footed, and Mark Davies, a natural central midfielder – with limited success. Lee has been nothing short of outstanding since arriving at Bolton; he brings quickness, creativity and constant attacking movement down the right side, does an excellent job of helping the fullbacks with their defensive responsibilities, and has also proven to be surprisingly skillful in the air. On as a substitute on Sunday, Lee won a key header over Everton’s Leighton Baines that Sturridge put away decisively, sealing the three points for the Trotters.

Against Everton, Coyle took Matt Taylor off and shifted Elmander to the left side when Lee came on; given that Taylor and Petrov haven’t exactly been setting the world on fire this season, this could be the best lineup potentially for Bolton going forward. Coyle’s desire for balance, however, could override any desire to start Elmander on the left. It isn’t the worst problem to have of course, and any injuries going forward would render this discussion moot. But at present moment, Coyle will have his work cut out juggling his attacking options – and any hopes of pushing for a European place could rest on what he ultimately decides to do.