When Everton started their push up the table towards the top four, no one questioned the validity of their results.
The Toffees have been on the fringes of European football for the better part of a decade now and Roberto Martinez has been highly thought of as a coach since he helped jumpstart Swansea's ascendency into the Premier League. They were winning by playing good football, and doing it with good players. Their first choice team features a combination of veterans who have played at this level for an extended period of time and some of world football's most highly heralded youngsters.
But Everton's lack of depth in attacking areas showed in their match against West Bromwich Albion on Monday. Going forward, they need to find a temporary way to cover up their lack of flair and creativity in the absence of their brilliant young playmakers, Ross Barkley and Gerard Deulofeu.
Next Tuesday's Merseyside Derby could be the biggest of the Premier League era for Everton, and on the evidence of Monday's 1-1 draw with WBA, they don't quite have the firepower to pose a serious threat to Liverpool. Everton are targeting the game for Barkley's return, but that would put him on the quick recovery end of his predicted 3-4 week layoff. Even if he's 90 minutes fit, he's unlikely to be at his best, and Deulofeu is almost certain to miss out. The added presence of Steven Pienaar -- who also missed the West Brom game -- will help, but he can't be depended on to dominate a game like Barkley or provide one moment of brilliance that defies the run of play or the tactical battle that was being waged like Deulofeu. When the other team has Luis Suarez, it's very useful to have your own player with that ability.
Everton will be lacking a true match winner in their attacking midfield spots, so the best way to temporarily change their game to cover up the weaknesses that their key absences create will be to accentuate the strengths of the one true star they will have on the pitch -- Romelu Lukaku.
He's a versatile physical powerhouse who can be used in a very direct or a very possession-oriented system, but he thrives when put into a position to use his size and pace. Martinez has never been a coach that played lots of long balls or sat back and countered, but it could be a worthwhile strategy for Everton, at least for one game.
Liverpool will play their defenders much higher up the pitch than West Brom did, leaving space for Everton to play Lukaku into or run onto flicked headers. Plus, Liverpool are currently playing with Steven Gerrard in a holding role and Brendan Rodgers insists that it wasn't a one-game experiment. Why engage Liverpool in a possession war and give Suarez space to run into when you can restrict his space and run at Gerrard?
It might not work, but it's better than playing your opponent's game, at their ground, without your best flair players.
The good news for Everton is that they can sustain a loss at Anfield, at least in terms of their standing in the table, the fixtures to come and the recovery timetables for their players. There's no way to tell whether or not they'll be able to bounce back from a convincing loss to Liverpool psychologically, but falling four points behind in January is hardly the end of the world. Everton's next game following the derby is at home against Aston Villa, a very winnable encounter. After that, they go away to another top four rival, Tottenham. By then, Barkley should be fully fit and Deulofeu could be back in action. Wins over Villa and Spurs would have them right back in the hunt, regardless of what Liverpool do over those two rounds. Even if a change in tactics or lack thereof proves unsuccessful, there is a way back for the Toffees.
Everton's top four chase may have been set back by their lack of depth and awful timing for a Merseyside derby, but it hasn't been crippled completely. Martinez has a huge opportunity to prove his worth, either by pulling off a miracle at Anfield with a tactical switch or getting his team to bounce back from a seemingly likely loss.