Disclaimer: This piece was written before Everton's phenomenal win at Old Trafford last night. It might seem a little irrelevant given the magnitude of that result, but do bear with it; the point still stands.
In the midst of a crucial run of fixtures that continues with a visit to the Emirates on Sunday, much has been made of the transformation of Everton under Roberto Martinez. The Blues should be in high spirits going into the weekend's showdown away to league leaders Arsenal, having demolished Stoke City at Goodison Park last weekend, and coming within a minute of defeating rivals Liverpool the week before, however amongst all the approbation afforded to the Toffees' generally positive start to the season, I can't help but harbour some reservations about one particular aspect of the team's success: an (over)reliance on loan players.
11 of Everton's 25 goals in all competitions this season have been scored by players on loan from other clubs - close to 45% - a significantly higher proportion than any other Premier League side (the only team that comes close is the Loic Remy-reliant Newcastle United). Barcelona starlet Gerard Deulofeu impressed, and scored, on his full Premier League debut, and Chelsea's Romelu Lukaku has provided a potent attacking focal point where previously there was only the increasingly hapless Nikica Jelavic. Indeed even Gareth Barry, out of favour at Manchester City under Manuel Pellegrini, has proven to be a vital component of the Blues' midfield, especially in the continued absence of Darron Gibson through injury.
The overriding issue with this situation lies not so much in the present, but in the future. Everton have previously used the loan market to great effect; David Moyes famously brought in both Mikel Arteta and Steven Pienaar as initial loan signings - the latter on two occasions - and Landon Donovan enjoyed a pair of brief but successful spells at Goodison during the MLS close season. The difference between these deals, Donovan aside, and the current crop of loan players however, is that they were made with a view to a permanent transfer upon completion; in the case of Pienaar, a fee was even agreed beforehand.
In contrast, both Lukaku and Deulofeu are at Everton at the behest of their parent clubs in order to further their development; the nature of the latter's deal, whereby his loan fee decreases the more he plays, is testament to this. Likewise, as encouraging as it is to hear Lukaku professing a desire to stay with the Toffees beyond his current yearlong deal, Blues fans would be wise check any hopes of the striker's move being made permanent.
Admittedly, Barry will be a free agent once the current season concludes, but it will be interesting to see whether the influential midfielder will countenance the necessary cut that would have to be made to his £120k per week wages in order for the club to consider him a viable permanent signing.
And therein lies the problem: Everton must now seek to utilise the assets at their disposal with the knowledge that they are but a temporary solution. Beyond Lukaku, neither Arouna Kone nor Jelavic have demonstrated that they can consistently provide goals in the Premier League, and so the team's underlying striker problems, while kept at bay for the time being, remain just below the surface.
So what happens next? It's difficult to say, but there are precedents. Lukaku himself helped fire West Bromwich Albion to an 8th place finish last year, the club's highest ever in the Premier League, but his subsequent departure has inevitably left the Baggies weaker, forcing them to fill a £25 million striker-shaped hole with, well, Victor Anichebe. Evertonians can see the problem there.
Much will depend on the final results of this current campaign. Should Everton's loanees assist in firing Martinez's side into Europe for the first time since the 2009-10 season, then the manager's transfer policy will be utterly vindicated. If the Toffees end up falling short however, then the Spaniard will have to contend with several problems he managed to defer last summer, in addition to the loss of three of his most important recruits. It may well end up being a case of two steps forward, one step back.