Taking on Emma Hayes’ Chelsea team is a tough task for anyone.
That task gets even more difficult when the opposition are already 4-0 down and they look to the dugout to see things are about to get even worse, which was the case for Reading last weekend.
Fran Kirby had already scored a perfect hat-trick – and added another for good measure – before Hayes made a triple sub that saw her introduce Beth England, last season’s PFA Women's Players' Player of the Year, Ji So-yun, arguably the greatest foreign import in Women’s Super League history, and Jessie Fleming, a player with 77 senior caps for Canada at the age of 22.
Ten minutes later, Pernille Harder, the most expensive player in the history of women’s football, and Magdalena Eriksson, Chelsea’s captain and leader, followed, with Ji rounding off the scoring late in the game as the Blues won 5-0.
A number of those brought on would normally be starters, but after a Covid-19 outbreak at the club before Christmas, Hayes explained “some of them have only been training two or three days”.
Still, it was a great example of just how strong this Chelsea squad is, with them flexing their muscles ahead of this weekend’s clash with Manchester United – the biggest game of the WSL season so far.
Some tend to question the club's supposed ‘stockpiling’. Fleming, for example, chose to move to the club to turn pro instead of entering the NWSL Draft, a path many take after finishing college in the United States.
The lack of opportunities she has had thus far with the Blues – playing just 52 minutes in the WSL, all from the bench – has led to many questioning whether she made the right decision.
Even in the build-up to the Reading game, those same sceptics appeared as Hayes spoke about the club’s new signing, Zecira Musovic.
The 24-year-old’s arrival from Rosengard was announced at the end of December, with the Swede regarded as one of the most exciting goalkeepers in the game, having thrived in the Damallsvenskan as a regular since her debut at the age of 17.
"The next six months for her is to just settle into the club and get used to the way we train, the expectations and the demands on a daily basis,” Hayes told the club’s website. “I'm sure she will have a big future with us."
The proof is in the pudding when it comes to the manager’s methods. Plenty of Chelsea’s current stars needed time to settle.
England needed a fruitful loan spell at Liverpool to really grow into the player she is today, while Erin Cuthbert, a real favourite of Hayes’, didn’t start on a regular basis until her third season. Even Harder has only started eight of her first 13 games for the club.
Easing new players into her team is something that Hayes has been doing for a long time. Winning games and winning titles are also things Hayes has been doing for a long time.
Of course, she is in a fortunate position to be able to give players so much time to settle, with the squad so strong. Hayes knows that, too, but it is a fortunate position that she has earned.
"I think you have to remember that I've been here nine years,” she said earlier this season. “I haven't just assembled the team overnight. This has taken some time to build the quality.
“I am so lucky to be given the chance to manage at Chelsea and be given the trust by the club to build players that have stuck with me in this process, that have signed contracts to remain at the club [when] lots of them could play anywhere in the world.”
Manchester United are the team tasked with overcoming this 'super-squad' on Sunday.
Casey Stoney’s side can take huge confidence from the result they secured when the two title rivals met on the opening weekend of the season, coming back from a goal down to draw – and almost win – despite Stoney joking after the game that centre-back Amy Turner might have found herself up front at one point, so thin were the options on United’s bench.
Fast forward four months, and it’s Stoney’s side who are top of the table. This time, they are bolstered by the availability of United States stars Tobin Heath, who declined a USWNT camp invitation to stay for the game, and Christen Press, who is back from illness.
The league’s most exciting underdogs this year will provide some challenge – their current position is no fluke.
But when you have the squad Chelsea have, they are always going to be favourites – as is the case for the Lyon team the Blues want to dethrone in Europe.
Hayes hasn't just built a formidable squad, she's created an impressive expectation of victory too.