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Spain will show up England shortcomings: They have to keep the ball better

The problem with exceeding expectations is that over-performance becomes the standard to be met. The hard work is only just beginning for Gareth Southgate and England.

After reaching the World Cup semifinals in Russia just under two months ago, Southgate's young England side have earned the honeymoon period they are now experiencing courtesy of restoring the country's affection and respect for the national team following so many disappointments at major tournaments.

But with the inaugural Nations League throwing England together with Spain and World Cup conquerors Croatia, a reality check may just be around the corner.

England returned from Russia with reputations enhanced, both at home and abroad, but are they an emerging force on the world stage? Or was the World Cup nothing more than a false dawn, created by a soft group and favourable run to the last four?

We are about to find out because Spain's visit to Wembley on Saturday will arguably pose a greater examination of Southgate's players than anything they encountered in Russia, including the semifinal defeat against Croatia.

UEFA Nations League full draw
Watch on ESPN networks in the U.S.
Schedule: Sep. 6 | Sep. 7 | Sep. 8 | Sep. 9 | Sep. 10 | Sep. 11

If England are moving towards a brighter future under Southgate, and the signs are that the former Middlesbrough manager at least has the team on the right track, then they have to build on the achievements of Russia and ensure that the feelgood factor extends beyond this weekend.

Spain, surprisingly eliminated at the round of 16 following a penalty shootout defeat against hosts Russia in Moscow, arrive at Wembley in a period of transition with Luis Enrique only a month into the coaching job after the sacking of Julen Lopetegui two days before their first match at the World Cup, both Gerard Pique and David Silva announcing their international retirements, and Diego Costa ruled out due to injury.

But they remain a benchmark opponent for England because of their status as one of the most consistent teams in world football over the past decade and also due to their ability to do what England continue to struggle with: keeping the ball.

England are getting better at that, but the semifinal defeat against Croatia exposed the old failing once again, especially in the second-half, as Luka Modric and his teammates starved England of possession and eventually overturned a 1-0 deficit to progress to the final.

Don't expect England to suddenly dominate possession against Spain this weekend, but how they cope without the ball and what they do when they have it will be a key indicator as to how they are progressing.

However, one damning statistic from the World Cup suggests that, amid all the euphoria of reaching the final four, Southgate still has it all to do when it comes to making England competitive at the very highest level: England averaged just 0.9 shots on target from open play per 90 minutes in Russia and, of the 32 competing nations, only Iran recorded a lower average.

No team had more shots on target from set-pieces than England in Russia, but from open play, Southgate's players were abject.

In 10 hours of game time at the World Cup, England mustered just six shots on target from open play and that lack of threat is a direct consequence of their inability to retain possession and use it wisely.

Harry Kane may have returned from the tournament with the Golden Boot as top scorer, but the England captain's tally included three penalties and one goal against Panama which was inadvertently diverted into the net by his heel, so his six goals were by no means an array of strikes from defence-splitting open play.

Getting the ball to Kane in scoring positions was a problem that became increasingly evident as the tournament progressed and that limitation will continue to hold England back unless they find a way to address it.

Southgate's squad for the clash with Spain, and Tuesday's friendly against Switzerland in Leicester, shows little sign of evolution from the World Cup, though.

Yes, it is a young squad with a collection of bright talents, so there was never going to be a need for wholesale change. But there is no place for the likes of Chelsea's Ross Barkley or Manchester City's Phil Foden -- two players who could provide the creativity to improve England's threat in the attacking third.

Southgate does not have a Modric or Silva to call upon and there is no modern-day Paul Scholes or Paul Gascoigne to build a team around, but England need to find a way to hurt opponents through open play rather than relying so heavily on set-pieces.

Spain will expose England's shortcomings in that area, as will Croatia when the two countries meet again in Rijeka and at Wembley later this autumn. It would be naive to expect England to face both nations as favourites to win, but it is fair to expect them to go into the games with renewed confidence and belief following the World Cup.

Yet unless they show some improvement in terms of keeping the ball and using it better, the honeymoon period won't last long.

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