United striker Edinson Cavani had two good chances late on but Arsenal fully deserved their point on a bitterly cold night in north London.
The Gunners went closest when Alexandre Lacazette’s clipped free-kick hit the bar after the break while United keeper David de Gea saved well from Emile Smith Rowe and Nicolas Pepe also threatened to break the deadlock.
De Gea’s counterpart Bernd Leno also distinguished himself with an athletic fingertip save from Fred in the first half.
United came within inches of winning it in the closing stages when Cavani saw a close-range effort deflected wide off Leno and the Uruguay striker then hooked a superb cross from Aaron Wan-Bissaka just wide when he looked certain to score.
Arsenal gave a late debut to Martin Odegaard, signed on loan from Real Madrid, but he had little impact and the stalemate leaves United three points behind Manchester City having played a game more.
Arsenal will always hope to win games at home but manager Mikel Arteta is unlikely to be too unhappy with this point against United.
The Spaniard suffered a couple of significant injury blows before kick-off when Bukayo Saka and Kieran Tierney were ruled out, adding to the absence of leading striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was missing for personal reasons.
Arsenal’s reshuffled side acquitted itself well, although they were breathing a heavy sigh of relief when Cavani missed two openings that such an accomplished marksman might be expected to convert.
Arteta’s players have responded well to last Saturday’s bitterly disappointing FA Cup fourth-round loss at Southampton with a league victory away at Saints followed by this hard-earned point against United.
The Gunners went close to making it two victories since that exit, with Lacazette’s free-kick bouncing to safety off the woodwork as De Gea stood motionless – although that would have been harsh on United.
Arteta, constantly cajoling from his technical area, has a side that is very much a work in progress but their endeavour here – especially given the absence of key players – demonstrated he has something to build on.
Manchester United established a club record at the Emirates by making it 18 Premier League games away from home without defeat – but there was still an air of frustration in manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s body language towards the final whistle.
He will have had his sights on taking three points in order to bounce back from that shock midweek loss at home to bottom club Sheffield United and showed his positive intent by sending on striker Anthony Martial when midfielder Scott McTominay had to go off in the first half.
In the end, however, Solskjaer’s side ended up as one half of the first goalless draw between these two sides in the Premier League since February 2014 – which means Arsenal are now unbeaten in their last six league games against United.
Solskjaer did not look unduly unhappy as he conducted his post-match interviews but they have lost ground on Manchester City and may feel this was one that got away.
“Three of our best players were out and that probably has an impact but I’m really happy with the players.
“In the second half we were so dominant and created some good chances to win it.”
“That is a foundation to play from. We need to take our chances – we know we have the players to do that, but we haven’t done it lately.
“I felt we controlled and played well in the first half. We created two massive chances and did some good play.”