THESE are the kind of games aspiring champions must win and Manchester United failed the test. Having ceded top spot to Manchester City in midweek following their defeat by Sheffield United, this was a chance to make amends for that shock reverse and demonstrate they could answer the challenge laid down by Pep Guardiola’s side who had beaten Chris Wilder’s strugglers earlier in the day.

It is the small incremental shifts that usually shape a title race and this draw felt significant for United’s bid. City now sit three points clear of their neighbours at the top of the table with a game in hand. Leicester and others might yet have something to say about the destination of the Premier League trophy but this was a good day for Guardiola – and not so for his United counterpart, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Despite the lack of a goal, it was not a match that was short on incident. Indeed, Arsenal’s Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe and United’s Edinson Cavani and Marcus Rashford might well be asking themselves how they didn’t ripple the net. A mixture of abject finishing and poor fortune provided the answer.

It was a game that started slowly and it took until 20 minutes before either side had a meaningful shot on target, even then Fred’s floated effort from Bruno Fernandes’ corner lacked real power and was tipped around the post by Bernd Leno. On the half hour, Pepe produced several stepovers before curling his left-footed shot around David de Gea’s far post.

The action zipped from goalmouth to goalmouth without ever really feeling that one side was more likely to score than the other. Aaron Wan-Bissaka headed wide from Rashford’s cross while Fernandes accelerated into the Arsenal area only to curl his finish over when it looked destined for Leno’s top corner.

Perhaps of most note in that opening spell was the agitation displayed by Fernandes. Solskjaer denied in his press conference before the game that United were over-reliant on the Portuguese No.10, which was a bit like saying the UK government isn’t dependent on Marcus Rashford to keep them right over a more humane policy on free meals for under-privileged schoolchildren.

It was a curious first half from Fernandes and, perhaps, dispelled his manager’s point. To the fore was his spiky, irritable side and much less of the prettier parts to his game. He threw himself to the ground all-to-easily when feeling contact inside the Arsenal area under pressure from Cedric Soares, then squared up to his compatriot soon after and, finally, stood firmly on Granit Xhaka’s ankle. VAR reviewed that challenge but no further action was taken. In all, he looked fortunate not to have been booked at least once and, in general, he looked off the boil.

This was a chance to measure the growing influence of Scott McTominay in the Manchester United midfield. The 24-year-old has emerged as one of Solskjaer’s most consistent performers in the engine room and he has demonstrated that he is worthy of consideration as a starting midfielder for Scotland rather than in the right-sided centre-half position that Steve Clarke currently deploys him in, but the opportunity to assess his development did not last long.

McTominay started to suffer stomach cramps midway through the first half and soldiered on manfully before admitting defeat. Paul Pogba, who had started the game on the left side of a front four, dropped into the holding role, and Anthony Martial came on with 37 minutes on the clock.

It was a move that helped United not so much as a result of Pogba’s positional change but rather because Martial brought greater verve and raw speed to the visitor’s attacking play. Rashford should have put the visitors in front but he delayed his shot when all alone inside the area following Luke Shaw’s cross, albeit he was closed down very quickly by the on-rushing Leno.

Much had been made of Arsenal’s good form which had brought five wins in their previous six games. Closer scrutiny of the run revealed that three of those victories had come against teams in the bottom five. It was hardly compelling evidence that Mikel Arteta’s side had turned the corner and as the half progressed, it felt as if it was only a matter of time before United took the lead.

But the visitors never really looked convincing despite facing an Arsenal side missing their three best players with Kieran Tierney and Bukayo Saka missing due to injury and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang lost to illness.

The second half started with a role reversal of how the first ended. Arsenal had two chances to go in front in the opening five minutes, but Willian’s shot was snuffed out by Wan-Bissaka following the United man’s initial slip then Harry Maguire produced an even better block to deny the on-rushing Pepe.

Thereafter, either team could have gone in front. Cavani should have given United the lead following a flowing move that was given real intent by Shaw’s fizzing cross but the Uruguayan side-footed wide.

Then, in the 65th minute, Lacazette’s free-kick clipped the underside of the United bar and 30 seconds later Emile Smith-Rowe produced a stinging shot that De Gea parried before the danger was cleared.

Pepe produced a carbon copy of one of his first-half misses and late on Cavani really should have sealed the three points but his scissor kick skidded wide.

It was a matter of inches past the post. The kind of marginal gains that decide the destiny of league titles and lead people to question whether you have the stomach for the fight.