Manchester United and Arsenal played out a grim stalemate at Old Trafford that provided compelling evidence to illustrate just how far away from a Premier League challenge both clubs are.
In a disappointing encounter that was a pale shadow of their mighty clashes of years gone by, Scott McTominay gave Manchester United the lead at the end of an attritional first-half with a rising drive from the edge of the area.
Arsenal equalised just before the hour courtesy of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s cool finish. It was originally ruled out for offside but the video assistant referee confirmed the striker had been played onside by Harry Maguire.
Goalkeeper Bernd Leno excelled for Arsenal with fine saves from Maguire and Marcus Rashford’s late free-kick, while Bukayo Saka’s goalbound shot crucially struck Victor Lindelof and flew over the top.
McTominay also headed a great chance well over from Ashley Young’s corner but neither side could force a winner.
The result takes Arsenal into the top four but Manchester United are now down in 10th after an outcome that means they have made their worst start after seven games in 30 years, failing to reach double figures for the first time since 1989-90, a season in which they finished 13th.
The current circumstances of both clubs was instantly demonstrated by the two captains who led out the sides.
Manchester United’s captain was 34-year-old Ashley Young, pressed into defensive service by Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s absence through injury, and Arsenal were led by Granit Xhaka, newly appointed and a divisive figure among supporters.
Young led from the front in a fashion by regularly contesting decisions, showing a remarkable knack of getting to referee Kevin Friend in an instant on numerous occasions.
Xhaka’s night will be best remembered for his contribution to United’s goal – getting away with a foul in the build-up before appearing to take evasive action as McTominay’s drive made its way into the top corner.
There was no shortage of effort but this was a scrappy mess of a game, lacking any cohesion or quality.
United had the edge on chances, although they were grateful to David de Gea for a fine double save from Saka and Matteo Guendouzi in the first half and they also felt they had a respectable appeal for handball against Sead Kolasinac ignored by referee Kevin Friend.
Arsenal boss Unai Emery will be more satisfied than counterpart Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with a point but this showed just how far away both are from leaders Liverpool and reigning champions Manchester City – and just how much work they have to do to catch up.
It was no surprise when Arsenal’s club record £72m signing Nicholas Pepe failed to last the course, being substituted for Reiss Nelson after 72 minutes.
The 24-year-old signing from Lille had struggled desperately throughout and looks worryingly short of confidence so soon after his introduction into the Premier League.
Pepe had one clear shooting opportunity in the first half but skied his effort hopelessly into the Stretford End. He was on the periphery of the action in a laboured performance also littered with poor decision-making.
It was left to the lethal Aubameyang to provide the finishing touch for Arsenal, correctly assisted by VAR after technology showed he was clearly onside.
Solksjaer appeared to think the linesman’s raised flag made his players stop but it was clearly the correct decision as Maguire loitered yards behind his defensive colleagues.
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: “How many times have we have been 1-0 up and not got the second goal? This is a steep learning curve for us and we’ll keep working hard and, with more experience, we’ll make the right decisions.
“We didn’t get out of the blocks quick enough at the start of the second half. It felt like Arsenal were the more proactive until they scored their goal.
“I felt we could get a goal at the end and we sent men forward. I’ve been in that situation as a player when you come off and think you could’ve got more out of a game, but we’ll learn from this.”
Arsenal manager Unai Emery: “I want more – more in the result and in the performance but we are progressing. We were competitive but we can do better. We can control moments with the ball better and take more chances in the box.
“We have young players who can take confidence. Bukayo [Saka] is progressing well but we need other players too. This is not the best in terms of points but one point can be good if we win next Sunday against Bournemouth.”