What else could two exasperated clubs do but mount a show of frustration? Each foiled the other to demonstrate why the prominence they have enjoyed for so long has been lost. Manchester United, despite their surge in the latter part of the evening, are 13 points adrift of Chelsea in the Premiership and Arsenal, for all their smoothness, stand fifth.
Even if the Arsenal substitute Emmanuel Eboué, close to the post, had to boot away a header from Wes Brown in stoppage-time these teams have lost the knack, so often shown by the reigning champions, of snapping a match out of its trance. United believed they were pacing themselves but a lack of sharpness meant that zealous endeavour could not carry them to victory.
The clearest opening had come after an hour, when Kolo Touré miskicked a long ball and Ruud van Nistelrooy, running free, bashed a finish uncharacteristically wide. Sir Alex Ferguson, despite that, made no real claim that United deserved a victory. Arsenal, in a different fashion, had spells of control, even if their daintiness was as inconclusive as United's belated boldness.
It was characteristic of this affair that Arsène Wenger should be reduced to talking in a tantalised manner about the second-half moment when Gary Neville avoided conceding a penalty by getting the merest graze of a touch on the ball as he challenged Cesc Fábregas.
Many years have gone by when an incident as innocent as that had to serve as the main bone of contention on which a manager can gnaw in this fixture. With Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane departed, regular devotees of the feud between these clubs will have to decide if they can stomach civility at this late stage.
Honours even for Arsenal and Manchester United - and more honours destined for Chelsea. The only winners last night were Jose Mourinho and his big blue machine, now 13 points clear of second-placed United in a Premiership race that has turned into a procession.
Amid the debris of missed chances and expiring dreams at Highbury could be found the reason why these contenders cannot catch Mourinho's team. Arsenal and United lack the ruthlessness that characterises Hernan Crespo, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and the rest of the clinical brothers from Stamford Bridge.
Crespo was commentating on the match for Italian television and he could have been forgiven for moments of speechlessness at the profligacy staining proceedings at Highbury. The defending was good, from both sides, but noted attacking technicians still kept erring in front of goal.
Chances came and went, squandered by Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo, Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas. Barring a few bursts of class, Henry was disappointing, a thoroughbred failing to find his fabled stride. "Henry for Barca", chorused the United fans, preying on the fears of their Arsenal counterparts.
Both teams require strengthening in central midfield. For United, Darren Fletcher and John O'Shea are long on endeavour but short on guile. High-class recruits are required if either team is to challenge in the Premiership next season.
Undercard to Chelsea's heavyweight march it may have been, but this latest episode of the spiky Arsenal-United soap opera still drew 160 TV companies from all over the globe to a small strip of north London turf. The game's significance may have lessened in terms of silverware, yet both sets of supporters stirred up ancient enmity to create the sort of atmosphere rarely heard at Highbury.
The North Bank sang of winning "the league in Manchester", the vocal visitors responding by echoing Sir Alex Ferguson's query as to whether Arsenal really needed a bigger home with a caustic "60,000? You're having a laugh".
The old enmity, the same long-standing feuds and yet none of the potent significance it once had. Watching from afar, Jose Mourinho will have recognised his influence in every aspect of a fixture that for so long has decided the supremacy of English football, because, as Chelsea make off with the Premiership title, the old fury that these teams once showed each other now seems more redundant than ever.
It flickered at times, and for the early part of the second half, it almost ignited, but when you find yourselves 13 points behind Chelsea, as United in second place now do, then it scarcely seems to matter.
They started the match 11 points behind Manchester United, even before you consider the small matter of the 25-point deficit to leaders Chelsea, but even in the no man's land of seventh place, a visit from Sir Alex Ferguson's team still matters to Arsenal.
If proof was needed of the old animosity of this fixture it was Martin Keown in a black overcoat on the pitch receiving an award before the match: the former Arsenal defender could not resist glancing back over his shoulder at Ruud van Nistelrooy.
The shot on the stadium screens of Gary Neville and Thierry Henry alongside each other in the tunnel had none of the menace and hostility of Roy Keane's famous confrontation with Patrick Vieira in February. That time the former Arsenal captain had told Neville to stop kicking his team-mates and within four minutes last night the full-back lived up to his reputation.
He clipped Reyes' ankle in a foul so blatant that even the truculent United captain was prepared to own up to it immediately and the confrontation on the left side of Arsenal's attack quickly became the focus for the game's most absorbing confrontation.
He bustled into Neville later, catching him in the face with a stray hand that the Englishman did his best to demonstrate had not affected him. It took a tackle from Ruud van Nistelrooy to stop another hard run from Reyes until he finally succumbed to an old habit by collapsing under pressure from Ryan Giggs, for which the indignant Welshman was booked.
With a midfield that Arsène Wenger had increased to five, with Gilberto Silva just in front of the back four, Arsenal did not want for possession - what they lacked was any measure of penetration. Rooney was also woefully underserved by a midfield that had Darren Fletcher and John O'Shea at its centre, and United did not release Cristiano Ronaldo for a single run at the ever-vulnerable Pascal Cygan.
If the first half represented something of a détente in the recent history of these two clubs, then the beginning of the second was much truer to the old tradition of hostility. Reyes tried to barge Rooney in a race to the ball, but the Arsenal winger's unlikely success only meant that he was caught up in the wreckage of the striker's collapsing frame and was sent head first into the advertising hoardings.
Around the hour, Van Nistelrooy was presented with two of his best chances to score - the first when Sol Campbell misjudged Rio Ferdinand's throughball, the second when Ronaldo slipped in a cross at the near post - but the Dutch striker's sharpness appeared to have deserted him.
Only in the game's very last stages did it catch light again. Neville just missed when he slid in at the back post on to Ronaldo's cross and the substitute Emmanuel Eboue cleared Brown's header off the line. United fought the hardest, but catching Chelsea now will require something more than just effort.
Both these teams won free kicks in the dying minutes last night to be taken by leaders of the next generation. Cristiano Ronaldo sent his flying into the Clock End not far below the timepiece. José Antonio Reyes whacked his straight into the Manchester United wall.
Fine players both, they had managed to sum up an evening when you could almost hear José Mourinho cackling as he told his wife that she was free to turn over to Holby City. His two great rivals had turned into a pair of bald men fighting over a comb.
The decline at both clubs may have been exaggerated by what Arsène Wenger calls the “financial doping” at Chelsea, but there has been a decline nonetheless. Both sides succeeded last night only in emphasising their fall.
They still have individual talent capable of shining as brightly as anything at Stamford Bridge but there was a sense that, deep down, both sets of players knew that this was as close as they would come to a meaningless encounter.
They wanted to win but they did not need to and, when the game had reached its tame conclusion, the managers spoke as though they had always been resigned to a draw.
This may have been the first football match played without a man of the match. Sky mysteriously gave the champagne to Darren Fletcher. Perhaps he was the only player who would stop to talk.
Reyes was a more deserving recipient, although he was hardly an unarguable choice given that Gary Neville, his direct opponent, was one of United’s best players. The tussle between the two, one with “previous”, was the most eye-catching duel. Like the game itself, though, it simmered rather than boiled. Like the match, it too finished in a draw.
Arsenal (4-3-2-1): Lehmann; Lauren, Toure, Campbell, Cygan; Gilberto, Fabregas (Flamini 80), Hleb (Bergkamp 73); Pires, Reyes (Eboue 88); Henry.
Subs: Senderos, Almunia (g). Booked: Lauren, Cygan.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Silvestre; Ronaldo, Fletcher, O'Shea, Giggs (Park 73); Rooney, Van Nistelrooy.
Subs: Howard (g), Saha, Bardsley, Pique. Booked: Giggs, Rooney, O'Shea.
Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).