At least Maroune Fellaini’s 91st-minute winner raised the football on show above the instantly forgettable, as the Belgian rose above Granit Xhaka to head in Ashley Young’s cross from eight yards.
And just for a brief second, it was just like the good old days when Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger knocked lumps off each other on some of the most dramatic, memorable occasions in the history of the Premier League.
Until that point, the bare facts were a goal for each side - Paul Pogba and his former United team-mate Henrikh Mkhitaryan the goalscorers — in a game that patently failed to live up to some of the hair-raising and breathtaking encounters the two clubs have produced through the years.
To underscore that point, here was Fergie on the touchline before kick-off, handing his old adversary a silver vase to take with him when he leaves Arsenal in three league games’ time.
Fergie beckoned over Jose Mourinho to join them in a group huddle, United’s glorious past and an improving present, side by side with Wenger, a manager who for many of his 22 years in charge of the Gunners proved a valiant adversary and perennial thorn in the side of the Mancunians.
There was also, quite correctly, a respectful and heartfelt standing ovation from United supporters for Wenger.
“I’m happy, the class my club showed towards him,” said Mourinho. “And I’m happy that when I told the club I would like Sir Alex to present the award that they agreed.
“My story with Mr Wenger at Manchester United is just a couple of years and I hope I play against him again, if not in the Premier League, who knows? We might still have a big game waiting for us.”
And perhaps here was the problem. As an occasion, Wenger’s last trip to Old Trafford was perfect; as a competitive contest between two of England’s premier clubs, it felt, and fell, flat — a reminder of how far the two, especially Arsenal, have fallen from the pinnacle of the game that used to be occupied exclusively by Fergie and his French nemesis.
The draw leaves United on course to finish the season as runners-up, though possibly by a record 18 points behind champions Manchester City but, for his part, Wenger will be leaving behind a club that could yet end the campaign nearly 40 off first place.
What the fans would have given, to see Keane snapping at the heels of Vieira; Martin Keown jumping all over Ruud van Nistelrooy, hurling abuse in his face for missing a penalty.Instead, there was a lackadaisical approach from both sides who contributed to their own downfalls.
After 16 minutes, Reiss Nelson lost the ball to Jesse Lingard, launching a United attack which saw Romelu Lukaku chip to the far post and Alexis Sanchez’s goalbound header turned onto the woodwork by Hector Bellerin.
Pogba was well positioned to volley the ball into an empty net, for his first goal at Old Trafford since mid-November, a damning statistic about the contribution of United’s record signing this season.
In the circumstances, that should have been the platform upon which Mourinho could build one last hurrah against Wenger, a manager with whom he has had more than his share of run-ins over the years but has lost just once in the Premier League.
But United dawdled, perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by the sheer “niceness” of the occasion, and having lived dangerously late in the first half, conceded early in the second.
Again, the goal was largely self-inflicted as Antonio Valencia’s infield pass threw Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic into confusion, allowing Xhaka to nick the ball away from Chris Smalling and set up Mkhitaryan for a super finish from 18 yards past the diving David de Gea.
At least there was that modicum of late drama, even before the winner, as Marcus Rashford turned in the rebound after Fellaini had headed an 88th minute Anthony Martial cross against the post although the goal was quickly, and correctly, ruled out for offside.
“I’m happy with the last 20 minutes,” said Mourinho. “We won three points that kill the Champions League story. But we still need four points to finish second which is what we want.”
De Gea 6; Valencia 6, Smalling 6, Lindelof 6, Young 7; Herrera 6 (Fellaini 63, 8), Matic 7; Lingard 6 (Martial 63, 7), Pogba 7, Sanchez 7; Lukaku 7 (Rashford 50, 7).
Rojo, Mata, McTominay, Pereira.
Ospina 6; Bellerin 7, Chambers 6, Mavropanos 8, Kolasinac 6 (Monreal 64, 6); Xhaka 7; Mkhitaryan 7 (Willock 76, 6), Maitland-Niles 7, Iwobi 6, Nelson 6 (Welbeck 64, 6); Aubameyang 6.
Holding, Cech, Nketiah, Osei-Tutu.
K Friend 8