Arsenal's season has been played out to a single soundtrack and the words have begun to grate. Can Arsène Wenger's team respond? Can they show the personality that is required to bear the weight of history? Can they finally pull it off?

Here was everything in microcosm. The shuddering setback had come in the 5-1 dismantling at Liverpool on Saturday and it had led to the soul-searching and questions about the collective mentality before the rallying cry from Wenger. His players had to show what they were made of against a Manchester United team that has mixed too much of the ridiculous and little of the sublime.

Arsenal responded in the same way that they did to their previous heavy reverse – the 6–3 loss at Manchester City in mid-December – with another 0-0 home draw. Back then, the opposition was Chelsea and it did not seem such a bad result. But this blank had fewer saving graces because of the size of the opportunity that had knocked against an erratic United side.

Arsenal would have jumped back to the top of the Premier League with victory, yet they did not impose themselves save for a late flurry when they finally quickened the pulses. United actually emerged with credit, in so far as this was a display that largely stifled Arsenal and featured a couple of flashes when Robin van Persie might have decided it. It was a good performance for David Moyes.

The Gunners had wanted more, as they prepared for the FA Cup tie against Liverpool and the Champions League last-16 first leg against Bayern Munich – the latest of their defining sequences. It might be noted that their upcoming league fixtures are kinder – Sunderland, Stoke City and Swansea City are the next three – and the team remain set fair, just one point off the pace.

But it was impossible to escape the feeling that Arsenal did not do enough; that the response to Anfield was cloaked more in caution than the type of abandon that leads to title-winning statements. There were loud boos from the home crowd at full-time and this, more than anything, reflected the mood.

Arsenal versus United used to be the game of the season and although the visitors' toils under Moyes had tempered the occasion, the collision nonetheless ticked plenty of intrigue-related boxes. United were the more wounded animal and not only because their failure to beat the bottom club, Fulham, at home last Sunday was arguably a poorer result than Arsenal's at Liverpool.

The one thing that Moyes has achieved this season is to spark a sense of nostalgia in a section of United supporters over the age of 30 who remember the Ron Atkinson era and further back. It has not always been a procession, kids.

Some United fans have reconnected to the old-school vibe, when every match was a battle and winning league fixtures could be a surprise and, as such, brought a warm glow. The form under Moyes has fired a type of stoicism. That, at least, is the positive reading. There are, on the other hand, plenty more who have given up on the manager.

Arsenal's need for the points was greater and the nerves jangled, with Mikel Arteta doing nothing to soothe them in the opening exchanges when he turned into trouble and was robbed by Van Persie, who went clean through. It would be the big chance of the first half but the striker fluffed it. He was also denied late on by a combination of Wojciech Szczensy and the crossbar.

Arteta's blunder was not the only wobble, and it rather set the tone for an anxious Arsenal performance. For too long Wenger's players looked fearful of making mistakes and despite plenty of possession, they did not take the responsibility to make a difference. United looked less encumbered. Then again, the onus was not on them.

Arsenal needed leaders and Olivier Giroud fought hard against Nemanja Vidic, although he blotted his copybook with two bad misses. The big plus for Wenger was Mesut Özil, of whom much had been demanded beforehand, and he stood tall, getting on the ball and trying to drive the team. He was clean and precise.

The home crowd lived every moment and they went through that familiar internal battle between roaring their players on and suppressing the frustration when those intricate little passing moves broke down on the edge of the area. Laurent Koscielny was denied by Antonio Valencia on the line and Arsenal did throw off the shackles towards the end. It was too little, too late.