United were awarded a spot kick in the 48th minute when Kyle Walker kicked Marcus Rashford's foot in the box but the decision was over-ruled after VAR found the United striker had been in an offside position.
The result left United in seventh place on 20 points with City a point behind in eighth after 11 games.
With no fans inside a chilly Old Trafford due to COVID-19 restrictions, the passion and energy of the Manchester derby was absent but United will probably be the happier of the two teams.
After their Champions League exit at the hands of RB Leipzig on Tuesday, United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needed to avoid the kind of result that might have raised serious questions about his role.
The Norwegian set his team up in one of the more conservative of his tactical variations with just two strikers, three mainly defensive midfielders and Bruno Fernandes charged with creating openings.
If the job was to ensure that United restricted City and ground out a creditable draw then the structure worked -- even if it was far from thrilling for the fans watching at home.
United's best chance came in the 54th when Paul Pogba put Rashford in on the left but the striker slipped as he shot harmlessly wide and their first effort on goal did not come until a harmless attempt straight at City keeper Ederson from Fernandes in the 88th.
City lacked the sparkle and shine of their best performances with the use of Rodrigo and Fernandinho as a pair of holding midfielders indicating manager Pep Guardiola was also unwilling to go for bust in this fixture.