United welcomed Southampton to Old Trafford having failed to pick up a win from their previous two top-flight fixtures, drawing 2-2 at Leicester City before labouring to the same result at home to Burnley on Boxing Day.
The hosts lost Romelu Lukaku to a head injury after only eight minutes and, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic omitted from the squad by Jose Mourinho, introduced Marcus Rashford to lead the line.
But United failed to cause goalkeeper Alex McCarthy – in for the dropped Fraser Forster – any real problems, although they did have a goal disallowed late on after an offside Paul Pogba got a touch to a Nemanja Matic effort that could have snuck inside the post without his intervention.
United could now start the new year 17 points adrift of City if their fierce rivals extend their winning run to 19 matches at Crystal Palace on Sunday.
The home side had already lost second spot to Chelsea following a 5-0 win for Antonio Conte's side against Stoke City earlier in the day, while Southampton are now without a win in eight league matches, although they will be happy to take this point.
As Mourinho elected to leave Rashford and Anthony Martial on the bench and Ibrahiovic out entirely, Lukaku remained the focal point of the United attack and should have done better when he headed over from close range following a left-footed Juan Mata cross, before James Ward-Prowse drew a diving save from David De Gea with a low drive towards the bottom right-hand corner.
Lukaku's match lasted only eight minutes as a clash of heads with Wesley Hoedt forced Mourinho to introduce Rashford, with the Belgian striker receiving treatment on the pitch for several minutes before leaving the field on a stretcher, seemingly in some discomfort.
Ward-Prowse was on target once more with from a 19th-minute free-kick – De Gea again equal to the effort – before McCarthy was called into action for the first time to keep out a Mata daisy-cutter.
Calls for a penalty against Maya Yoshida went unrewarded by referee Craig Pawson after the ball made contact with the Southampton defender's arm in the box, and Jesse Lingard sent a glancing header just wide of the target from a Henrikh Mkhitaryan cross as half-time approached.
Shane Long was denied by the outstretched leg of De Gea after stealing a march on Matic at the start of the second period, before Ashley Young curled a free-kick wide of the left-hand post.
Dusan Tadic headed over and then guided an effort wide as the Saints began to look most likely to make the breakthrough, but United managed to withstand their advances.
Matic's late strike looked to be heading for the left-hand upright when Pogba made the touch that saw the effort disallowed, although it could well have crept in had the France international left the ball alone.
But United will be left to wonder what might have been as their already slim title hopes faded further in their last action of 2017.
Key Opta stats:
- Manchester United are now winless in four competitive matches (W0 D3 L1) – their worst run since May 2017, when the fourth game in that run was also against Southampton.
- This match ended a 20-game scoring run for Manchester United at Old Trafford in all competitions, since last failing to score there on April 1st v WBA (also 0-0).
- Southampton have lost just one of their last five trips to Old Trafford to face Manchester United (W2 D2 L1).
- Since Jose Mourinho’s first game in charge of Manchester United in August 2016, the Red Devils have won 113 points from 59 Premier League games – fewer than Chelsea (138), Man City (136), Spurs (123) and Liverpool (117). Arsenal have played a game less (58) and have won just one point fewer (112).