Staphylococcus aureus is a human commensal that can also cause systemic infections. This transition requires evasion of the immune response and the ability to exploit different niches within the host. However, the disease mechanisms and the dominant immune mediators against infection are poorly understood. Previously it has been shown that the infecting S. aureus population goes through a population bottleneck, from which very few bacteria escape to establish the abscesses that are characteristic of many infections. Here we examine the host factors underlying the population bottleneck and subsequent clonal expansion in S. aureus infection models, to identify underpinning principles of infection. The bottleneck is a common feature between models and is independent of S. aureus strain. Interestingly, the high doses of S. aureus required for the widely used “survival” model results in a reduced population bottleneck, suggesting that host defences have been simply overloaded. This brings into question the applicability of the survival model. Depletion of immune mediators revealed key breakpoints and the dynamics of systemic infection. Loss of macrophages, including the liver Kupffer cells, led to increased sensitivity to infection as expected but also loss of the population bottleneck and the spread to other organs still occurred. Conversely, neutrophil depletion led to greater susceptibility to disease but with a concomitant maintenance of the bottleneck and lack of systemic spread. We also used a novel microscopy approach to examine abscess architecture and distribution within organs. From these observations we developed a conceptual model for S. aureus disease from initial infection to mature abscess. This work highlights the need to understand the complexities of the infectious process to be able to assign functions for host and bacterial components, and why S. aureus disease requires a seemingly high infectious dose and how interventions such as a vaccine may be more rationally developed.